When it comes to Waylon Jennings, we're all just good-hearted women in love with a good-timin' man—aren't we? But there is one woman who claims that title ahead of the rest of us, which would be Jessi Colter, Waylon's widow. She and their son, Shooter Jennings, a rising star in his own right, sat down in Nashville this month to talk about a years-in-the-making tribute to the late country superstar.
The just-released album is called The Music Inside, Vol. 1: A Collaboration Dedicated to Waylon Jennings. If that's a cumbersome title, the "volume 1" part is necessitated by the fact that there are two more volumes already scheduled for release in 2011. This first set includes covers of familiar and obscure Jennings tracks by Alabama, Jamey Johnson, Trace Adkins, John Hiatt, Randy Houser, James Otto, Sunny Sweeney, and newcomer Chanel Campbell, along with a historic Kris Kristofferson/Patty Griffin duet... and, of course, appearances by Jessi and Shooter. Hank Williams Jr. and Dierks Bentley are among the stars who've already recorded tunes for the upcoming releases in the series.
To help commemorate this commemoration, Yahoo! Music took its cameras to the Loveless Barn—a performance venue recently built behind the legendary Loveless Cafe, south of Nashville—and filmed four exclusive performances. As on the album, Houser sang "I'm a Ramblin' Man," Campbell did her unique take on the ballad "Wurlitzer Prize," Shooter performed "Belle of the Ball," and Colter and Sweeney dueted on "Good-Hearted Woman."
Before the performances, Jessi and Shooter got together with the producer and mastermind of the tribute albums, Witt Stewart, to tell Yahoo! how the project came together over the course of the last three years.
Stewart, a technology as well as music entrepreneur, was born and raised in Lubbock, which is also where Jennings had his roots. After seeing the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, Witt wondered when a certain outlaw icon would get the same kind of treatment, even if it was on disc instead of on screen. "There really needed to be a light on Waylon," Stewart says. "I just didn't think he was getting his due."
There had been a couple of very good tribute albums released before, but they both came out way back in the dark ages of 2003. (One, I've Always Been Crazy, was a major-label effort oriented toward stars like Kenny Chesney, Kid Rock, and even James Hetfield. The other, Lonesome, On'ry and Mean, was an indie release featuring Americana figures like Nanci Griffith and Guy Clark.) Clearly, some new respect was overdue. But after Stewart set his mind to it, it still took him nine months to even get in touch with Colter, who was interested but initially standoffish.
"It's not easy for us to be part of this, even though we believe in it," says Colter. "We're too involved; we're too close to it." Scooter agrees: "We've been very guarded about it. I'm the guy who always was skeptical." Part of it is that Jennings' cache and iconography have only increased since his death, and the family is wary of stars or strangers who are simply interested in doing a name-check. Says Scooter, "It's easy to say you love somebody who's cool, but it's another thing to take what they did and let it influence what you do.... I felt like we had made a concerted effort to get his music out there, but then you," says Scooter, addressing Stewart, "came along with this passion and vision and really elevated him to a level I think is special."
Stewart assured them that his plan did not add up to "we've gotta get this guy because he's hot this week." At the same time, he adds, "I'm not smart enough to have had a plan." So much brainstorming ensued that involved sitting around playing records, deciding who would be a good fit. On one of these alcohol-fueled nights, a Kristofferson track was shortly followed by a Patty Griffin tune, and—voila—just like the peanut butter cup epiphany, two very dissimilar voices were put together to stunning effect. "I think that's my favorite one on this," says Shooter, of the "Rose in Paradise" duet. "What a great idea."
If there was no mandate to get "name" country stars, there was no mandate to avoid them, either. Adkins and Williams Jr. were naturals, as were a couple of younger guys who've often invoked Jennings' spirit in their music, Bentley and new star Jamey Johnson.
But Alabama is the marquee name here, as well as the man-bites-dog novelty, since everyone assumed they'd broken up for good. "I was in a meeting with Teddy Gentry about something else," says Witt, "and I said 'By the way, I'm doing this Waylon thing. Any way you guys could get together and do a song for me? Because I need a single!'" A brash request for a supposedly retired supergroup. But "as it turned out, Randy had found out he was free of cancer, and he called Teddy and said, 'I feel like I'm having a second chance at life, and I'd like to get together with the people I love and make some music.'" That music was "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?," about which Witt remembers the reconstituted band saying: "We've been singing that song for 30-some years, since we started in Myrtle Beach singing for tips."
Colter was reluctant to take on "Good-Hearted Woman," but listening to duet partner Sweeney sing it gave her a way into it. "Because it was a song that Waylon... had made it known that I had something to do with it, then i thought, is this weird?" she says. "But Witt said, 'Listen to Sunny, listen to how she's doing that.' And i just listened to that great, straight-ahead Texas thing she had, and did it!"
Seven years ago, before almost anyone had heard of him, Shooter Jennings sang one of his dad's songs, "I've Always Been Crazy," on one of the earlier tribute albums—under the name of Stargunn, the hard rock band he was fronting in L.A. at the time. Since then, he's come even more to terms with his legacy, become a heralded singer/songwriter popular in both country and alt-country circles, and maybe—just maybe—gotten a little less crazy. At least, he's mellowed just enough to be able to take on "Belle of the Ball."
"I'm happy that i got to sing that song," Scooter says. "i don't think there would have been another song I would have preferred to have done at any point in my life. Because I know that was his favorite song that he wrote. And it was not only such a brilliant metaphor lyrically, that song, for his experience in Nashville, but it was something that always meanat a lot to me. When he passed away, and we were dealing with his gravestone and what we were going to put on it, we took the first line of the song ["Vagabond dreamer, a rhymer and singer of songs"] and put it on there, because I felt it was how he described himself lyrically.
When it came time to reunite some of the musicians for the Yahoo! sessions at the Loveless barn, everyone again felt a blessing on the project that went beyond their own efforts. "I've done a lot of these," says Yahoo! producer Janda Lane, "but this one especially had a great spirit to it. I really felt there was the spirit of Waylon nodding his head through the whole thing."
The backing band on these four performances was comprised of Reggie Young on guitar, Jennifer Young on cello, Catherine Marx on keys, and bassist Mike Bub. Reggie Young in particular had a long association with Waylon, as he did with Elvis. And yes, Reggie and Jennifer are a married couple—set up by Jennings himself, after he told them, "You two are the loneliest people I know!" So Shooter and Jessi were far from the only "family" involved.
The new album came out Feb. 8, and Vol. 2 is scheduled for June 14, which Witt notes is the day before Jennings' birthday. The third (and maybe not final) volume is set for Oct. 25, a day before Waylon's and Jessi's anniversary—again, completely coincidental. Witt says 36 tracks have been cut, with more on the way or in progress, and with only 11 on this first set, there's a lot more to look forward to. Witt hasn't even revealed which stars are presumably at work on such classics as "Luckenback, Texas," "Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line," and "Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," none of which are on Vol. 1.
The albums are being released on Witt's own Scatter label, via a hookup with Big Machine, the home of Reba, Martina McBride, Jewel, and others. Might we get to hear the label's Taylor Swift going from "Mean" to "Lonesome, On'ry and Mean"? It might be a stretch, but we can always hope.
As for the plans of Waylon's immediate survivors, beyond this project:
Colter—who you'll remember from "I'm Not Lisa"—released her first album in two decades, Out of the Ashes, in early 2006, but hasn't been heard from much since. Now she's working on an album for Witt's label, with Patti Smith's longtime producing partner, Lenny Kaye. "Lenny envisioned this, but I couldn't figure out the right place to put it. So it's gonna be great because it's something that Witt is going to put out in the future." Jessi says she's been writing for three years, "with my peers and new young writers," the likes of whom include Rodney Crowell, Jessi Alexander, and country's It Girl, Miranda Lambert.
And the son also rises. "My old record that I put out last year, Black Ribbon, is actually being re-released the same day as this Waylon record—just coincidentally," he says. Plus, "I'm going in to the studio in less than a month to do another record that will come out this year. I feel like it could be a good year." A good one to make sure this outlaw bit keeps on getting out of hand, anyway.