The Other Man in Black

Nashville Rebel, a Waylon Jennings retrospective, is long overdue. The four-disc CD musically chronicles Jennings' association with Buddy Holly, his arrival in Nashville on through the platinum-tipped Outlaw movement he headed through the '70s, and his work with the Highwaymen (the supergroup with Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson), along with his popping horse-felling amounts of Desoxyn and Desbutol, stopping only to begin inhaling half of Colombia.

Reared in a dirt-floor shack, Jennings began strumming a guitar while still just a kid, knowing it was his only way out of the hell that is West Texas. In 1954 he caught the ear of a lanky kid from Lubbock named Buddy Holly, and the rest is legend. In 1959 Holly and his friends were heading out on a chartered flight after a show, and after Jennings gave up his seat to the singer Big Bopper, he kidded with Holly, saying he hoped the "ol' plane crashes." It did. After escaping death "the day the music died," Jennings took to the road, trying to outrun his demons.

It was Holly who first informed Jennings he could sing pop, rock and country, though it took a good 15 years before Jennings believed it. The four-disc Nashville Rebel makes the rest of us believe it, too. Waylon's first cut on Nashville Rebel is a woeful slab of eee-nun-cee-ate-ed Cajun produced by Holly, the first in a string of songs in limiting genres produced by well-meaning but clueless producers, from Chet Atkins to Danny Davis. Disc one has Waylon being polished as folk-country, or else making haphazard amalgams like "Anita, You're Dreaming," the bastard child of Bob Dylan's "Ramona" and Roy Orbison's "Leah." Slowly the Nashville tradition of strings, charts, backup singers and session men descends on Jennings, until a bout of hepatitis in 1972 laid him up and led him to see the black light.


Waylon Jennings

Dressed much like his old Nashville roommate, Johnny Cash, and sporting a greasy beard and shades, Waylon emerged as country's Lash Larue. Fed up with smooth studio pros and smug producers telling him what songs to cut, Waylon was ready for a change. He wanted to showcase a tough new strain of songwriters like Steve Young and Billy Joe Shaver, as well as his own raucous band, the Waylors, so Waylon made a break from Music City's acceptable behavior, only to wind up as its first platinum-selling artist.

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Jennings played up that "outlaw" front, but he also heeded his spiritual forefathers (tipping his hat on "Bob Wills Is Still the King" or the meta duet with Bocephus about his daddy, Hank Williams, on Disc four's "The Conversation"). Like other cokeheads of the time, Jennings boosted the bass and kick drum on his albums until it throbbed and pounded like a jacked-up heart, revealing that the honky-tonk wasn't that far removed from Studio 54. Jennings peaks on the box's middle discs, before starting a slow creative descent, but it's hard to fault a legacy that includes not just Holly but a pre-punk stand at Max's Kansas City, as well as a subversive piping into American households each week via The Dukes of Hazzard.

The highs here are high indeed: On the title track to 1975's epochal Dreaming My Dreams, Jennings reaches far beyond country's confines; he's part Don Williams, part drugged drone. The latter powers Jennings' most trenchant cut, "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way." Humorous, critical, macabre and self-effacing, this chorus-less No. 1 hit is powered by the distended flange of two chords, physically evoking the unchanging continuum of classic country even as it sonically subverts it. It's how Hank -- and even Buddy -- would've done it. Nashville Rebel, the four-disc boxed set of remastered original recordings, is an RCA release.

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