If country music has taught us one thing over the last decade, it is to never underestimate an aging legend. With much of Nashville doing everything it can to zap tradition and creativity off the mainstream radar, recent efforts by Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Glen Campbell, Porter Wagoner, and Dolly Parton, among others, have quietly upheld the genre’s standards, in many cases producing some of the finest records of those artists’ esteemed careers.
The standard approach among these sets has been to build on an artist’s proven strengths with a younger-minded producer who understands what made the artist great in the first place. It’s a very smart compromise, rejuvenating the old-fashioned while still honoring an artist’s essential identity, and given its successful track record, one might expect the posthumous Waylon Forever to follow the same path and thereby fall easily into the hallowed company of Cash’s American Recordings or Lynn’s Van Lear Rose.
But a cursory listen-through the eight tracks here will quickly put such notions to rest. Waylon Forever is not a hiply updated reminder of what its namesake did throughout his multi-decade career, even as it features no less than six songs Jennings had previously recorded (with “I Found the Body” and a cover of Cream’s “White Room” being the newbies). It might not even be prudent to call the set a proper “album.” It sounds more akin to an unfinished home experiment with a little extra shine, which makes sense given the unusual circumstances leading to its production: son Shooter began recording the project with Waylon in 1995 (which found the former sixteen years old and the latter seven years from death), and the two reportedly arranged the songs here with some of the younger Jennings’ then-inspirations (Nine Inch Nails, Skinny Puppy, Pink Floyd, Cream) in mind. The result is a disjointed, scrappy, often weird, and occasionally quite inspired set of recordings that longtime Waylon fans will find fascinating and everyone else will likely scratch their heads at.