Reissues take us way back with Waylon

Wednesday, January 27, 2010 at 10:45pm
The late, great Waylon Jennings

Among Chet Atkins’ numerous astute signings, none proved more monumental than his decision to give an unheralded vocalist and former rock bass player from Texas a deal in the late 1960s.

Atkins recognized the potential in Waylon Jennings long before he became the man who almost singlehandedly changed the direction of country music through the outlaw movement. Despite a masterful, booming baritone voice and his brilliance as a storyteller, Jennings hadn't found his niche during the '60s before joining forces with Atkins.

After a brilliant RCA debut release Folk Country, which was just a straight hard country record, Jennings began cutting a series of albums that eventually made him the label’s top performer.

And now, six of Jennings’ formative RCA releases have been reissued on three tremendous “two-fer” CDs from Collector's Choice. Though not structured in the manner of Jennings’ later albums (Atkins operated with a singles mentality and had Jennings cut lots of songs he later cobbled together, albeit in an inspired fashion, to make LPs) they still contained plenty of superb music.

The first CD features Folk Country and Waylon Sings Ol' Harlan. Both offer vital Jennings renditions of Harlan Howard classics. These range from "Another Bridge to Burn" and "What Makes a Man Wander" on Folk Country to "Busted," "Heartaches by the Number," "Sunset and Vine" and "In This Very Same Room" on Ol Harlan. There's also an early version of Jennings' "I'm a Man of Constant Sorrow" later immortalized in the Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou? plus energetic treatments of songs Howard co-wrote with Buck Owens ("Foolin' Around," and "Tiger by the Tail."

These LPs established Jennings' credentials, while Love of the Common People and Hangin' On cemented them, even though the material wasn't always resolutely country. Love of the Common People includes Waylon's take on Mel Tillis' "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town" (in my view better than the Kenny Rogers' hit), along with a Lennon/McCartney tune ("You've Got To Hide Your Love Away").

Hangin’ On gave Jennings a Top 10 hit. Hangin’ On is anchored by a nice performance of another Howard classic "The Chokin' Kind" (though Joe Simon's fabulous soul cover proved the definitive number), and also presents a different approach to "Gentle On My Mind." However it was the heartache numbers that prove most memorable, especially "I Fall In Love So Easily" and "Looking At A Heart That Needs A Home."

The final two albums — Waylon and Singer of Sad Songs — were key transitional works.

First, Chet Atkins did not produce either one. Danny Davis produced Waylon and Lee Hazlewood took the proceedings to Los Angeles for Singer. Secondly, these releases made it clear Jennings was looking for something different conceptually from what other performers were doing. He still did his share of conventional country material, but also dipped into vintage rock 'n' roll (Chuck Berry's "Brown Eyed Handsome Man"), R&B (Chris Kenner's "Sick and Tired") and even folk (Tim Harden's "If I Were A Carpenter").

Most importantly, through this six-album run from 1966-1970, Jennings was shaping his delivery and songwriting, while gradually demanding the right to craft full statements rather than crank out hits.

Jennings would eventually form a full-time band, take command over all aspects of his music, team up with another legend — Willie Nelson — for a series of commercial hits, and eventually become a country immortal.

The tunes on these three reissues illustrate the steps he made on the way to that plateau, showing both the triumphs and failures along the way.


Thomas triumphs

Another outstanding vocalist from Texas who found major success in Tennessee (and other places) was B.J. Thomas. He could have done any type of song and made it unforgettable, though he thrived more in the pop field than anywhere else.

Thomas had a beautiful, instantly identifiable sound, a quality that made his hits both radio friendly and memorable. Besides dominating Top 40 throughout the late '60s and early '70s, Thomas worked with a host of ace producers, among them Huey P. Meaux, Chips Moman, Buddy Buie and the epic duo of Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

A series of four new Collector's Choice reissues, comprising eight total LPs, gather the Thomas' catalog from 1966-1973. These albums were recorded in Tennessee, Texas, Alabama, California and New York for the Scepter label. Besides the long array of Thomas hits like the Oscar-winning "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head," "Hooked on A Feeling," "Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song," and "I Just Can't Help Believing" are solid covers of soul, rock, folk and even an occasional gospel number.

The cuts on these discs contain performances that show B. J. Thomas' range and versatility. While his many smash numbers will always be fondly remembered, the thematic diversity and consistent vocal excellence shown on these discs is what's most impressive.