10) Trio (Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt) The Complete Trio Collection (1987-1999) (2016)
This collects the two albums the superstar “trio” made in the eighties and nineties, plus an extra disc of unreleased and alternate takes.
The released albums were always a little too pristine for my taste. Hearing the tracks all at once didn’t exactly reverse that judgment, though it did allow me to fully appreciate the sheer craft-work driven improbability of it all.
Given the restrictive natures of both Harris’s and Ronstadt’s art–we’re talking about two people who always had a hard time loosening up–it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that the real keepers are on the throwaway disc. The women who were never all that comfortable with the spotlight light up when it’s off, while Dolly just keeps on being Dolly. In that context, it seems no more than natural that “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues,” a great song that’s been searching for a home for decades, would finally get the definitive take it deserves.
2) Tom Petty and the HeartbreakersEcho (1999)
A modern blues, filled with all the hit-maker’s recognizable touches and a lot of things too many people assumed he couldn’t do besides.
Maybe that assumption was rooted in not paying enough attention. If so, I certainly do not exempt myself.
One effect of getting to know this album in recent years has been a better understanding of just how deep those hits had to strike–again and again, back when it seemed they lived entirely on the surface–in order to reach one generation after another in a way that was almost unheard of for any other rocker of his generation. Singling out the first cut is a little obvious, but first cuts are for leading you in. This leads you in.
8) The OrlonsBest of(1961-1966) (2005)
Auteurs of the Watusi and, you might think, the most faceless of the handful of girl groups who sustained even a modest string of hits.
While I wouldn’t say personality was their strong suit, this still sustains easily over half a decade and twenty sides. “Wah-Watusi” aside, they may never have been trend-setters (even that was a cover). But they kept up, no small thing when the Pop World was moving as past as it did during the years in question.
And, as often happens with these “obscure” artists, there’s a knockout hidden in the shadows that will lay you flat if you have your back turned.
I always loved the English spelling. Made it seem like it should be some kind of genteel sequel to a Cat Stevens album.
I know it’s sold a bajillion copies (thirty, forty million, like that) and been played to death…but it never wears out. Certainly not in 2016, when it sounded more contemporary than ever and stayed at the top of my playlist for the year. Another thing I like about it is that it broke contemporaneously with Punk Rock, which it buried then and buries now, not least because it’s a lot more “punk” than “God Save the Queen”…if by “punk” we mean “alive.”
Of course, these days it’s become even stronger. This edition restores Stevie Nicks’s “Silver Springs” to its original running order (the 3-Disc version released subsequently puts it at the end for some reason) and includes a disc of outtakes that, for once, deepens and contextualizes the finished product. You can click on the link above for my full take on all that. But in case you don’t make it over there, this little killer should still not be missed.
6) Mark ChesnuttThe Ultimate Collection (Complete MCA Singles: 1990-2000) (2011)
Playing next to Patty Loveless or even George Strait on the radio in his golden decade, Chesnutt seemed like a real if modest talent who reached an epic high now and then.
From this distance, across thirty tracks and a quarter of a century, he seems more like a minor miracle. He certainly wasn’t afraid of competition. He doesn’t embarrass himself on Don Gibson’s “Woman (Sensuous Woman)” or John Anderson’s “Down in Tennessee,” and bests Waylon on “Broken Promise Land,” which is one of those epic highs I mentioned.
It’s not like I didn’t know he had a solid best of in him. “Brother Jukebox,” “Bubba Shot the Jukebox” “It Sure is Monday”–the titles alone always could bring a smile. But this sustains, in part, because his most epic high point of all–as great a song ever written about the intricacies of not breaking up–came early and two long discs gives the listener time to develop some perspective.
If you click the link, be sure to crank the volume.
5) The Easybeats The Definitive Anthology (1965-1969) (1996)
Speaking of cranking the volume.
Here’s fifty-six tracks that make a case for the boys who built the bones of Australia’s not-exactly-inconsequential rock and roll legacy by being the greatest garage band this side of Paul Revere and the Raiders.
I’m not gonna say they ever quite got up to “Friday On My Mind” again but not many got there once and, of those who did, few outside the legends sustained anything like this level of interest. Of course, they should never have taken on “River Deep, Mountain High,” but it brought a smile to think they had the nerve to try. And smile was what just about every other one of these fifty-six tracks made me do as I listened to them chase every trend of the era and catch one after another for the briefest, most transient, most exhilarating moment. Pick to Click: “Good Times” (which sure sounds like it cops at least one of its riffs from the Orlons’ “Don’t Hang Up”).
4) The PlattersThe Ballads (1953-1959) (2013)
Shelter from the storm.
If ballad singing is ever given its proper place in the Rock and Roll Narrative, the Platters’ lead singer, Tony Williams, will be as celebrated as Chuck Berry. Until then, you can search around for ways to hear him: this is the best I’ve found.
Great as any individual cut–or any short compilation–may be, you can’t really feel the weight of Williams’ accomplishment until you dig into something like this: thirty-three slices of heaven right here on earth.
A sly turn of the cards: Here, the Isleys cover mostly white acts, though not necessarily the ones who had spent the previous decade so profitably covering them.
It might have been conceived as a gimmick, but they dug in too deep for it to come across that way on record. “Ohio” meant more in their hands than any other, not just because they cross-bred it with Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun’,” but because they were from Ohio. Unlike say, Kent State survivor, Chrissie Hynde, who grew up being persecuted by the white middle class in Akron and got out as soon as possible, they never left home spiritually, no matter how far their feet roamed.
I wonder if that’s why I–who always heard “Fire and Rain” as a great record even in its callow original–find their cover illuminating far beyond the usual “black people are deeper” shuck and jive? I’ve stated it before, but this is the sound of some lost soul looking for his people over the next hill. Pick to click: “Cold Bologna” (the only cut besides “Machine Gun” that doesn’t “give back” to a white boy).
2) Dwight YoakumGuitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc. (1986)
Thus began the odd, often glorious career of Dwight Yoakum, slick traditionalist.
Right there at the beginning–too clever title and all–I don’t hear the concept quite working. Pleasant enough but not as inspired as its rep. So when I put this one on it’s mostly for background music.
1) Martha & the VandellasLive Wire: The Singles 1962-1972 (1993)
Martha Reeves might be due a Vocalist of the Month essay pretty soon, so I’ll leave any deep thoughts for later. This beautiful thing was part of a three-artist series released in conjunction with similarly glorious 2-Disc sets on the Marvelettes and Mary Wells. There’s not a weak track on any of them.
What I hadn’t realized before was that if Dwight’s “South of Cincinnati” ever needs a sister record, it’s right here, in Martha’s finest vocal, equal to anything the powerhouses at Motown ever managed and, unlike most of the theirs and most of hers–which were only “Dancing in the Street,” “Heat Wave,” “Nowhere to Run,” “In My Lonely Room”– half-hidden by time.
Near the end of Dawn at Socorro, one of those lean-as-a-tomcat westerns Hollywood turned out every other day in the fifties, Rory Calhoun’s trying-to-reform-and-waitin’-for-a-train gunfighter has somebody else’s gun handed to him at the station and is told destiny will be along “in two minutes.”
The station master pokes his head out of the office to ask if he knows who’s coming for him.
“My past,” Calhoun’s Brett Wade says, just before he steps into the street where he’ll gun down four men to keep a girl he met the day before from having to some day say the same. “Every dark, miserable day of it.”
Every great country singer’s voice carries some version of that lament within but Waylon Jennings was its most perfect embodiment.
Partly it was a matter of persona. But, regarding some matters, persona isn’t enough. Sometimes, you can’t even talk the talk without first walking the walk.
In the salons and “scenes” where the importance of everything is decided for the rest of us, Waylon’s old comrade-in-arms, Willie Nelson, is the hip one, the name-dropped one, the artiste, the one who nobody would want living in the neighborhood exactly (I mean, who’s so gauche he can’t even fox the taxman?), but who would definitely be fun at parties. If somebody’s on PBS right now talking about how they just love those “rough-voiced” eccentrics who didn’t sing too pretty, they might throw Willie in there with Louis Armstrong or Bob Dylan or even Hank Williams or Johnny Cash.
I only know this because I’ve heard them do it.
They don’t throw in Waylon.
Oh, they’ll speak fondly of him if his name happens to come up.
Wasn’t he friends with Willie?
Such an outlaw, too. They started that whole thing, you know. Good for them!
I mean who at PBS or the Voice doesn’t love an outlaw?
They’re always a little reserved, though. Sure they love Waylon.
But they always want to get back to talking about Willie.
And that makes sense, because deep down, I don’t think even the dimmest pinot-sipper in the land fails to understand that if they ever find themselves in a hinterland roadhouse (presumably on some assignment roughly equivalent to reporting from the African bush), they’ll be in a world that sure does love old Willie and sure does know he’s great….and sure knows he ain’t Waylon.
When you cross that old Red River of the heart, boys, Waylon Jennings is still the king.
* * * *
How and why?
The outline of the tale is familiar. Buddy Holly’s band. Lost a coin flip for a seat on the plane.
I’ll be nice and warm at the next stop while you’re freezin’ your ass off on that bus son.
Yeah, well I hope your old plane crashes!
Words to that effect.
The future waiting to be born, son.
Every dark, miserable day of it.
Then the rest. An all but inevitable guilt-and-recovery period in West Texas followed by the usual road to Nashville and as conventional a stardom as a genuine eccentric can have. Hits. The Opry. Whiskey river. Nicotine stains. Life on the road in a hillbilly band.
And, all along the way, a series of accumulations: of wisdom, hard knocks, gravitas, a catch in the throat. Always the spiritual and physical pull back to Texas, where, more or less inevitably, “outlaw” morphed from an attitude into what should have been a pretty disposable image, a way to sell records for a few years until the next thing came along.
Except with Waylon, it was more than just a phase. The word fit any number of people, but he was the only one who made it sound necessary, while also keeping a claim on the top of the country charts for as long as any of the perfectly respectable superstars aiming for the middle of the road. Between the “just try and make me give a shit” world represented by Billy Joe Shaver and the “send my regrets” aspirational world represented by someone as tough as even Merle Haggard, there was no guarantee of a fit–no guarantee that anyone could sing from the other side of the tracks without even pretending he wanted to cross over. Waylon Jennings was one of those singers the world didn’t know it needed–and who maybe didn’t know it needed him–until he found his true voice.
You can hear every step of that journey, including the discomfort with form-and-formula’s easy promises that meant he would eventually have to strike out down his own path, and the disdain for form-and-formula’s easy rewards that meant no easy hat–not even the outlaw hat–would ever quite fit his head, on Nashville Rebel, the superb box set from 2006.
It’s a long way from being the only Waylon you’ll ever need, but it’s still a stunning overview, and with 93 cuts that stretch from 1958 to 1995, it’s a deep dive.
You could go deeper. Just for starters, this doesn’t have his originals of “Broken Promise Land” (an album cut that was later a fine hit for Mark Chestnutt) or “Where Corn Don’t Grow” (a stiff that was later an even finer hit for Travis Tritt). I mean when you can leave this of your four-disc box set, you’re catalog is pretty much bottomless:
A close listen to that cut goes some way toward explaining why the taste-makers have never quite been comfortable embracing Waylon’s music, however much they pretend to be enamored of his image. There’s a tremulous catch that’s forever threatening to break into a sob, a device he used more than occasionally on ballads. It’s a device familiar to Pentecostal Sunday mornings, where it’s used almost exclusively by rough-hewn males overcome by some regret, real or imagined.
And with Waylon, as with the sinners he was emulating–or honoring–it’s not always possible to extricate the real emotion from the professional showmanship. Is that a true catch in his throat, or one carefully summoned for the occasion?
This, too, is a common thread among country singers, one shared with white gospel singers the way shoutin’-n’-moanin’ is shared by black gospel and soul singers. On either side of that narrow divide, sometimes the raw emotion is too real for words, sometimes too synthetic for advertising. Either way, in the voices of of the greats, it’s always posited as a means of not merely striving to connect experiences, but of telling the true believers (that is, the ones who know which part of the fakery is meant only for them and is, oddly, therefore earned) from the deep-dyed poseurs (who are always certain their b.s. detector is superior to yours) .
Waylon Jennings, who could calculate a sloppy tear-in-the-beer as well as any pew-bound side-burned car salesman who ever lived, teased out the distinctions between hard truth (lived!) and careful constructs (imagined!…or “faked”) like no one else this side of Solomon Burke. It’s a quality Robert Christgau once summed up as “grease.”
But the audience Waylon sang for knew grease doesn’t always mean Brylcreem. Sometimes it means you’ve been working the gears. Sometimes it means you’re shiny with sweat. Yeah, it still means the word-slingers at the Village Voice are looking down on you. It means that, no matter how you cut it. But some of those definitions earn you the right to slough off the others. You sweat enough, work enough, and everybody who did the same will cut you some slack on the grease-stain your head leaves on the pillow case. There are places where your work ethic–finally inextricable from your willingness to continually put yourself on the line between art and showmanship–will earn you a sneer.
Other places it just means you are walking the walk
* * * *
So Waylon Jennings, with the perfect name, perfect biography, perfect voice, perfect set of sins, walked the walk up one side of country stardom and down the other.
Up to Nashville…
Where some part of him could never quite fit…
And there was no choice except to keep shearing away everything that wasn’t strictly necessary, while he walked down the other side of the slippery slope where everybody expects you to take a header…
Disc 2-8 and 2-18:
Until, if you surprise everybody and manage to stay upright, somebody in the advertising department has to come up with the obvious and call you “Outlaw”…
Which turns out to be just a way to hide in plain sight while you dig deeper…
After which, you have a chance to do your schtick …
And then, having proved yourself four times over, you earn a chance, just every once in a while, to be free…
Like all the greatest singers in any genre, The Hoss carried the weight of everything he had done–for and to himself, for and to others–in even his slightest performances. More than most great singers, there came a time he had done enough for and to everybody that nothing was ever really slight. Which is why this box tracks all the way to the end.
So long Slick.
Back in the land where most of us got called Hoss by somebody or other, we haven’t forgot who the real Hoss is….
…or that the first requirement is the ability to laugh at yourself
Waylon Jennings: 1937-2002
(Note: I’m going to make an extra effort to get the Vocalist of the Month category going again. As part of the new day, I’m going to recommend some good starting points for anyone not already familiar with the artist. As always, I ask you to consider clicking through my site’s icon if you want to buy anything from Amazon. I get a few pennies on the dollar and any proceeds go to supporting the site or purchasing material for review.)
Nashville Rebel (2006) A fantastic box, partially reviewed above, which stretches from the late fifties to the mid-nineties. There’s no better place to get a firm grasp on the scope of Jennings’ achievement. What I’ve linked above is a smattering.
Time Life Legendary Country Singers (1996) On the other hand, if you want to limit yourself to the highlights, you can’t beat this collection, which is long out of print but tends to be readily available cheap and used.
Lonesome, On’ry and Mean (1973) Dreaming My Dreams (1975) Turn the Page (1985)
The pick of the litter from the half dozen or so I own. I imagine there are a dozen more of the same quality but these give a good sense of what was going on behind the hits.
Waylon Live! Expanded Edition (2003) A good bet for the greatest live country collection and a match for any live music released in any genre. This turns the excellent album he released in 1976 into a two-hour dream show that doesn’t quit. One of those moments (or series of related moments) when everything comes together…and everything clicks.