Waylon Jennings Essay - Critical Essays

Jennings, Waylon


Waylon Jennings 1937–

American songwriter, singer, and musician.

Jennings is well known for his efforts to revitalize country music and is considered one of the leading "outlaws" in the field because of his rebellion against the traditional, rigid sound of Nashville. Jennings combines the unpredictable, independent attitudes of such early country-and-western personalities as Hank Williams and Bob Wills with the country-rock sounds of Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley to create his own rugged, freewheeling style. However, it was not until he gained some control over the production of his albums that Jennings finally reached beyond a strictly country-and-western audience.

Jennings's massive appeal lies in his simple, honest approach to music and the sympathy his songs express for the people who, like himself, refuse to conform to "the way things are going." The warm-hearted rebel populates Jennings's songs, and he reinforces this image through his own sincere attitude and unkempt appearance. His unconventional style has been described as bridging the gap between old Southern-poverty folkways and modern stresses and doubts. Jennings encourages his listeners to go their own ways and attempts to convince them that it is all right to make mistakes and have feelings. In some of his more recent songs, Jennings has objected to the image of the romanticized outlaw with which he and others have been identified. In other songs, he questions the motivations and intentions of record producers and the lifestyles of country music stars. His work also explores the theme of growing old, particularly as it effects him as a performer.

Jennings's reputation as a popular singer rests largely on his ability to personalize almost any song he sings, whether it is written specifically for him or not. He is not a prolific songwriter, and his albums are mostly made up of material written by other artists. Critics agree that it is Jennings's distinctive baritone which sets him apart from other singers in the same field, but some critics feel that his albums are occasionally marred by selections that do not suit Jennings's rough, unpolished vocals. Jennings, however, has voiced his indifference to what the critics have to say, for as he claims, "My music is me. I have to feel which way I should go next. All music is good. There's good in all music and bad in all music too." The formula seems to work, because his popularity continues to grow beyond country-and-western boundaries.

Robert Hilburn

Funny how time slips away. It has been more than a dozen years now since a group of country boys, led by Elvis Presley, got together in some Tennessee recording studios and started a revolution in American music. With the help of such songs as "Blue Suede Shoes," "Bye, Bye Love" and "Heartbreak Hotel," they came up with a country-rock sound that helped reshape pop music.

Since that golden age of country-rock, hundreds of acts have been influenced by that early sound, but no one new has captured the essence of that emotional, driving music of the mid-1950's. No one, that is, until Waylon Jennings.

In recent months, Jennings has established himself as the most exciting new country singer in years. He features a hard, tough sound that has much of the same earthy appeal as the early country-rock numbers. In many ways, Jennings is a natural musical descendant of Presley, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison and other country-rock pioneers….

Though Jennings is a descendant of the early country-rock sound, it would be a mistake to think of him only in that light. He more truly represents the realization of the promise generated in those initial days of the new sound. His voice is stronger, his arrangements more polished and his themes generally are more meaningful.

While there is the strong beat of such early rock hits as "That'll Be the Day" in Jennings' version of "Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line," there's a definite lyric and melodic maturity in such other Jennings offerings as "Love of the Common People" and "Walk On Out of My Mind." [He is a] man with modern propensities in song….

Robert Hilburn, "Waylon Jennings," in BMI: The Many Worlds of Music (© 1969 by Broadcast Music, Inc.), April, 1969, p. 16.

J. R. Young

RCA labeled [the early music of Waylon Jennings] "Country-Folk" at first, and then finally let it ride as straight country. It was a soft country sound, melodic and reminiscent of early Marty Robbins. Very tasty stuff…. [Around this same time, Jennings] also lined up a freak band and lit out after that rock country sound and incorporated the best of folk, rock, and country into his trip….

The new Waylon Jennings seemed to fall into place for the first time with Singer of Sad Songs…. Sad Songs is a much fuller album than the others, steeped in a true rock/country context: the rhythm and drive of rock, the vitality of country, and, of course, the same monster voice of Waylon himself. An exquisite match. The album makes your head ring. The obvious highlight is the title song,… a neatly fashioned country ditty that literally sparkles…. It has all the spirit that the kids who think they do country music today lack….

Nothing to excess. But then that's what the whole album's about.

The following album, The Taker/Tulsa, [is the same way]…. It's so good I don't even know what to say about it. Music ain't going to get any better than this. It really puts away that self-consciousness that gets in the way of the Poco/Flying Burritos ilk.

The newest album is Cedartown, Georgia…. Another devastator, but not as raw and rock & rolled. The pace is gentler but still out there…. It's this album that Waylon goes after everybody (even your mother) and intends to bring everybody over to his side. It's all Dynamite stuff, as they say at Tower Records. Word is that if Waylon Jennings isn't already a country superstar, he soon will be. And once that occurs, he'll even move beyond the country tag….

[So] if your ears are tired, depressed, and generally down, let this dude get inside your mind and realign your senses. Listen to what a song can really be. You'll get more than you ever bargained for, and you, too, will wonder where in the hell you've been since '66, because Waylon's been over in the C&W rack all along.

J. R. Young, "The Monster Voice of Waylon Jennings," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1971; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 97, December 9, 1971, p. 58.

Chet Flippo

[Jennings is] like a tough, savvy minstrel, a maverick wanderer who's still able to rejoice in life. Jennings is the kind of man who has the same wink whether he's getting thrown out of a bar or he's punching out some little wimp and taking his woman. It's all the same, he laughs, just life. You can count on one finger the number of singers in any field today who can communicate that kind of wicked, joyful irreverence. (p. 68)

[It's] hard to explain why Ladies Love Outlaws is a slight disappointment in comparison to Jennings' recent albums. The material is extremely uneven…. Two of the better cuts are Jennings' only compositions here: "Sure Didn't Take Him Long" is a wry comment on woman stealing and "I Think It's Time She Learned" addresses itself to the correction of an errant woman…. In sum, a good album but not a great one. (p. 70)

Chet Flippo, "Country Music's Perennials: Four of the Most Distinctive Voices," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1972; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 122, November 23, 1972, pp. 68, 70.∗

Michael Watts

Waylon Jennings has found himself to be something of a star, not merely of the country circuits, but of the entire ball-game of popular music.

He is more equipped for this than anyone else who has set out from Nashville….

Jennings is happening at a time when country has never been more acceptable in rock music; when the excursions of the Byrds, the [Grateful] Dead and others into C and W areas have prepared rock audiences for an artist like Jennings, who has always been iconoclastic enough to bring in many influences outside country….

A maverick in other words, not only in his musical Catholicism, but in his attitude to Nashville's hierarchy, which can be scathing and contemptuous, and his manner of dress and appearance….

His sense of rebellion, well-publicised, is an infectuous breeding ground in which the styles and tastes of pop and country may mate. But no one has ever questioned his artistic abilities, either….

[The] mood and nature of the South seems an ever-fitting backcloth for a Greek tragedy; the harmonicas straining mournfully are the music, the chorus are those country voices, heavy with grief and resignation. The songs of the South, the white tradition, are dominated by a sense of loss mixed with an acceptance of it. It's as if they've never recovered from their failure in the Civil War.

Perhaps this is why Jennings is so compulsive. He invited our respect because he's the embodiment of peculiarly Southern virtues of manliness and honest emotions when all around is neurosis. Like all great artists his music is himself, and he stands for realness. In a time of sophistication he is simplicity. There but for fate would have gone Buddy Holly. (p. 24)

Michael Watts, "You Gotta Be a Man First, 'fore You Can Be Anything …," in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), August 11, 1973, pp. 24-5.

Daniel Harmon

Waylon Jennings is one of the few artists who sound (and look) knowledgeable when speaking of bad times and broken-down love affairs. Trouble is, there are too few songs available to match his authenticity. The title cut [of Lonesome, On'ry & Mean] and San Francisco Mabel Joy are earthy but too sensationalized. Lay It Down, though appealing, is a bit sophisticated…. Some good and meaningful music among the weaknesses.

Daniel Harmon, "The Journal Reviews: 'Lonesome, On'ry & Mean'," in Music Journal (copyright © 1973 by Sar-Les Music, Inc.), Vol. XXXI, No. 7, September, 1973, p. 44.

(The entire section is 91 words.)

Allan Parachini

Stylistically, Jennings certainly is a country artist. But his material is culled from a variety of sources, and the lyrics are a cut above most c-&-w tunes…. That he uses rock sources and has a rock audience is not really surprising, considering … that youthful association with Buddy Holly….

He has actively sought to raise the level of the material he performs, and he has shown that he wants to reach as wide an audience as possible while retaining an authenticity and flavor that are beyond dispute.

He has often been compared with Kris Kristofferson, who, some say, cares more about his new rock audience than about the country crowd that gave him his start. But Jennings...

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Noel Coppage

If you don't have any Waylon Jennings albums and ["Honky Tonk Heroes"] is the only one you can find, by all means get it and get to know that voice. If a sufficient number of people do that, maybe we can pressure him into putting some real thought into producing these things. Not to get over-serious about it, but Jennings is one of the contemporary performers most likely to get country music off the dime it's been on for close to forty years.

Noel Coppage, "Popular Discs and Tapes: 'Honky Tonk Heroes'," in Stereo Review (copyright © 1974 by Ziff-Davis Publishing Company), Vol. 32, No. 2, February, 1974, p. 90.

(The entire section is 104 words.)

Michael Watts

["Honky Tonk Heroes"] is distinguished by its celebration of The Last Round-up, its air of cowboys trying to reconcile the present with the past, which Waylon's big, weary voice, always at the heart of the arrangement, brilliantly conveys. "Old Five And Dimers" and "Willie The Wandering Gypsy And Me" (about Willie Nelson) are great, existentialist songs of boozy camaraderie, which unleash in the imagination huge vistas of prairies and an older America for the roaming and roving thereof. They're tough and sad and grizzled. In "Willie" Waylon sings, "well, I reckon we're gonna ramble till hell freezes over," and it's all there in that line, the conviction and authority, seem so appealing to ears usually assaulted by...

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Michael Watts

Still mad about the boy, but ["This Time"] is pedestrian compared to "Honky Tonk Heroes."… It works if you think of it as a relaxed mood piece, but Jennings might have to make up his mind to go much further along the way with rock, and that's dicing with commercial death as far as his C and W fans will be concerned. Not this time; maybe next.

Michael Watts, "Albums: 'This Time'," in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), June 8, 1974, p. 43.

(The entire section is 81 words.)

Tony Glover

[If Honky Tonk Heroes] was a bar album, then This Time is an after-hours mellow-out partner.

As usual, the subject matter is basic: bar/drinking songs, songs about the West and outlaws and women….

"This Time" is a Waylon composition (wish he'd write more) and it defines his macho image pretty aptly…. But Waylon can also get inside tenderness and sorrow….

An album that grows on you, and a fine companion to Heroes—if not quite the one we've all been waiting for.

Tony Glover, "Records: 'This Time'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1974; all rights reserved; reprinted by...

(The entire section is 105 words.)

Nicholas R. Spitzer

["Bob Wills Is Still the King" on the album Dreaming My Dreams] defies the categories of hard-core and progressive country. Based on record sales it fulfills both genres. The song is sung by Waylon Jennings, whose initial audience had been the fans of hard-core or "straight" country music. Admittedly, Waylon has always defied labels….

Lyrically the song toughly espouses the virtues of Texas life in the nostalgic terms of cowboy self-reliance and chivalry. Further, it invokes an animistic fashion, a past regional hero as the basis for present day self-pride. (p. 192)

In relation to the function of popular culture artists and art forms in shaping an expanded sense of...

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Tony Glover

The standouts [on Dreaming My Dreams] are "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way," an autobiographical commentary about the state of Music City, and the bouncy "Waymore's Blues," a Jimmie Rodgers-like hobo song.

Most cuts are more reflective. In "Let's All Help the Cowboys (Sing the Blues)," Waylon continues his series of Western mythology; he speaks both for himself and a vanishing breed of sensitive studs….

The last track, "Bob Wills Is Still the King," is a live track from an Austin gig. A tribute to the King of Western Swing, it demonstrates how well Waylon knows and moves his fans. The fire and drive in this cut foreshadow an upcoming live album—and that ought to be the...

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Noel Coppage

Several of his previous albums have been hurt by erratic song selection, but in RCA's new "Dreaming My Dreams" Jennings has smoothed that out pretty well…. Let's All Help the Cowboys is a simple three-chord country song (C-F-G, if that saves you some time), but it has such charm that, well, I couldn't do anything else until I'd sat down with the guitar and learned that little sucker. The song that gives the album its title is clearly an outstanding one; you can hate country music and still love it…. High Time (You Quit Your Low-Down Ways), whose country clichés are maybe a little too commonplace, too everyday, is the album's low point, but it isn't serious enough about being a...

(The entire section is 162 words.)

Ken Tucker

Waylon's main problem has always been the unevenness of his material; while [Are You Ready for the Country] is better than his last few efforts, it still stumbles badly in a few places. Waylon is a sucker for the sort of romantic, hard-boiled poesy that people such as Billy Joe Shaver and Shel Silverstein turn out like poker hands…. Waylon's songwriting suffers from this approach as well, and three of his four compositions on Are You Ready are more or less disposable. But the fourth, "I'll Go Back to Her," is one of the album's triumphs, just a good, lean love song.

Part of Jennings's attractiveness and value is his willingness to blend a couple of the rock culture's pleasures—fast,...

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Noel Coppage

Lumping Jennings with, say, David Allen Coe or Asleep at the Wheel or Michael Murphey or any of the other ["redneck rock" or "progressive country"] "movement" entities is a mistake in the first place, as the whole idea with Jennings is going it alone. The way he, specifically, has elected to sound does not extend The Way Things Are Going (the old definition of "progress") but goes against it. (p. 104)

[The] pose Jennings strikes is symbolic, a truth-in-fiction device. He doesn't ask you to take him literally and go up against the computers with six-guns blazing. The point he's making visually is literary and relates to the point he's making musically: remember the poor cowboy, the romantic...

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Melody Maker

["Are You Ready For The Country" is an] horrendously lame, almost Vegas-style album that's extremely disappointing after "Dreaming My Dreams," possibly the best country album of 1975…. But camp-followers will enjoy the awful, elephantine "MacArthur Park (Revisited)", a big clanger, like the album, in the career of this most uneven and frustrating artist.

"Albums: 'Are You Ready for the Country'," in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), January 22, 1977, p. 23.

(The entire section is 68 words.)

John Morthland

It wasn't until late 1974 that the Waylon Jennings mystique took hold for me. This is partly because to my mind that's when his sound coalesced—resulting in the great Dreaming My Dreams—but more because that's when I first saw him live….

Live has little to do with the prefab "progressive" country albums that seem to dominate the market today. It may bog down in a place or two, but if you only want one Waylon Jennings album, this is the essential one.

John Morthland, "Records: 'Waylon Live'," in Creem (© copyright: 1977 by Creem Magazine, Inc.), Vol. 8, No. 11, April, 1977, p. 60.

(The entire section is 99 words.)

Robin Grayden

For several years or so Waylon Jennings has been spearheading the so-called Nashville "rebel" movement, and, along with such artists as Willie Nelson and Tompall Glaser, has kicked all the old country music traditions out of the back door and opted for a "new wave" stance, combining country music with rock.

But ol' Waylon is in danger of falling between two stools. Strictly speaking, ["Ol' Waylon"] is not an album by a country singer. It's aimed at the rock audience, and yet I can't really see it appealing to that market either….

The album has a concept of sorts—the theme, as expressed by the ["Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)"] track, is getting back to the...

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Nick Tosches

There are problems [with Ol' Waylon]. Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love) is a bad song, a fan letter to Waylon and Willie Nelson from Waylon and Willie Nelson. If these guys don't stop cooing to each other, somebody's gonna think something's funny. But I guess that's what being an Outlaw is all about: making goo-goo eyes at yourself in the mirror. Pass the Lone Star, Red….

Waylon's great, but the Outlaw silliness is waxing rotten. No more cuts like Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love). Instead something like: Beaumont, Texas (Back to the Basics of Sleaze).

Nick Tosches, "Records: 'Ol' Waylon'," in High Fidelity...

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Noel Coppage

Waylon's last album was hurt by having too many vaguely similar songs in it, and this one ["Ol' Waylon"] is quite a radical departure from that: here is what they used to call a mixed bag. Mostly it's a good one, much more interesting than "Are You Ready for the Country," and only a little too interesting in a negative way a few times. These have to do not with versatility … but with how he identifies with a particular song: Luckenbach, Texas and If You See Me Getting Smaller portray characters he can get into playing; Lucille (which first caught on for Kenny Rogers) and Sweet Caroline (a golden oldie by Neil Diamond) are supposed to come out of the heads of characters Waylon can't quite...

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Robin Grayden

Apart from two gentle ballads, "Girl I Can Tell" and "Whistlers And Jugglers," which are both plaintive above-average standard country fare, the rest of ["I've Always Been Crazy"] finds Jennings living up to his image as a wandering, wild-living anti-Establishment hell-raiser, cocking two fingers at society. "I've Always Been Crazy" has the delicious second line, "but it's kept me from going insane". This and "Don't You Think This Outlaw Bit's Done Got Out Of Hand" … find him treating the whole outlaw image with tongue firmly in cheek.

By contrast, "Billy" is a sensitive dialogue with an old good-time buddy about getting too old for the outlaw life and settling down. Can't help feeling that there's...

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Noel Coppage

Waylon Jennings seemed to be trying for more looseness, more spontaneity, in his last two or three albums, and now with "I've Always Been Crazy" … he's started to arrive at what he must have had in mind. The album has an open, unfussy sound and a natural, flowing feel about it. And Jennings himself is as unbuttoned as it's wise for anyone to get….

"I've Always Been Crazy" is not perfect, of course; it goes out a little weak with Waylon's Girl, I Can Tell and Shel Silverstein's Whistlers and Jugglers. But generally it uses the throwaway, whether it be a single line or a whole song, the way a throwaway is supposed to be used, and it has that touch of wildness … one wants from Waylon...

(The entire section is 172 words.)

Nick Tosches

[The] contents of Jennings' albums have often left much to be desired, especially by those of us who tire easily of anyone who apparently feels he must constantly remind us, through the use of literary devices learned from Gunsmoke reruns, of what a tough-ass he is. After a while, you got the eerie impression that this guy actually believed he was an outlaw….

I've Always Been Crazy is a relief. There are still traces of the tough guy act, especially in a title track which finds the singer warning some purpling suffragette of "the chances you're takin' lovin' a free-livin' man" (exactly the sort of line that gets laughs in movie theaters), but I think Jennings has finally realized that...

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Bruce Paley

Whether lamenting over a girl, attempting to exorcise the whole "outlaw" schtick with a stinging, punchy diatribe, or breathing new life into tired C&W standards, Jennings goes straight for the gut [on I've Always Been Crazy]….

This isn't quite the blockbuster Waylon is capable of delivering—I'd like to see him loosen up and rock out more—but it's close enough for now.

Bruce Paley, "'I've Always Been Crazy'," in Feature (copyright © 1979 Feature Publishing Co., Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), No. 94, March, 1979, p. 76.

(The entire section is 87 words.)

Peter Guralnick

[Waylon Jennings] is part of the vanguard that is said to be revolutionizing country music. Or at least making inroads by reinjecting the maverick element into a music that was populated to begin with by such maverick, unpredictable, and slightly unsavory spirits as Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Wills, and Hank Williams.

His songs present a picture of the raffish hero in love with the essential seediness of twentieth-century America, the unregenerate rebel who looks back with a mixture of pride and regret on all the loves he's lost and all the hell-raising fun he's had…. His landmark album, Honky Tonk Heroes, reflected the same hell-raising image. The defiant stance suits Waylon Jennings. You get the...

(The entire section is 587 words.)

Bob Allen

Over the years, Waylon has … developed into a songwriter of considerable scope and talent. Though his original songs lack the endurance or universality of many of the songs from the early Willie Nelson catalog, they have nonetheless supplied him with a number of hits, and they have been recorded by many other artists as well. While Willie has often written outside of the style of music in which he was most actively working (i.e. country music), Waylon, on the other hand, seems to use his writing talents to create songs that are perfectly tailored to his own unique personal style. They are often explicitly autobiographical. (p. 106)

To many, [Dreamin' My Dreams] marks a turning point for...

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