Outlaw: Celebrating the Music of Waylon Jennings
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
It was better late than never when go-to tribute man Don Was organized a concert to honor Waylon Jennings, Nashville’s original “outlaw” musician — or at least the one most associated with that somewhat vague adjective — for a one-off concert at Austin’s Moody Theatre on July 5, 2015. Nearly two years later (why does it take so long for these to appear?) the results are finally available on this CD/DVD set that effectively captures the evening’s proceedings.
There’s no doubt that Jennings, who passed in 2002 at the relatively young age of 65, deserves the accolades. His decision to forego the strings and slick studio musicians most country artists were using in the ’60s and early ’70s is generally attributed with starting the “outlaw” country movement, a style which remains a driving force in the C&W and singer-songwriter sound today. Even though he wasn’t known as a composer (only four tracks are credited to him here), it’s impossible to imagine anyone else singing classics such as “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean,” “Honk Tonk Heroes” or “Only Daddy That’ll Walk The Line,” none penned by Jennings, with the same gutsy, uncompromising swagger and conviction.
Bassist/musical director Was called right-hand man Buddy Miller to build a solid, 11-piece house band including three backing female vocalists and two drummers (not entirely sure two were needed) that back up a generational diverse cast for the festivities. That includes such no-brainers as Jennings’ fellow Highwaymen Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, wife Jessi Colter, and son Shooter. Also along are relative newcomers that have followed in Jennings’ artistic footsteps like Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Jamey Johnson, Kacey Musgraves, Ryan Bingham and Eric Church. Less obvious but just as worthy participants Lee Ann Womack and Alison Krauss join with Toby Keith and Jennings’ peer Bobby Bare for a reasonably well rounded and clearly talented cast that doesn’t wander too far astray from the original versions of these 20 gems (the DVD adds two more).
It’s an impressive cast that starts out fiery with Stapleton tearing into Rodney Crowell’s “Ain’t Living Long Like This,” then mellows out with Musgraves, Krauss, Colter and Womack tackling ballads (Krauss gets a mid-song standing ovation for her “Dreaming My Dreams of You”). Long-time Jennings friend Bobby Bare looks a little lost on “Only Daddy …” and Kristofferson’s vocal issues are well documented at this stage as he croaks through an emotional “I Do Believe.” A frail-looking and sounding Willie Nelson (at 82 and still touring, we’re just glad he’s here) doesn’t appear until about two-thirds through, but once he’s on stage he never leaves, working his way through duets with Keith, Stapleton and Simpson, and closing things down with an all-smiles, full-cast performance of “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love).”
The video is cleanly shot with multiple cameras, the DVD 5.1 and CD stereo audio is sharp and the backing band, including stellar work from pedal steel man Robby Turner and Matthew Rollings on piano, shifts easily between soft and mellow to more raucous and rebellious depending on the song. Everyone involved is a Waylon fan (the DVD extras, well worth watching, at least once, show the players attesting to that) and other than the frustrating absence of Jennings standards like “Ladies Love Outlaws,” “Waymore’s Blues,” “I’m a Ramblin’ Man” and his theme from The Dukes of Hazzard, the concert effectively captures both the man’s music and his enormous influence.
Jennings fans will eat this up but newcomers to his honest, rough-and-tumble honky tonk and country are advised to start with the originals from a catalog that’s as essential to Americana as they come.