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When Waylon Jennings went to record Honky Tonk Heroes in 1973, he had finally negotiated all the rope he needed to hang himself. After Willie Nelson had absconded to Atlantic, and the creative control they offered, RCA Victor renegotiated Waylon’s deal in fear of losing him, giving him the creative control he’d been demanding for years. He had his band, the Waylors, who couldn’t stay on the beat anymore than Waylon could. And he linked up with a headstrong, churlish, brilliant songwriter named Billy Joe Shaver, whom no one else in the industry had given time of day.
Jennings had basically bet the farm on this Shaver kid, who had drunkenly approached him and threatened to fight him if he didn’t record his songs. He had picked nine of Shaver’s strange numbers, full of florid phrasings and dusty cowboy archetypes, and he had no single. He had a lot of freedom to fall. It was time to chase that sound in his head, the one that wouldn’t leave him alone.
For the past decade, Jennings had been butting heads with everyone who gave him a shot — first it was Herb Alpert, who gave him his first contract for A&M, and then with Chet Atkins, the country legend turned record-maker at RCA Victor. He heard alleyways for his music to go down that no one around him would permit him to try. He wanted his music looser, louder, faster, dirtier. He wanted to push the tempo in the manner of his hot-blooded Sun Records heroes — Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Bill Justis, Jerry Lee Lewis.
Atkins, who knew better than anyone how the coastal record business spent hugely on rock acts but sucked the hillbilly acts dry, had tailored an approach that worked. The sound was slick, the edges were smooth and gleaming, and no one pushed the tempo. Everyone emerged sounding spit-shined and a good deal cuddlier than they would on their own. No rock in the sound; that would dirty up the product. “Countrypolitan,” it was called, and it was as rich as creamery butter and twice as smooth.
Waylon was not countrypolitan, nor was he anyone’s idea of “smooth.” Producer after producer fell under his wrath — first Danny Davis, who was known for his “orchestral” country records, and then Ronny Light, who cowered in the control room while Waylon cut “Good-Hearted Woman,” because the singer warned Light not to come out.
Now, Jennings had no one else to answer to, and the joyful mess of Honky Tonk Heroes testifies to the kind of magic that can happen when you finally cut a lifelong misfit loose. The first two minutes of the title track is a standard fiddle-scratching lament — it could be Johnny Cash in 1955, or Faron Young in 1960.
But then the song springs into motion, the bass line swings like a hammock and Jennings lets his burly voice, so big it verges on comical, like a bear on a tricycle, boom out. At the minute-and-a-half mark, he goes full Waylon: A guitar gurgles a lick, like an alligator spinning around in a bayou, a drumbeat kicks in, straight out of “Born to Be Wild,” and the harmonica and the guitar launch in dueling flights. This was the music Jennings wanted to make, and the takeoff is joyful. You can hear Jennings speeding away from the Nashville establishment sound with the gleeful abandon of a teenager with his first license.
Honky Tonk Heroes isn’t Jennings’ first great album, but it was the first that captured his wild-hair energy instead of attempting to tame it. It belonged completely to him. It was so liberating that it would unleash a series of triumphs. This is the birthplace of the iconic 1970s Waylon, the one who would go on to slalom across the rest of the decade on a series of increasingly brilliant albums and mountains of cocaine. Waylon Jennings transformed himself into the Waylon, the leader of a movement forever altering the perception of country music in America.
There were no string sections on Honky Tonk Heroes, except on the closing ballad, “We Had It All,” which was the sole concession Waylon offered to Chet Atkins. The rest of the album was the kind of thing Atkins probably heard in his nightmares: There were no sedate backing vocals. No session players. The sound was live, full of wrong notes and elastic tempos. The hillbilly twang that Atkins endeavored to tuck away and hide for years was front and center.
Waylon wrote his own material from time to time, but he was primarily an interpreter from the start. He needed someone like Billy Joe Shaver almost as much as Shaver needed him. Shaver’s songs concerned figures we’d all seen before — Willy the Wandering Gypsy, the old five and dimers who would never dare entertain Cadillac dreams, the scoundrels who lamented and exulted in their “low-down freedom” — but his language was vivid and odd, nearly Shakespearean in its syntax: “Fenced yards ain’t hole cards and like as not never will be / Reason for rhymers and old five and dimers like me.” Who else would reach for the Elizabethan phrasing “like as not?”
Shaver’s characters were not respectable, but they held themselves with a certain Lone Star State dignity. On “Ain’t No God In Mexico,” a song about border crossings and youthful folly, Shaver’s protagonist says, “Don’t mind me, just keep on talking, I’m just lookin’ for my hat” as he scans the room for the quickest exit. The way Waylon sings it, the line makes being thrown in jail across the border seem about as serious as getting caught hocking spitballs in study hall.
It is the rollicking sense of good humor that made Honky Tonk Heroes the first war whoop of the burgeoning outlaw country movement. That scene didn’t really have a coherent name yet, just a few congregating misfits — Willie Nelson, Tompall Glaser — who began to suspect they didn’t need to rein themselves in to succeed. Waylon was the pushiest, boldest and most impulsive of the crowd, so, naturally, he led the charge. Before Waylon, the country outlaw was usually a grim, terse figure haunting society’s outskirts — Lash LaRue, Clint Eastwood’s wandering gunman. But the top note of a Waylon song is always rueful, wry; whenever he’s singing, you’re among friends. No matter how wild the band grew, his bear hug of a voice kept things at an agreeable simmer.
Waylon Jennings made outlaw life sound fun. It was a place of unfettered individuality and unconditional camaraderie. You had yourself, your friends and your own code of ethics: The rest of the world was free to come along if they played by your rules. It was an appealing fantasy, and in the interplay between Waylon and his band, it came alive. They never wanted to stop playing, it seemed. On every song, the fader comes down around the three-minute mark, riding off into the sunset just as the band starts cooking. The jam session, one imagines, goes well past the fade-out. It gives a sense of players deeply engaged in the music, simply for its own sake. Every time it happens, you lean forward to catch a little more. The party keeps going, somewhere down the highway, on to the next town.
Jayson Greene is contributing editor and former senior editor at Pitchfork and the author of the memoir Once More We Saw Stars. He lives in Brooklyn.
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