Tag Archives: Waylon Jennings

Age Ain’t Nothin’ But a Number

george-strait1While Taylor Swift mania continues to grow, there’s another impressive accomplishment being achieved by two veterans of country music on the opposite end of the age spectrum.

Contrary to what is commonly believed, there has always been a ceiling on how old you could be and still get country airplay. This year, both George Strait and Reba McEntire have been working steadily to shatter that ceiling.

Take a look at the age of country legends when they earned their most recent top ten solo hit:

  1. Eddy Arnold, 62
  2. Kenny Rogers, 61*
  3. Conway Twitty, 58
  4. George Strait, 57
  5. George Jones, 57**
  6. Marty Robbins, 57
  7. Willie Nelson, 56**
  8. Ray Price, 56
  9. Reba McEntire, 54
  10. Waylon Jennings, 53
  11. Merle Haggard, 52
  12. Alan Jackson, 50
  13. Charley Pride, 50
  14. Johnny Cash, 49
  15. Ernest Tubb, 49
  16. Ronnie Milsap, 48
  17. Loretta Lynn, 47
  18. Webb Pierce, 46
  19. Garth Brooks, 45
  20. Dolly Parton, 43**
  21. Hank Williams Jr., 41
  22. Tammy Wynette, 40

* Kenny Rogers was the lead singer for his final top ten hit “Buy Me a Rose”, with harmony vocalists Billy Dean and Alison Krauss credited on the single

** George Jones, Willie Nelson, and Dolly Parton returned to the top ten in later years through duets with younger artists

It’s also worth noting that Alan Jackson, at 50, isn’t too far away from passing several legends on the list.

So George Strait remains in heavy rotation at the age of 57, outpacing all but three stars in country music history. Among the ladies, McEntire is a full seven years older than her nearest competitor Loretta Lynn was when she enjoyed her last top ten hit.

Thoughts?

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Bargain Hunter: The Rodney Crowell Collection

RC CollectionWhen Rodney Crowell had his gold-selling commercial breakthrough with the album Diamonds & Dirt, his previous label was quick to capitalize on his success. Usually, pre-hit cash-in CDs are little more than a curiosity, but Crowell’s is the exception.

There is a smorgasbord of great material here, including early versions of songs that Crowell would see other artists have success with the same songs.

Some of Crowell’s strongest compositions are here, such as:

  • “‘Til I Gain Control Again”, a #1 hit for Crystal Gayle that was recorded earlier by Emmylou Harris
  • “I Ain’t Living Long Like This”, a #1 hit for Waylon Jennings that was recorded earlier by Emmylou Harris
  • “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight”, a #1 hit for the Oak Ridge Boys that was recorded earlier by Emmylou Harris
  • “Ashes By Now”, a top five hit for Lee Ann Womack that was recorded earlier by Emmylou Harris
  • “I Don’t Have to Crawl”, a minor hit for Emmylou Harris that was later recorded by Rosanne Cash
  • “Shame on the Moon”, a top fifteen country hit for Bob Seeger
  • “Victim or a Fool”, a top forty hit for Crowell that was also recorded by Crystal Gayle
  • “Stars on the Water”, later covered by George Strait and Jimmy Buffett

How good was this guy’s ear? Even the songs he didn’t write went on to become hits, with Ricky Skaggs taking “Heartbroke” to #1 and Juice Newton scoring a massive pop hit with “Queen of Hearts.”  The only thing missing here is “Elvira”, which Crowell also recorded first.

This has always been a budget collection, but now it’s incredibly affordable – twelve tracks for $5.49.  Given that Warner is asking for $9.90 for the far inferior Pam Tillis Collection, which includes only ten tracks, this one’s a steal.

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Create A Super Group

highwaymenIn 1985, four country music rebels/icons came together to form a larger-than-life group that people wouldn’t have even dared dream about before their actual union. Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson formed the country super group, The Highwaymen. The four highly revered friends recorded three albums worth of material, much to the delight of the astonished public. While all of the members were extremely successful in their own rights, their potential egos were set aside to make music as a cohesive unit. They sounded like a polished group, not just some people thrown together as a marketing gimmick.

Then, in 1988, the rock world hit the jackpot when superstars George Harrison, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan and Jeff Lynne formed The Traveling Wilburys. Again, these immensely famous, talented and respected people formed a super group that still seems too good to be true to this day. Their unbelievable union created two albums that were repackaged in 2007 with bonus material, which sold surprisingly well for a reissue. Like The Highwaymen, their voices blended amazingly well together as if they were meant to be a group.

Dolly Parton has been a part of two dynamic trios: one with Linda Rhonstadt and Emmylou Harris and the other with Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette. Both trios consisted of women equally as talented as the super groups previously discussed, which also provided us with excellent albums as a result.

And of course, anyone who has read anything that I’ve written in the past year or so should instinctively know that my pet super group is The Notorious Cherry Bombs, which was comprised of Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill, Tony Brown, Hank Devito, Richard Bennett, Michael Rhodes, John Hobbs and Eddie Bayers.

As I think of the competitive climate of the music industry today, I’m discouraged to think that such super groups would be next to impossible to unite anymore. Record label disputes prevented Tracy Lawrence’s collaboration with Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw to be officially released to radio. Likewise, Reba McEntire had to replace Kenny Chesney’s vocals with lesser known artist, Skip Ewing, in order to release “Every Other Weekend” to radio. And these were only disputes over single songs, not even an entire album.

In true essay style form: Without considering record company politics, if you were able to create your own super group who could make at least one album, who would be the members? What would you name the group? Explain.

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Larry Gatlin and The Gatlin Brothers, “Johnny Cash is Dead (And His House Burned Down)”

lgatlinAs song titles go, “Johnny Cash is Dead (And His House Burned Down)”  doesn’t have quite the eloquence of “The King is Gone”, does it?

Not that subtlety would suit anything about this record anyway, which is as bluntly written and performed as you’d expect from the combination of title and artist here. Plenty of other late stars are name-dropped along the way, including Marty Robbins, Waylon Jennings, and Chet Atkins, with predictable lamenting that the “empty cowboy hats” of today can’t replace those who we’ve already lost.

Of course they can’t. But they can build on the legacy and create lasting music of their own. I’m nearing twenty years as a country fan, and I’ve been able to watch once-young acts like Alan Jackson, Patty Loveless, Dwight Yoakam and Alison Krauss gradually move toward legendary status. It takes time.

The Gatlins would do well to pay a little more attention to what has actually happened in country music since the heyday of the stars he laments. If they can’t do that, they could at least find a song that’s closer in quality to “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes”, instead of this piece of trite claptrap.

Grade: D

Listen: Johnny Cash is Dead (And His House Burned Down)”

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Traditional Country is a Link in a Long Chain

The following is a guest contribution from Scott O’Brien.

“But someone killed tradition. And for that someone should hang.” –Larry Cordle & Larry Shell, “Murder on Music Row”

Dan Milliken’s recent post got me thinking: The country music I grew up with is nothing like the music on country radio today. If I turned on today’s country radio in 1988, I might not realize it was a country station and keep right on flipping. Back then, Randy Travis and Keith Whitley’s traditional twang ruled the airwaves. Today, they are dominated by the giggly teeny-bopper ditties of Taylor Swift and the boy band sounds of Rascal Flatts. Did they get away with murder on music row? Well, let’s start by briefly uncovering country’s traditional roots.

What is traditional country music? Is it simply anything from the past? That seems too broad; Shania Twain wasn’t traditional. Anything that isn’t pop? Maybe, but that is still a rather wide and subjective net. To me, traditional country music is honky tonk music. It heavily employs steel guitars, fiddles, and forlorn vocals. It moves at a slow pace. There are no drums or electric guitars. The songs typically deal with heavy topics such as heartbreak, cheating, or drinking, with a ballad here and there. In most cases, the goal is to induce pain. Not bad pain, but the therapeutic empathy that tugs your heart and helps you through your personal struggles. The patron saint of traditional country is Hank Williams. Hank’s first disciple is George Jones. Jones’ first disciple is Alan Jackson. The traditional template is supposed to help us decipher what is country and what is not. After all, what makes country music country if not fiddles and cheatin’ songs?

These days, traditionalists have a legitimate beef. When you turn on the radio, you don’t hear much steel guitar. Instead, you hear what might pass for 1990s pop, replete with fluffy repetitive lyrics, catchy drum beats, guitar riffs, and sex appeal. We aren’t preserving country music when the CMT Music Awards feature the B-52s and Def Leppard in lieu of John Anderson and Charley Pride. Was there a tribute to recently deceased traditionalist Vern Gosdin? No way. Do today’s artists “tear your heart out when they sing”? Not a chance. Is Keith Urban going to fill Conway Twitty’s shoes? Not a prayer. You know we are in trouble when pop-infused zipwire-flier Garth Brooks sounds more like Merle Haggard than today’s stars. Heck, just listen to Taylor Swift’s latest album. If that is country, I’ll kiss your ass. Nashville, we have a problem.

But let’s not go off the deep end just yet. Maybe traditionalists are thinking about things too narrowly. Country music is much more than Webb Pierce’s raw steel guitar-laden crooning. It always has been. Going back before Hank to the First Family of Country Music, the Carter family sound was an amalgam of several different sub-genres including Appalachian old-time, folk, and gospel. Jimmie Rodgers, the Father of Country Music, blended elements of jazz, gospel, old-time and blues to create some of the first country sounds. Marty Robbins played just about every musical style conceivable. Traditionalist hero Elvis Presley sang rockabilly. Johnny Cash had similar beginnings and even years later there was nothing “traditional” about his trademark up-tempo bass beat. Waylon Jennings’ music incorporated Buddy Holly’s rock-n-roll rhythm; he even wrote a song about how un-Hank-like his music was. Merle Haggard’s Bob Wills-inspired Bakersfield sound used amps and electric guitars. Even 1980s ACM Artist of the Decade Alabama shunned the steel guitar altogether and typically sang up-tempo, feel-good music. Yet these names are among the most venerated by traditionalists. What gives?

The problem is that traditionalists aren’t even sure what traditional country is. If it includes all artists who sold country records without crossing over to pop, the label is not very helpful. If it is strictly honky tonk, do we really want a bunch of Hank Williams clones? As great as he was, we surely do not. There has to be some updating – just ask Alan Jackson, who has innovated the traditionalist motif without sacrificing his authenticity. The genre has to evolve or it risks becoming boring and repetitive. Waylon Jennings understood this well (“It’s the same old tune, fiddle and guitar/Where do we take it from here?”). Hank Williams’ own son realized it too after trying for years to replicate his father’s sound. His song “Young Country” directly attacked the tradition-or-else mentality: “We like some of the old stuff/We like some of the new/But we do our own choosing/We pick our own music/If you don’t mind, thank you.” He is right. Why draw lines? Strict uniformity is not desirable in any genre, particularly country, whose trademark is its diversity of influences, instruments, rhythms, voices, song topics, and stories.

So what should define today’s country music? It should pay tribute to the past by incorporating and updating its unique fusion of diverse influences. It doesn’t have to be strictly “traditional.” But country music needs to capture the sentiments of rural and working class America. It needs to cover painful topics like drinking and cheating. It needs to tell colorful stories. It needs to tear your heart out sometimes. It also needs to make you feel good sometimes. What it shouldn’t do is become pop music. When country is indistinguishable from Top 40, it loses its soul. Unfortunately, this has happened with the Keith Urbans, Rascal Flatts, and Taylor Swifts – all talented artists to be sure. But country artists? Not so much. Still, there are old warhorses like George Strait who carry the torch and newcomers like Jamey Johnson who give us hope that country’s soul will stay alive and well.

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The Few Remaining Icons

Time CashI’ve heard it said so many times in the past week: the death of Michael Jackson is my generation’s equivalent of the Death of Elvis Presley. (I can only assume that makes Kurt Cobain our Janis Joplin?)

He was a controversial figure, to be sure, and much like Elvis, a tragic figure even before his tragic death. Being a music fan first, I lost interest in Jackson a long time ago, simply because he’s made so little music in the past two decades – a mere three studio albums in more than twenty years.

But there’s no doubt that he’s an icon, the embodiment of the MTV age and the breakdown of barriers between pop, R&B and dance music.  Who does pop music have left that’s in the same league? Only Madonna, but since she’s still very much at the top of her game and is anything but a tragic figure, don’t expect the mourning for her to begin any time soon.

But pop music isn’t the only genre running low on icons. What country acts remain that could garner significant coverage upon their death? Johnny Cash’s death made the cover of Time magazine, an honor usually reserved for former Beatles members. CNN broadcast live from Tammy Wynette’s funeral back in 1998.

In contrast, Waylon Jennings and Porter Wagoner, two legends and Hall of Fame members, made barely a ripple in the national news media. It’s easy to imagine the same fate for George Jones and Merle Haggard, two country music icons that have never been nearly as popular in the media beyond country music.

Who are the icons in country music that could command the same attention as Wynette and Cash, or perhaps even Jackson, when their road comes to an end?

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Tradition: Chain of Strength or Chain of Restraint?

chainThis past weekend, I had the privilege of attending the 2009 International Country Music Conference, conveniently held at a building on my college campus. The three-day event made for quite a mind-feast – so much so, actually, that it’s taking me longer than I had hoped to sort through all my notes and compose a post to do the thing justice. So that’ll be coming through the pipeline sometime within the next few days.

In the meantime, though, one issue raised during the event has really stuck out in my mind, and I thought I’d give it a spin here.

Here’s what happened: in a discussion on Waylon Jennings’ career attitude during his peak Outlaw years, someone mentioned that his label disliked the way he seemed to view himself as a musical descendant of Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams, as if his only role as a recording artist was to serve as a link in those artists’ musical “chain.” The speaker speculated that this sort of “big picture” attitude toward one’s art would probably worry many labels, simply because it directs the public’s focus away from an artist’s individual “star.”

That struck me as eerily relevant to today’s scene, where it’s become much less simple to hypothesize about which artists the big stars have “descended” from – and heck, which genres, in many cases. Today, more than I’ve yet witnessed in my young life, there seems to be much greater emphasis on building up an artist’s individual importance, rather than carrying a certain “flag.” Concerts are getting bigger and more histrionic; the CMA telecast books any act who might help ratings and basically snubs Hall of Fame inductees; and of course, most shout-outs to country legends of yore by today’s artists are usually just shallow attempts to build cred. The mainstream seems to have spoken its bit loud and clear: progress must be pursued, and no need for guidance from the past, thank you very much.

Of course, is that mentality necessarily a bad thing? Some acts have used it to impressive effect. Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, for example, always seemed more interested in blazing new trails for mainstream country music than in following old ones, and they reaped huge dividends with that approach – certainly monetary ones, and perhaps artistic ones, too, depending on your opinion of them.

But was it all truly unique, or just not acknowledged as derivative of something else? And either way, what impact does that kind of approach have on country music as a whole? Is it better, worse, or just different than the traditional “I’m the next in the line of…” way of thinking? Is one really more marketable than the other?

I guess if I had to boil it all down to one question, it would be: what are your thoughts on the role and treatments of tradition in today’s country music?

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Greatest <em>Greatest Hits</em>

waylon-jennings-nashville-rebel1Okey doke, here's my thinking: we'll just do Country Quizzin' every other week for the time being. I look at the blogger/bloggee relationship like an ADD-culture marriage: you gotta change it up sometimes to keep things interesting for both parties!

With that in mind, a discussion:

I got myself on a dangerous roll these past few months in building up my music collection. It was probably a little silly of me; they say owning music is kind of on the way out (the kids these days are all about that newfangled “streaming” thing), and I don't have a great deal of disposable income to begin with.

But I so love to discover great music, to hold it in my hands. Especially older stuff, which just doesn't feel right t

o own exclusively in MP3 form. And when Amazon, eBay and my local record stores keep offering incredible deals on used items, I find their mating calls very hard to resist indeed.

And so I find myself now knee-deep in a pool of that most spurned of media forms: the compact disc. Most of mine are proper albums, but I've started to lean more toward compilation packages (e.g. “greatest hits”, “essential”, etc.), particularly box sets, which you can sometimes get for astonishingly good rates if you keep your eyes peeled.

And of course, they're such a nice way to scoop up most of the important output by artists who didn't always make cohesively great albums. For example, I picked up Waylon Jennings' 4-disc Nashville Rebel set a while back, and there's hardly a bum track to be found. I recommend!

What are some of your favorite country-related compilation packages? Also, who are some artists who you think have been worth collecting full albums from?

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Daryle Singletary, “Love You With the Lights On”

daryle-singletaryI really love everything that Daryle Singletary’s approach to country music represents. Sometimes it seems there are only two veins of country traditionalists: the ones who take the Haggard and Jones approach, and the ones who take the Waylon and Willie approach. Singletary is all about the Conway Twitty and Charley Pride, a crooner of romantic ballads awash in steel guitar.

There’s only one thing that holds Singletary back from being the Twitty or Pride of his generation. His voice just doesn’t have the ability to pull off these types of songs completely. “Love You With the Lights On” is a solid enough song. It certainly would’ve been a chart-topper in the seventies for one of the aforementioned men.

Singletary sings it pleasantly enough, but he’s not entirely convincing as the seducer here.  His voice just doesn’t have the depth and nuance to pull it off. God bless him, but he sounds like he’s singing for control of the remote, not fulfillment of his desires.

Grade: B-

Listen: Love You With the Lights On

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Texas Country

texasStuck in my car stereo over the last couple of weeks has been a CD loaded with tunes from some of my favorite Texas-affiliated artists.  I’m a big fan of the singer-songwriter, old school and raggedy rock styles of country music, and Texas excels at all three. So any time I need a break from the current “Nashville sound,” I like to check in with Texas and see what they’re up to. Invariably, it’s more colorful and interesting.

I can’ t call myself an expert on Texas country by any stretch of the imagination and my education is nowhere remotely near complete (hint: feel free to recommend), but I do sense that it’s a style of music, or perhaps a musical sensibility, that is extremely important to maintain.  Texas artists exude a certain spirit of creativity and sense of individuality that is sorely lacking elsewhere in country music.  And in my opinion, great music and great artists only flourish in settings where both of those are encouraged.

Here’s a sampling of the songs I’m currently listening to:

  • “Dallas,” Jimmie Dale Gilmore
  • “Snowin’ on Raton,” Townes Van Zandt
  • “West Texas Waltz,” Joe Ely
  • “Greenville,” Lucinda Williams
  • “Tortured Tangled Hearts,” Dixie Chicks
  • “Transcendental Blues (Live in Austin),” Steve Earle
  • “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” Willie Nelson
  • “Treat Me Like a Saturday Night,” The Flatlanders
  • “Bourbon Legend,” Jason Boland & The Stragglers
  • “Jesus Was a Capricorn,” Kris Kristofferson
  • “Angry All The Time,” Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis
  • “What I Deserve,” Kelly Willis
  • “Old Five and Dimers,” Billie Joe Shaver
  • “Heartbreaker’s Hall of Fame,” Sunny Sweeney
  • “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line,” Waylon Jennings

What are some of your favorite Texas country tunes?

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