by: Thomas D. Mooney
In 2008, Waylon Forever was released. Essentially, the eight-tracks are a collection of dated recording sessions done by Waylon Jennings and his son, Shooter, back in the late ’90s. These sessions were by all means, long forgotten until around 2007, when Shooter decided to dust them off and enhance the rough cuts with his band, The .357s, himself, and a young producer named Dave Cobb.
It sure is hard getting old.
It’s even more difficult when you’re an icon, a leader of a movement, and the voice for a generation. Artists like Jennings, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Lou Reed, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Townes Van Zandt, etc they’ve all come to a point in their career when they, for a lack of a better description, become a shell of their former selves. You just can’t expect Springsteen to keep on making Born in the USA time and again. It only sets them up for failure. It only sets you up for disappointment.
Sports figures and Hollywood entertainers all can have problems holding on to their salad days and prime. Specifically, sports icons have trouble moving past their playing days and finding that second career. Actors–look no further than Sunset Blvd or action stars struggling moving past explosions and fight sequences (Looking at you, The Expendables cast).
Generally, they all hope to not become caricatures of themselves trading past jokes as some sort of novelty or nostalgic endeavor for the masses (Again, looking at you, the cast of The Expendables).
Sometimes, they go down that road a ways before the revelation hits them and they begin backtracking and finding their way once again. Late ’80s Dylan, current Dylan, Pre-American Recordings Cash (more on this in a second), post-Tattoo You Stones, basically everything from Elton John from A Single Man to Sleeping with the Past, Eminem since Encore, since Eric Clapton went Adult Contemporary, Jay-Z since Kingdom Come (with Watch the Throne being the exception), ’80s Neil Young (with Re-ac-tor and Freedom the exceptions), and I think you’re getting the point. The list goes on. And sometimes, they just never realize at all.
With Jennings, you could argue that the vast majority of the ’80s and ’90s, was him trying to find his voice as a songwriter in a post-Outlaw Country world. While two of the three Highwaymen albums–Highwayman and Highwayman 2–were critically acclaimed and successful with the masses, Jennings solo albums struggled to make an impression with either groups (1980’s Music Man was Jennings last solo album to be certified Gold).
And that’s what ultimately makes Waylon Forever an interesting, experimental flash in the pan.
On the surface level, Waylon Forever is just Jennings recutting six staples of his ’70s prime. It’s just rehashing. It’s looking for relevancy. It’s aiming to take advantage of our nostalgic self-interest. It’s once last hurrah stating, “I’m still an outlaw, goddamnit!” On the surface. A glance at the tracklist, it’s just those things.
Deep down though, Waylon Forever is Jennings having one foot rooted in the past and the other pushing forward into the unknown. Naturally, it’s Jennings revisiting those times he scaled the mountain but, it’s also acknowledging he isn’t the same individual. They were snapshots through a filtered lens. It’s Waylon, and eventually Shooter, searching for that next chapter for Waylon and “Outlaw Country.”
To give some context, the mid-’90s found Johnny Cash releasing his first two American Recordings albums with producer Rick Rubin–1994’s American Recordings and 1996’s Unchained. American Recordings would go on and win the 1995 Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Unchained would win the 1998 Grammy for Best Country Album. The series as a whole (six so far) gave rise to another side of Cash.
(Side Note: Unchained also gave us this 1998 advertisement featured below.)
It was Cash as the elder statesmen. The American treasure. The voice of reason and storyteller of heartache and loss in the most tragic of ways. He wasn’t busting lights at the Grand Ol’ Opry or smuggling prescription pills in his guitar case. He was reflective, insightful, and recreating the way we look at the American songbook. He was showed delicate precision with those rough, tougher-than-leather hands. They were both gentle in instances, but ultimately brutally honest and firm when need be.
To a lesser extent–and less critical acclaim and success–Willie Nelson was doing much the same. He was recutting old songs, recording newly christened American classics, and revisiting old American standards and traditionals.
Now, I don’t think Waylon Forever does that (what Cash did on American Recordings). But, in fairness, Waylon didn’t really have the same opportunity to either. Only Waylon and Shooter–who was only around 16-years-old at the time of these recordings–knew/know the original intentions of these pool house studio recording sessions. I don’t think they were looking to duplicate the Cash American Recordings blueprint by any means, but rather, were inspired by Cash’s reemergence as a force in country and American music.
As mentioned before, Waylon Forever is a glimpse at a What-If. The same could be said for Old 97’s & Waylon Jennings, another set of ’90s demos that found a release in the 2000s.
By no means is Waylon Forever perfect. At times, it’s strange, opaque, dense, and slightly too self-indulgent. But when it hit its’ stride, it’s as strong a representation of Waylon as an artist as anything found on Honky Tonk Heroes, Ladies Love Outlaws, Dreaming My Dreams, I’ve Always Been Crazy, etc. When Waylon nails it, it’s as heavy, harsh, and captivating as anything on American Recordings.
“Outlaw Shit”–a reworking of the 1978 hit “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand”–is a sobering moment. It’s slowed down to a crawl. Haunting pedal steel, piano, and string arrangements are rich and full. Yet, it’s still sparse and leaves you feeling empty once finished.
The last gut punch is a final “out of hand” that’s more a conceding sigh than anything that coming after Waylon’s final run through the chorus. The mere fact that it’s changed to Outlaw Shit instead of its’ toned-down Outlaw Bit predecessor says more than enough on its’ own. His vocals are worn and weathered with age and experience.
With the ’78 original, there was a tongue-in-cheek inkling to it. It was poking fun at the notion that Jennings and company were actually outlaws–something the audience probably took too serious during the ’70s.
The Waylon Forever version though, it’s insightful to the psyche of ’90s Jennings. It’s harrowing and desperate with a clear-eyed Waylon. It’s a cautionary tale from a man who’s seen it all.
Still, there’s some cumbersome moments–albeit, not for a lack a of trying. They’re certainly trying. They’re exploring uncharted territory on songs like the Cream cover “White Room,” the lone new Jennings song “I Found The Body,” and the Jennings Dreaming My Dreams standard “Waymore’s Blues.”
What they ultimately lack is a focused vision. But again, Shooter and company are only able to do so much with abandoned sessions from a decade before.
“Waymore’s Blues” feels too convoluted with Waylon’s vocals being layered and filtered. It’s suffocating in a way. “White Room” really feels tired. It’s the lone time in which Waylon’s vocals are tired or strained. And with “I Found The Body,” while it does have a thin-veiled silver lining to it–the howling pedal steel and slow burning groove–it ultimately goes too far down the “The Great Gig in the Sky” by Pink Floyd rabbit hole.
“Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This,” “Are You Ready For the Country?,” and “Lonesome, On’ry, and Mean” are high marks, but are still definitely a tier below “Outlaw Shit.” They don’t take the same experimental approach as “Outlaw Shit” or “I Found The Body.” You don’t find Jennings as exposed, avant-garde, or innovative.
Still, they’re probably more a testament to Shooter’s vision, Cobb’s producing chops, and the .357’s playing ability than anything else. The guitars are louder. They’re more crisp with a sharp, thick blade than anything on the originals. They’re probably closer to what Waylon would sound like had he come up today than a statement.
But more than anything, you see the beginnings of what would ultimately become the sound of Sturgill Simpson’s Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, which, is naturally also produced by Cobb. “It Ain’t All Flowers” is just a better, more focused, developed, and recorded by an artist in his prime rather than one on his last legs.
While Simpson has said numerous times he’s never really been highly influenced by Jennings, I think it’s safe to assume this project has had a lasting impact on Cobb, and to a lesser extent, the latest generation of songwriters–even if they’re largely unaware.
And in that way, in many respects, it’s as innovative and on the forefront as anything Waylon ever did during the ’70s–even if it’s not nearly as perfect.
Find Waylon Forever here.