Waylon Jennings – Singer of Sad Songs/ The Taker – Tulsa/ Good Hearted Woman/ Ladies Love Outlaws: Album Review

A new look at the pioneer Outlaw’s early ‘70s albums – four classics from the legendary Waylon Jennings.

Release Date:  16th July 2021

Label:  Morello Records

Formats: 2CD

Waylon Jennings will be known to many At The Barrier Regulars – as a pioneer, along with the likes of Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash et al of the Outlaw movement in country music; perhaps as the writer, interpreter and performer of early alt-country classics such as Ramblin’ Man, Bob Wills Is Still the King and Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way, or, depending upon your age and TV viewing preferences, for his cameo appearances in Sesame Street or as the balladeer in The Dukes of Hazzard.  Whatever the means you’ve used to gain your familiarity, you’ll realise that Waylon Jennings is one of the all-time top performers of country music, an assertion backed up by Rolling Stone magazine, which ranked Waylon as No.7 in its poll of the 100 greatest country artists.

Born in June 1937 on a dirt farm near the town of Littlefield, Texas, Waylon started to learn guitar at the age eight.  He formed his first band, The Texas Longhorns, whist still at school and was signed as a recording artist by fellow Texan Buddy Holly in 1958.  So impressed was Holly by his young protégée’s musicianship, that he hired him to play bass in his touring band as he embarked on the ill-fated Winter Dance Party Tour in January 1959.

The story of the Winter Dance Party Tour is, of course, one of rock music’s most enduring tragedies.  To travel from Clear Lake, Iowa to Moorhead, Minnesota, Holly chartered a four-seat Beechcraft Bonanza aircraft and invited Waylon, plus, after the toss of a coin, co-headliner Richie Valens to join him on the plane.  However, another member of the tour’s entourage, J.P.Richardson – better known as The Big Bopper – was suffering from flu, and Jennings agreed to let The Big Bopper take his place on board.  We all know what happened next – the plane crashed shortly after takeoff in the early hours of 3rd February 1959 and all on board – Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, The Big Bopper and the pilot – were killed.  Unbelievably, the tour continued, with Waylon taking Buddy Holly’s place as the band’s lead singer.

The crash had a deep impact upon Waylon and the sense of guilt he felt (just before takeoff, he had jokingly suggested to Holly, “I hope the plane crashes…”) haunted him for the rest of his life and, in all probability, was a factor in the substance abuse that followed Jennings through his career.  He relocated to Phoenix, Arizona, in the early 1960s and, after a frustrating period during which his releases on first, Trend Records and, later A&M, failed to find success, he signed with the RCA label in 1965 and relocated once again, this time to Nashville.

Success proved less elusive with RCA and Waylon enjoyed a string of hits during the mid to late 1960s, including Only Daddy That’ll Walk That Line, which reached number two in the American singles chart in 1968 and his version of Jimmy Webb’s classic, MacArthur Park, which made number 23 in 1969.  This success paved the way, and prepared an anticipatory audience, for the four albums that comprise this double-CD set – Waylon’s first four albums of the 1970s.  All four albums met with some level of success: 1970’s Singer Of Sad Songs and 1971’s The Taker/Tulsa reached number 23 and number 12 respectively in the US album charts, whilst the singles taken from those sets, Singer Of Sad Songs, The Taker, Mississippi Woman and (Don’t Let The Sun Set On You) Tulsa all saw singles chart action. 

The 1972 albums, Good Hearted Woman and Ladies Love Outlaws were no less successful but, by this time, Waylon Jennings was beginning to feel the constraints of Nashville, constraints he expressed in a 1972 interview in which he was highly critical of the way that the Nashville “establishment” imposed its expectations of dress, presentation and musical stylings.  This dissatisfaction was the trigger for Waylon to move towards his fellow Outlaw clique and to the success that culminated in a 37-year career, 100 chart singles, 60 chart albums and his 2001 induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

But for now, let’s stop the clock in those days of the early 1970s, and explore what Waylon Jennings was up to then…

Well – Waylon may have dismissed these albums back in the day, but I think he was being over-critical with himself.  There really are some pleasant surprises in this collection and it’s interesting to watch how Waylon’s style progresses as his control over the choice of material increases, album by album.  Disc One of this set comprises the two earlier albums, Singer Of Sad Songs and The Taker/Tulsa. 

For Singer Of Sad Songs, the majority of the production duties were dispensed by Lee Hazlewood and the songs are all covers, but even here there are some fine moments.  The title track is a bright, conventional country song with a gospel feel as the vocal harmonies come in on the chorus, Jimmie Morris’s Time Between Bottles of Wine is an early indicator of the direction that Waylon would be taking as he gained control of material selection – a slow, blunt ballad of a heartbroken looser, and the version of No Regrets, a Tom Rush song, demonstrates just how much presence can be wrung from an acoustic guitar, a soft drumbeat and an incredibly strong voice.

There’s an intriguing take on The Stones’ Honky Tonk Woman, which Waylon strips right down to its bar-room basics although I can’t help thinking that this version would be even better without the over-shrill backing vocals in the chorus; but it’s with Tim Hardin’s If I Were A Carpenter that Waylon really nails it. He manages to mellow the sometimes hard-edge to his voice and the acoustic guitar and organ backing provide a perfect fit.

And that’s not all – She Comes Running, a Lee Hazlewood song, has some nice jangly guitars, Donna on My Mind is a country rock song that is easy to imagine being covered by The Burritos and Rock, Salt and Nails is a jaunty country waltz with Waylon and Lee Hazlewood duetting on the vocals.

The progression between Singer Of Sad Songs and The Taker/Tulsa is clearly evident.  For the latter album, which forms the second half Disc One, production duties had shifted to Danny Davis and Ronny Light and it’s clear that Waylon was calling the shots with regard to material.  There are four Kris Kristofferson compositions (or co-compositions) included and Waylon’s path to the Outlaw gang was starting to become visible.  This is particularly the case with The Taker, the original album’s opening track, in which acoustic guitars and a prominent bass provide the backing to (what was to become) a typically self-deprecating lyric. 

Failure, heartbreak and self-hate are common themes in any Waylon Jennings collection and The Taker/Tulsa is, arguably, the album on which this pattern first emerged.  Wayne Carson’s (Don’t Let The Sun Set on You) Tulsa, Kristofferson’s Casey’s Last Ride and Sunday Morning Coming Down and Don Gibson’s (I’d Be) A Legend in My Time are all excellent examples of this and all are performed with convincing angst. 

But, for me, the two songs that turn The Taker/Tulsa into something quite special are Lovin’ Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again) (another Kris Kristofferson song) and Six White Horses.  Lovin’ Her Was Easier…, a gentle acoustic number, is probably my prime pick from the first disc – there’s some marvelous bass playing and Waylon’s vocal, and the tasteful backing harmonies, are both spot-on.  Bobby Bond’s Six White Horses is a poignant anti-war song, narrated from the viewpoint of a bereaved father and, again, Waylon nails the vocal perfectly.

Disc Two of this set accommodates those 1972 albums – Good Hearted Woman and Ladies Love Outlaws.  By this stage in his career, Waylon was beginning to emerge as a songwriter in his own right, although cover versions continued to predominate.  His choice of material was veering ever more closely to future co-conspirators Willie Nelson and the ever-faithful Kris Kristofferson, as well as bringing in selections from the likes of Tony Joe White, Hoyt Axton and Buck Owens.

Good Hearted Woman, the album that forms the first part of Disc Two is the stronger of the two; the backing harmonies that were occasionally a little incongruous on the first disc of this set had been honed and fitted well with the songs, the choice of material was pretty well faultless and Waylon was achieving a vocal delivery that had lost the last vestiges of that hard-edge, without loosing any of its presence.  Production was now almost entirely in the hands of Ronny Light, and the mutual understanding between performer and producer is evident.

Once again, Good Hearted Woman is an album that opens with its title track, one of Waylon Jennings’ all-time classics.  A familiar tale of a faithful partner being given the runaround by a philandering husband, it’s a song built upon what would become familiar as Waylon’s signature 2/2 bassline, and the harmonies really do add something special. Harland Howard’s One Of My Bad Habits is a bouncy country number that would be well-received in Bob’s Country Bunker, the redneck bar in The Blues Brothers movie.  It would sound clichéd beyond belief in anyone else’s hands, but somehow Waylon manages to pull it off.

Waylon employs light-touch guitars and just a smattering of bass and drums to emphasise his delivery of the excellent Willie and Laura Mae Jones, a song written by Tony Joe White that deals with displacement from home, and then goes on to emulate Roy Orbison in his vocal for Willie Nelson’s It Should Be Easier Now.  Waylon’s own Do No Good Woman is another highlight – the 2/2 bassline is back and further colour is added by the tasty harmonica and pedal steel touches.

Elsewhere on Good Hearted Woman, Waylon emulates fellow-traveler Johnny Cash on I Knew You’d Be Leaving, another song that is illuminated by some exquisite pedal steel, as is old favourite Sweet Dream Woman.  Kris Kristofferson’s fascinating To Beat The Devil – spoken word with a cleverly worded chorus – was the closing track on the Good Hearted Woman album. An interesting and enjoyable set that gives plenty of clues of where Waylon would be headed before the 1970s progressed much further.

Waylon’s follow-up album, Ladies Love Outlaws, could, then, be considered as something of a backward, or at least a sideward, step.  The choral harmonies that had become such a strength on Good Hearted Woman started to be overdone, and the choice of songs – so inspired on the earlier album – was far more hit-and-miss.  Sure, there are some great moments; The opening title track is an enjoyable, tongue-in-cheek acoustic singalong, Hoyt Axton’s Never Been To Spain has some excellent harmony singing, more tasty pedal steel and some wonderful guitar parts and Mickey Newbury’s hobo tale, the slow, broody Frisco Depot has some real high points

Waylon himself contributes two songs, the thoughtful Sure Didn’t Take Him Long and the divine I Think It’s Time She Learned, a song which, after some of more outré meanderings elsewhere on the album, brings Waylon back to doing what he does best – delivering a county weepie in which he is, once again, on the receiving end of his flighty partner’s indiscretions.  I was left wondering why more of Waylon’s own compositions hadn’t featured – wasn’t he writing much?  Or were his built-in quality control instincts a little too zealous?

Whatever the reason, there are some songs on Ladies Love Outlaws that would have been best avoided.  Bobby Braddock’s Revelation is a clichéd yarn about a man whose trip down Satan’s stairs is diverted in the nick of time by a dream in which he is confronted by a disappointed God; the gospel-flavoured Delta Dawn is pleasant enough but still cliché-ridden and, perhaps strangest of all, Waylon chose to include his cover of Eurovision composers Phil Coulter and Bill Martin’s Thanks (Congratulations, Puppet On A String and The Bay City Rollers’ Shang-a-Lang were other examples of that team’s handiwork…)  Actually, Waylon probably does a better job with Thanks than did Bill Anderson who scored a massive hit with the number, but the reasons for including it here remain a mystery.

It’s a blessing, then, that Ladies Love Outlaws and, indeed, this entire collection, is ended on a high note.  The Dusty Rhodes/Buck Owens number, Under Your Spell Again, performed here as a powerful duet between Waylon and his wife of the time, Jessi Colter is a solid and highly enjoyable closer.

So – to summarise – this reissue includes three excellent albums and one that’s a bit of an oddity, so that’s not a bad return.  The four albums that constitute this collection are appearing on CD for the first time and this is a package that will appeal to the many Waylon Jennings completists, to those with familiarity with his later, more popular material and, most crucially, to anyone with a liking for well-produced, well performed country music.

As for Waylon – well – the powerful voice with a rough-edge that shunned any compromise was to become his signature sound.  Number One albums and singles such as This Time, The Ramblin’ Man, Dreaming My Dreams and Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way became the order of the day as the 70s moved along.  Later still came collaborations with his old buddies, Messrs Nelson, Cash and Kristofferson and, unfortunately, struggles with amphetamines and cocaine.  Always a heavy smoker, he developed Type II diabetes during the 1980s and, after a long illness during which he had his left foot amputated to allow his blood to continue circulating, he passed away on 13th February 2002 at his home in Chandler, Arizona.

But WHAT a legacy he left.  The likes of Asleep At The Wheel, Hank Williams Jr, Cody Jinks and The Marshall Tucker Band all owe massive debts of gratitude to Waylon Jennings and country music, and, in particular that offshoot variously known as Western Swing or Texas Swing would be in a very different place with the lasting influence of Waylon Jennings.

Watch Waylon Jennings perform Good Hearted Woman, the title track of one the albums featured in this collection – Live in Nashville – here:

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