When Country Got Real
In the part of the world that I’m from, a fondness for country music is looked at with uninhibited distain. Especially amongst musicians, it’s a character flaw to own anything other than maybe a little Gram Parsons. If one record could shatter these preconceived notions it’s Honky Tonk Heroes by Waylon Jennings.
By 1973 Jennings’s had been fighting for creative control with labels for over a decade. RCA had forced him to use the studio musicians and producers that were the standard in the Nashville scene at that time, much to Waylon’s displeasure. So after a string of Top 40 hits, he renegotiated his contract with the stipulation that he had complete creative control over who and what appeared on his albums. Honky Tonk Heroes is the second record released after this renegotiation and his biggest critical, if not commercial, success.
What separates Honky Tonk Heroes from Waylon’s previous efforts is not only his work on the production end, but his decision to use his road band to record a studio album. The musicians have the unmistakable feeling of a group who know each other’s tricks from years of touring together. This is something that no assortment of session cats can duplicate, talented though they may be. The rhythm section pushes ahead of the beat in a way that is unusual and exciting in a country record, propelling songs forward and creating the momentum that keeps the album feeling fresh, from the first song to the last. Meanwhile the lead instruments sound as though they’re in no rush, moving slowly and casually from one phrase to the next. On top of all this Waylon sounds almost content. Like he’s come a long way and waded through a lot of bullshit, but he’s finally got the band and the sound he wanted from the beginning.
Most of the songs on Honky Tonk Heroes are written by Billy Joe Shaver, at the time an all but unknown songwriter. It’s his lyrics, and Waylon’s interpretation of them that makes this an iconic album. Up until this point no one had released a country album this directly philosophical. While many country artists had confronted very real themes, poverty, heartbreak, struggle in all of its forms, only a handful of songs deal with such sophisticated subject matter as Shaver’s. In “Old Five and Dimers Like Me” he writes:
I’ve spent a lifetime making up my mind to be,
More than the measure of what I thought others could see…
It’s taken me so long but now that I know I believe,
All that I do and say is all that I ever will be.
This is a major departure from the typical Country music perspective. Up until then, Country songs were about stoic and stalwart characters, they were allowed to be vulnerable, but only if they were lonesome, or if a loved one died. So Shaver saying he’ll be as honest and upfront as possible, keeps Waylon’s character believable and, more to the point, human.
LORENZO WOLFF is a musician living in New York. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org