Let Us Now Praise Famous Rednecks:
Waylon Jennings, Honky Tonk Heroes and
the Past, Present and Future of Country Music
By Mark HuddleOn the face of it, the story sounds apocryphal. An unknown songwriter named Billy Joe Shaver is hanging out pulling guitars with friends when a country music legend, Waylon Jennings, hears him singing and announces on the spot that he wants to make an entire album of Shaver's songs. The record that finally gets made is an enormous hit, and signals a sea-change in the way albums get made in Nashville. And oh yeah, it also touches off a musical movement that resonates to the present.
Like most good stories, there's a lot of truth in that tale about the making of Jennings's Honky Tonk Heroes, the record that gets a ton of credit for birthing the "Outlaw Movement." By just about any measure, it is a classic recording that announced Jennings's emergence as a country music superstar and established Shaver as a songwriter to be reckoned with. Honky Tonk Heroes offered a corrective to the slick and syrupy production of the so-called "Nashville Sound" that predominated in country music in the 1960's and early '70's. It was an artistic declaration of independence that harkened back to classic honky tonk while at the same time embracing a modern rock and roll sensibility that appealed to an important new cross-over audience. Honky Tonk Heroes jettisoned the strings and chorale back-up singers that were ubiquitous on Nashville recordings. Its production sound was austere; its arrangements simple. Shaver's songs about life's losers--the "old five and dimers"--resonated with both hardcore country fans and counter-culture types who recognized the fierce independence in Shaver's characters and who, like those characters, too often had felt the sting of defeat. Jennings's chance "discovery" of this grizzled muse contributed, of course, to the album's legend.
What tends to get lost in this oft-repeated description of the record's aesthetic impact is the story of the unusual business practices that created the conditions for its making in the first place. After all, stories about artists in rebellion against the commercial machine are far more romantic than those dealing with accountants, lawyers, and the Internal Revenue Service. It has been thirty-five years since the release of Honky Tonk Heroes. That anniversary is as good a reason as any to revisit the story. But then again tales of the past that don't help us to understand the present--even a little bit--are little more than antiquarian conceits. The fact is there was no mention of the album as its birthday came and went; no anniversary edition with attendant booklet and DVD. Maybe I missed them but I didn't see any editorial commentary in the music magazines or on the websites. Let's face it, Nashville pays lip-service to history and tradition but its track record in celebrating its old lions or its seminal recordings is abominable. So let us take a moment to praise famous rednecks, those "old five and dimers like me." It's a damn good story and I suspect there's a lesson in it about contemporary Nashville.
Historians of the American South have spilled barrels of ink describing the twisted economics that prevailed in the region after the Civil War, especially the terrible system of debt peonage that trapped poor farm families--black and white--in a seemingly endless cycle of poverty. No matter how much they produced, it was never enough to pay rent to the landowner and satisfy the annual bill at the general store. There were always some hidden costs that never seemed to be satisfied. "But don't you worry, sir, we'll just roll those over onto next year's bill and you can pay us then." One year of debt bled into the next and the years rolled on. This was a very different kind of involuntary servitude. Now I have no intention of riding this analogy too long or too hard. But I have never seen any of those histories that traced those sorts of economic relationships into other parts of Southern life. When you look at the economics of Nashville Country circa 1973, it sure as hell smacked of debt peonage.
The favored modus operandi of the Nashville record companies was to sign a singer or songwriter to a contract early in their career. They'd promise to put out their record and keep the band out on the road. But the byzantine structures--and notorious multi-track accounting practices--of these deals made it nearly impossible to follow the money trail. And that, of course, was the point. The artist could sell out every show and his or her LP's could fly off the shelves but once packaging fees, studio costs (even though the companies had their own recording facilities), legal and accounting fees, and the overseas split were figured in, there was nothing left.
Willie Nelson remembered that every six months, the company would send out a remarkable document called simply "the statement." According to Nelson, the statement was impossible to decipher. "You'd get your statement" he recalled, "and be excited and open it to see how much money you'd made--and find out you owed the record company $50,000. Instead of being semi-rich, you'd suddenly have to scramble for money to pay your income tax." 1 But no worries, the company was always there to bail you out. They'd offer an advance on the next record--so long as the artist was willing to re-negotiate their contract at terms preferable to the company. Country music artists were trapped in this seemingly endless cycle of debt and always beholden to their corporate masters who eventually ended up owning everything including their songs. Nelson also remembered that no one got burned worse by the system than Waylon Jennings.
By the early '70's, Waylon had already been in the business for well over a decade. Despite some hit records and constant touring, he always seemed to be Nashville's "Next Big Thing." He had a crack touring band, the Waylors, whose tight, rocking sound was forged on the honky tonk circuit but company executives refused to allow him to record with them, preferring session players of their choice. In 1972, Jennings contracted hepatitis and nearly died but unfortunately he'd hit rock-bottom in more ways than one. As he remembered it, "My health was shot, I was close to a quarter of a million dollars in debt, and getting deeper in the hole whether I played shows or not. The IRS was on my tail. I was paying alimony to three wives. If I went out on the road I lost money. If I stayed home, I lost more." 2 Jennings knew he was hemorrhaging revenue but despite having a team of company lawyers and accountants explaining things to him (or because of it), he never knew who owed what.
What really made Jennings bristle was the way company executives would dismiss questions about their business practices. "[W]e were supposed to be aw-shucks country boys," Jennings wrote in his memoirs. "They thought we were stupid, that we were so thankful to be able to play guitar and sing, so grateful that they gave us our start, and were happy they were there when we needed them, as long as we didn't ask for any real power or look to closely behind the scenes." If you kept your mouth shut, you were kept in the harness, you were still allowed to record and tour. But if you didn't, you were cut loose. Of course, Waylon wasn't the only country artist frustrated by the lame trajectory of his career. Willie Nelson had already left RCA and moved his base of operations back to his home state of Texas. Jennings too was seriously considering leaving the music business behind, returning to his former home of Phoenix, Arizona and resuming a career in broadcasting.
But of course, he never left Nashville. Instead, Jennings's salvation appeared in the person of Neil Reshen, a fast-talking New York attorney and business manager who was introduced to the artist by a band-member. After spending an afternoon winding his way through Jennings's contract, Reshen announced what everyone already knew- that the musician was being royally screwed by RCA Records. As Waylon's new manager (he was soon representing Willie Nelson as well), he began the process of re-negotiating the singer's complicated contractual relationship to his record company. Reshen's earlier experiences in the music industry had driven home to him a fundamental point--that country musicians and rock musicians were treated very differently. Where country musicians were kept on a tight leash and the company micro-managed nearly every aspect of the production process, from choosing the session-players to the cover art, rock musicians had nearly complete artistic freedom. So long as they made hits, they could write their own ticket. That was the type of contract Reshen wanted for his new client. That was the contract that Waylon Jennings received. When the dust settled, Jennings had an agreement that included a $75,000 signing bonus and near-complete artistic control over his records. Reshen also convinced the company to re-negotiate the touring contracts and soon Jennings and band were turning a profit on the road.
Much has been made of the revolutionary changes ushered in by Jennings's wind-fall. The relationship between corporate country and their artists was never the same. But it would be a mistake not to recognize that the wind had already started to blow in that direction and in a sense, Jennings was simply the first to benefit from those changing weather patterns. For instance, when Willie Nelson embraced self-exile rather than continue playing the Nashville game, RCA paid him little mind. Nelson returned to Austin just in time to witness the birth of a new music scene. He fell in with the crowd running at a new performance space--the Armadillo World Headquarters. At the Armadillo, Willie saw Texas rednecks mixing with hippies, truck drivers drinking with local bankers and lawyers partying with college kids. He had the prescience to recognize a potentially huge cross-over market. So it made perfect sense when Nelson shocked the Nashville establishment by signing with Atlantic Records' new Nashville division. If you wanted to appeal to a broader, rock-oriented audience why not sign with a label that had made countless rhythm and blues and rock hits? Suddenly RCA realized that not only had they lost Willie Nelson but they were on the verge of losing Waylon Jennings as well. Under those circumstances, they were much more willing to meet Reshen's terms than they might have been otherwise.
That cross-over audience was instrumental in the success enjoyed by the Outlaw Movement. It was a natural fit. Jennings noted that he'd been "mentally rockin' and rollin'" for years. "It was an attitude as much as a music," he wrote, "and we were rock and roll in everything but our allegiance to country." He had played rock clubs in Los Angeles and New York City where he'd shared the stage with Kris Kristofferson, Gram Parsons and Bob Dylan. But it wasn't just about the music. He talked about rock's influence "in a broad sense, from onstage production values like carrying sound and lights to such luxuries as roadies." He laughed when he remembered that, as late as 1972, he and his band were still dragging their own equipment into shows. Big rock provided a template for both artistic freedom and commercial success.
It was that same recognition that in the spring of 1972 inspired a group of Dallas promoters to organize the Dripping Springs Reunion--an enormous outdoor festival envisioned as a "redneck Woodstock." Dripping Springs, which featured performances by Kristofferson, Tom T. Hall and Loretta Lynn, seemed to confirm Nelson's belief that country's traditional audience could co-exist with the denizens of the counterculture. The festival was a commercial disaster but Nelson took up the idea and turned it into an annual event billed as "Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Picnic." More importantly, it was at Dripping Springs that Waylon Jennings discovered the songs of Billy Joe Shaver.
At the time, Shaver was a struggling Nashville songwriter pulling down $50 a week writing for Bobby Bare. It was a rough existence. Shaver was often reduced to living on Bare's office couch. In a town full of characters, Shaver had a talent for weirding people out. According to Jennings, "They thought Billy Joe was from outer space when he first hit Nashville." But he knew how to write a country song and he quickly made a believer out of Bare, who championed Shaver's work to anyone who would listen. Bare convinced Kris Kristofferson to cover "Good Christian Soldier" on his Silver Tongued Devil and I album and Kristofferson was so impressed by Shaver that he agreed to produce his Old Five and Dimers Like Me record for the Monument label. Unfortunately, Monument was a sinking ship. The album sat on the shelf for a year and then the company went bankrupt. Shaver returned to his home state of Texas to appear at Dripping Springs, no longer sure his Music City dreams were tenable.
All that changed backstage at Dripping Springs. Jennings later claimed to be a little hazy on exactly what transpired that day commenting that "Billy Joe remembered all that better than me." For his part, Shaver recalled sitting in front of a backstage trailer pulling guitars with some other musicians. "When it got to be my turn," Shaver has written, "I started playing ‘Willie the Wandering Gypsy and Me.' I heard this commotion in the back room of the trailer, and Waylon Jennings came busting out of there flying high on God knows what." 3 Jennings demanded to know if that was Shaver's song. When Shaver said it was, Jennings declared his intention to do an entire album of the songwriter's "cowboy songs." A good many people might have chalked Jennings's declaration up to chemically-fueled bravado, but for the desperate Shaver, it was an opportunity. According to Billy Joe, "Waylon forgot about his promise as soon as he made it, but it was the only thing I had going for me."
No way it was going to be that easy. Shaver stalked Jennings for six months. His phone calls and letters went unanswered. He knew he was being stonewalled and it enraged him. It'd be easy to accuse Jennings of going back on his word except that the stakes had dramatically changed. It was an immense gamble to record an entire album of songs by a songwriter that no one had ever heard of. So neither man was in the mood to dance when Shaver finally cornered Jennings during a recording session. By then, Waylon had quite the entourage made up mostly of bikers who seemed drawn to the outlaw image. They were none too pleased when an irate Shaver confronted Jennings and announced, "I got these songs and if you don't listen to them, I'm going to kick your ass right here in front of everybody." In fact, it was Billy Joe who was about to take a beating when Jennings dragged him into an adjacent room. An intense conversation ensued during which Jennings agreed to listen to one song. If he liked it Shaver could keep playing. If not the songwriter could hit the bricks. By the end of "Old Five and Dimers," Jennings was hooked.
When I started thinking about this piece, I made a pact with myself to avoid the quagmire of superlatives that inevitably comes with trying to write about great record albums. Trust me, that is not easy when you slam up against classic songs like "Honky Tonk Heroes," "Low Down Freedom," and "You Ask Me Too." There is an eerie coherence to the album. As Jennings later recalled, "His songs were of a piece, and the only way you could understand Billy Joe was to hear his whole body of work." And as great as those songs are, it is the sound of the record that is so distinctive. If Waylon and Billy Joe made their names with HTH, then co-producer Tompall Glaser was their "fifth Beatle." For Glaser and Jennings, less was most decidedly more. All of the artifice was stripped away and what remained was a ringing clarity. Years later Jennings still marveled at what they achieved in the studio. "It was so rugged, with mistakes and bad notes," he wrote, "that it hardly sounded finished; but it was as simple and to the point as I could make it. There was no mistaking what the songs were about. On ‘Ain't No God in Mexico,' there wasn't more than three instruments. You didn't need a twenty-piece orchestra. It was all there."
Of course, RCA disagreed. Convinced that the finished work would be a commercial disaster, they tried to dissuade Jennings from releasing the album. When that didn't work, they lobbied to have a song of their own choosing added to the record. And yes, it featured the ubiquitous string section that defined the "Nashville Sound." Ironically, it was that song--the Donnie Fritz and Troy Seals penned, "We Had It All"--that was the first single. That's right, the first single from this Jennings-Shaver masterpiece was the only song not written by Shaver (it should be noted that Billy Joe loved the song and said that he wished he had written it). Maybe Jennings was hedging his bets, but he never commented on his reasons for consenting to the insertion. "We Had It All" went to number twenty-eight on the country charts. The album's follow-up, "You Ask Me To," cracked the top ten and the album crested at fourteen. Most of the songs on Honky Tonk Heroes became Outlaw anthems. A new sound was born, a new musical movement begun, the record-buying public got it, and so finally did the record companies.
This past July 2008 marked the thirty-fifth anniversary of Honky Tonk Heroes release. The date passed unremarked upon. You can bet if it was a Pink Floyd album there would have been a massive roll-out of an enhanced CD with all the appropriate bells and whistles that a historic rock record deserves (in fact Piper At The Gates of Dawn celebrated its fortieth and got that exact 'happy birthday' treatment). Icons such as Johnny Cash and Hank Williams will occasionally warrant the special edition treatment as the Folson Prison collection and Williams' box set from this past year attest.
But then Cash's late-period resurgence under the tutelage of Rick Rubin--after Nashville corporate kicked him to the curb--has generated a legend all its own. Don't forget that Cash's renaissance began in the Jennings-inspired Highwaymen after he, Jennings, Kristofferson and Nelson fell from grace with country radio. The fact is Nashville's embrace of its own history and tradition has too often been only so much lip service--part of its marketing formula and branding. It is an attempt to create an illusion of historical continuity so lacking in substance as to be rendered meaningless. In the meantime, failed folksingers and cowboy wannabes are deciding who the next "Nashville star" will be; washed up rockers and fading pop icons are all getting their two-step on and the music slides towards mediocre pabulum.
Too harsh an assessment? Perhaps I'm just a curmudgeonly purist horrified by what those young whippersnappers are doing to my music? Actually I came to my love of American country music relatively late in my life. So consider this: in January, the Nielson Company's annual report on music sales appeared. I'm surprised they haven't renamed that report, "The Death Rattle." Amidst the litany of woe about declining music sales industry-wide, Nashville arguably took the worst hit of all. Even with the Taylor Swift phenomenon, total country music sales declined 24 percent in a one-year period, 2007 to 2008. Given the 2007 numbers were the worst in the nineteen years that the report has been published, this year's numbers are very nearly catastrophic. Only classical music did worse (hopefully that means we won't have to worry about a Darius Rucker string quartet album). Worse yet, despite the steady increase of music downloads and ringtones, which accounted for a 10 percent growth in overall music purchases, country's digital sales actually declined 8.6 percent. It does seem that whatever Nashville is selling no one is buying.
In many ways, timing is everything. Part of the power of Honky Tonk Heroes lay in the cultural context in which it was produced. It stood comfortably at the crossroads of art and commerce. Waylon Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver, and Tompall Glaser reminded Nashville that you didn't need a symphony orchestra to sell records. It was okay to feature slide and pedal-steel guitars and harmonicas, to sound country. They also showed the rock audience that country artists shared their values--their beliefs in rugged individualism and personal freedom--and could make foot-stompin,' good-time music as well. There is a lot to be said for honesty. Waylon Jennings and his cohorts pointed a way forward by having the courage and conviction to look back, to embrace tradition.
All my cheap-shots aside, there have also been some signs of life coming out of Nashville. The accolades for George Strait's Troubadour show that someone out there is still listening. Likewise Jamey Johnson's recent That Lonesome Song may just be the best country concept album since Willie's Phases and Stages and his repeated referencing of Waylon demonstrates a keen sense of where he comes from and with any luck where he's going. There is always hope that as Nashville moves forward and tries to craft a strategy in these desperate times, they too will err on the side of honesty. It has worked before and it will again. Besides, what they're doing now sure isn't working.
1. Willie Nelson (w/ Bud Shrake), Willie: An Autobiography (NY: Cooper Square Press, 1988), 143.
2. Waylon Jennings (w/ Lenny Kaye), Waylon: An Autobiography (NY: Warner Books, 1996), 171.
3. Billy Joe Shaver, Honky Tonk Hero (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005), 32-33.
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