Is there a song in the country canon more misunderstood than “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” Popularly read as bemoaning the distance between modern country music and its antecedents — as, to use one critic’s phrase, a “kick in the spangled pants of the prevailing ‘countrypolitan’ sounds” — the 1975 hit was nothing of the sort. “Hank” was an indictment, all right, but not of the departure from the “fiddles and guitars [and] rhinestone suits.” Instead, Waylon Jennings aimed his fire at Music Row’s hidebound way of doing things: “It’s been the same way for years/We need a change.”
The change Jennings wanted was, at bottom, simply creative control — and not to pursue a return to country tradition a la Hank, but rather to wander in whatever directions he pleased, trusting that they would be of interest to enough listeners to make him commercially viable. Sure, he wanted to record with his road band, but Jennings hardly stopped there, bringing in strings on Are You Ready For The Country for “MacArthur Park”, horns for the title track, session guitar ace Fred Carter for much of I’ve Always Been Crazy, and more. And while he covered Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash and offered up a surprisingly tender version of “Precious Memories”, he turned in scorching takes on songs from Neil Young and the Marshall Tucker Band to go along with plenty of his own songs.
Indeed, what comes through clearly on these reissues (from 1976 and 1978 respectively) is the wide-ranging, eclectic nature of Jennings’ work — a far cry from the mono-dimensional label he addressed with semi-joking ambivalence in “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out Of Hand”. His rich baritone vocal register gets a thorough workout on both albums, but those who haven’t heard “I’ve Always Been Crazy” for a while will be surprised by the high range of the singing, while the sly rhythmic flip-flops of the bass on “As The ‘Billy World Turns” offer a useful reminder that Jennings had a sense of humor extending beyond the wryness in the “Outlaw Bit” lyric.
Still, Jennings was no musical chameleon. Regardless of the material, his sound remained intact, from swirling electric guitar to plonky bass, no matter who was playing it. Even when steel guitarist Ralph Mooney recaps his kickoff to Haggard’s “Tonight The Bottle Let Me Down” — he had played on the original record — the loose rhythms behind make it immediately apparent that it’s the Waylors, not the Strangers, who are on hand. Taken as a whole, it was aggressively distinctive, underlining again Jennings’ distance not only from his contemporaries but from his predecessors — and, it should be added, from his successors. Waylon’s influence may have been considerable, but it has to be found elsewhere than in the sonic and musical elements of these records.
Ultimately, Jennings’ most lasting effect on country music might best be described as attitudinal. More than anyone else, he exemplified the tightly interwoven strengths and weaknesses of the “outlaw” — stubborn independence and a freewheeling lifestyle, to be sure, but also a kind of self-referential, self-congratulatory romanticism that, in the hands of less gifted artists, quickly degenerated into safe, predictable posturing.
By the time he made I’ve Always Been Crazy, Jennings himself was beginning to look for ways to move beyond what he and his pals (and publicists) had wrought. That makes these albums transitional, but it also gives them a depth that others before and after wouldn’t always have.