From 1966’s Chet Atkins-produced RCA debut, Folk Country, to 1970’s Waylon album, these Colin Escott-annotated reissues track the birth of an Outlaw.
LOS ANGELES, Calif. — Waylon Jennings is the recognized father of the Outlaw movement of country, a rebel against the Nashville establishment whose recordings blended honky- tonk, rock ’n’ roll and folk in a way virtually nobody else was doing at the time. Collectors’ Choice has chosen six of Jennings’ many RCA long-players from 1966-’70 and will release them as three twofer CDs: Folk Country/Waylon Sings Ol’ Harlan, Love of the Common People/Hangin’ On and Waylon/Singer of Sad Songs. The CDs will hit the streets on November 24, 2009. Grammy Award-winning annotator/historian Colin Escott wrote the liner notes.
In the 1950s, Jennings was a Lubbock DJ and fledgling singer whose first record was produced by Buddy Holly (Jennings briefly played bass for Holly, and gave up his airplane seat to the Big Bopper before the ill-fated flight that took the lives of the Bopper, Holly and Richie Valens).
In 1963 Jennings, then living in Phoenix, signed to A&M for one LP that went nowhere, and was advised by Bobby Bare, for whom he’d co-written a hit, that Nashville was the place to be. So when RCA Nashville A&R head/producer Chet Atkins invited Jennings to sign, he jumped at the chance: “I started out for Nashville in a yellow Cadillac with a yellow-haired woman.”
As Escott reminds us in the liner notes for Folk Country/Waylon Sings Ol’ Harlan, “Waylon, remembered by many these days as a grizzled cowboy stoner, was young once. Most artists dismiss their old work, but Waylon thought he was as good as he could be during every phase of his long career, and the evidence bears him out.” The two albums, coupled onto one CD, document the 1966-67 period as Jennings found his way in Nashville.
Folk Country, Jennings’ RCA debut, was so called as Atkins wanted to attract some of the folk hootenanny crowd, but the record was mainstream country all the way — most of the songs written by Harlan Howard, “among the most gifted and prolific writers in country music history,” as Escott notes. From the album came Jennings’ first hit, “That’s the Chance I’ll Have to Take.” One year, two LPs and a movie later (Nashville Rebel, 1966), Jennings returned to the studio for his fourth RCA album, Waylon Sings Ol’ Harlan, cut in ’66 and released in ’67. Included were Howard songs “Busted,” “Tiger By the Tail,” “She Called Me Baby,” “Foolin’ Around” and “In This Very Same Room.” The second CD combines Love of the Common People (1967) and Hangin’ On (1968). Early in his career, Jennings released three LPs a year featuring old songs, then-current songs that moved him, and his most recent hits. Included on Love of the Common People were the title track, Lennon/McCartney’s “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away,” Mel Tillis’ “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town” (three years before it was a hit for Kenny Rogers & the First Edition) and “Young Widow Brown,” later recorded by Frankie Miller. In the fall of 1967, Harlan Howard’s “The Chokin’ Kind” became Jennings’ biggest hit, peaking at #8 on the country charts. It appeared on Hangin’ On, and later became a #1 soul hit for Joe Simon. Also on Hangin’ On: “Lock, Stock and Teardrops,” “Hangin’ On” and “The Crowd.” Atkins, says Escott, “didn’t care too much about albums. Singles were his business.” And so after accumulating enough recorded material from Jennings, thrice yearly Atkins would pull songs for an LP. Hangin On came out of several sessions between February and September 1967. And this got Jennings thinking about the meaning of albums.
Jennings grew weary of the “Nashville way.” As Escott points out, “It was an assembly line and after five years, Jennings was beginning to resent it. He wanted less quantity and more quality. He wanted albums to be personal statements, not assemblages of songs from different sessions. And he wanted to work with his road band, not session men. Rock singers had achieved that level of autonomy but country musicians were still locked into Nashville’s old ways.”
Collectors’ Choice’s third CD twofer includes two 1970 LPs, when the tides were starting to turn. It was a big year for the artist as six of his songs appeared in the Mike Jagger movie Ned Kelly, A&M Records released a compilation of his early recordings, and RCA released a greatest hits collection. He also produced an album by his wife, Jessi Colter. And Chet Atkins, long Jennings’ producer, was withdrawing from production to refocus on playing. Jennings was assigned a new producer, Danny Davis, and the transition didn’t go well. “I would go into the studio and do tracks,” Jennings wrote, and when I came back, I wouldn’t recognize the same song.” And there were other grievances. Yet their first collaboration, Waylon, turned out well and bore a #3 hit, a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man.” Also included were Mickey Newberry’s stoner anthem “Thirty-third of August” and “All of Me Belongs to You,” as well as a re-record of “Yellow Haired Woman.”
Jennings shares CD space with Singer of Sad Songs, produced by the late Lee Hazelwood not in Nashville but rather Los Angeles. Sidemen included Randy Meisner (Poco), and future New Riders of the Purple Sage members Allen Kemp and Patrick Shanahan. Material ranged from Hazelwood’s “She Comes Running” to Chris Kenner’s R&B hit “Sick and Tired,” plus songs by Tim Harden, Tom Rush and the Louvin Brothers. The transition to Outlaw was now complete. Singer of Sad Songs was an artistic success — likely ahead of its time — but commercially it failed. Escott writes, “Within couple years, however, Waylon Jennings would be making albums that are even now considered unapproachable classics . . . Waylon was in search of something and he was beginning to discover what it was. We’d all find out soon enough.”
These six albums on three CDs chronicle his path to greatness.