(Note: Don’t worry, boys and girls, don’t worry – there’s a jam here, I promise. I’m not going big-hat country on you; just wanted to share a recently-remembered example of the emotion of the moment overcoming the cut-and-dried … when the jam grabbed the wheel and took things right down over the banking and into the puckerbrush with a great big “YEEEEEEEEEEEEHAWWWWWWWWWW!” I think it was a recent viewing of the movie Crazy Heart that primed the mental pump on this one, if you want to know the truth.)
April of 1978 it was, a Maine spring after a horrid Maine winter – the kind where the “Police Beat” column in the local paper is full of bizarre acts of gunplay and cannibalism and the funeral parlor gets overbooked with the weak who couldn’t make the long climb up what the older folks call “March Hill”. People crawled out of their no-longer snowed-in homes, all bleary-eyed and grey-skinned – just thankful to be alive. It was a time to take a big stretch, like gummy-eyed lizards in the return-to-life warmth of the sun. Shake off the weirdness. Maybe have a beer. Or even better, maybe have a beer and go hear some live music. (The needles had worn right down through the winter’s stash of records – and most everybody’s 8-track tapes were now scattered alongside the road, their guts spewed out in big tangled gobs all over the dirty, half-melted snowbanks.)
It was my older brother Stevie who’d gotten the tickets to see Waylon Jennings up in Bangor. He was the big Waylon and Willie Nelson guy – although there was enough of an anti-establishment aura around both of those characters to appeal to me, too. It was ol’ Waylon and Willie who brought mainstream attention to the “Outlaw Movement” in country music – a push to allow artists to have a hand in the production and marketing of their own music, rather than have it sculpted and packaged in a Nashville-approved form. (Their freaky-by-Grand-Ol’-Opry-standards hair and beards and dope references in their lyrics were not Nashville-approved back then.)
Doesn’t matter how old I get – my brother Stevie will always be my older brother by 14 years … and my big brother, as well. Since I peaked out at 6’4” or so, I think we’ve been about even in height, but he has always cast the much bigger shadow. (Maintaining a good 100-lb. edge on me has a lot to do with it.) “Tuck in behind me,” he growled as the throng of general admissioners began to shuffle in through the doors of the Bangor Auditorium. Displaying a fleetness of foot similar to Dancing Bear on the old Captain Kangaroo shows, my brother rocketed into the main hall, nailing a couple of seats for us right in front of the stage – without making bodily contact with a soul. We were set.
Waylon’s backing band – the Waylors (I know, I know) – opened with a short set on their own, then backed Jessi Colter (Mrs. Waylon) for a few tunes. When the man himself made his way to the mic stand a few feet in front of us, he looked just like the outlaw we’d come to see – faded jeans and already-sweat-soaked shirt, hair screeched back and poking out from under his cowboy hat like a freak trying to pull it together long enough to secure a car loan at the local bank.
Waylon wasted no time – he slammed a cord home into the jack on his white-and-black-leather-jacketed Telecaster and took off into the first song with barely a hello. In fact, there wasn’t a whole lot of acknowledgment of the crowd at all by ol’ Waylon for the first few numbers; he just belted out the lyrics and dug into that Tele on the breaks.
Outside of Telecaster chatrooms, you don’t often hear much discussion of Waylon Jennings’ talent as a guitarist, but let me tell you something: the man was a player, fo’ sure. If you really put an ear to what he was doing, it was more than just country chickin’ pickin’ – there were shades of blues and some not-to-be-denied rock and roll, too. (Remember, this is the same guy who was Buddy Holly’s bass player back in the ‘50’s.)
The Brothers Robbins, being pickers ourselves, were both taken by Waylon’s bursts of Telesquall – although they were way too abbreviated for our tastes – and vocalized our approval. This was yet another area where my brother outweighed me, as his bellows in response to Waylon’s riffs were like something that only the average African safari-goer would ever hear.
Even ol’ Waylon, deep into what he was doing and plowing through the setlist, couldn’t ignore my brother’s roars. The first few times, he responded with a John Belushi-like raised eyebrow, never looking up. Somewhere around the fifth or sixth song, he shot a glance directly at Stevie while taking a second to wipe the sweat out of his eyes with his sleeve. There was just the hint of a “You’re likin’ this shit, ain’t ya, Hoss?” grin, then Waylon burrowed into the next verse.
It was during “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” that things took a turn. Now you’ll note that I haven’t bothered to mention any song names up until this moment – that’s for two reasons:
First, I don’t remember.
Second, I’m guessing you probably wouldn’t know most of them anyway – BUT – you might know “Hank” from the reissued version of Uncle Tupelo’s Anodyne. (It’s one of the bonus tracks tacked on the end.) Tupelo does a good job with their live version, but they hadn’t lived it at that point … but ol’ Waylon had. Oh, yeah.
Looking every bit as beat-to-shit-by-the-road as the song’s soul, Waylon launched into “Hank” with a fire he hadn’t shown during the earlier numbers. Now, I’m not going to claim that he was gunning for my brother, but it sure seemed like when Waylon dug into the guitar break after the last verse, he was shooting a look our way now and then. Up until that point, most of the songs had been played pretty close to the original arrangements – if they were 3:28 long on the album, I doubt that we got much more than that on that April evening. But something happened during “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” – the jam took over.
The original lead on “Hank” featured some fierce snatches of Tele picking; on stage in Bangor that night, Waylon just absolutely let it rip. You could tell the band wasn’t expecting their boss to cut loose – they exchanged looks of “What the hell?” at first, then just went with it, letting the churning rhythm of the song roll on its own. The drums got looser and wilder and the bass began banging the gears and driving the jam up a long grade without losing a bit of steam. (Speaking of steam, I swear it was rolling off Waylon’s back – whether it was the coke or the stage lights, the man sure could sweat.)
Pulling some formation flying that I would’ve guessed they didn’t normally get a chance to do, Waylon and the Waylors brought the thing down to a low rumble and then let it loose again. Was it my brother’s roar or a slat of Waylon’s head that flipped his hat off? I couldn’t say for sure now – and nobody cared then. They just absolutely played the living shit out of that song, finally bringing it to a crashing, thrashing, gasping-for-air end.
Ol’ Waylon grabbed his hat off the stage and plunked it back down over his sweat-soaked mane, giving my brother a “Don’t make me do that again, Hoss” look.
And a little bit of a grin.
Waylon Jennings left us in February of 2002. Heart trouble and diabetes made the home stretch tough, but he never lost his spirit (he went cold turkey on that old devil cocaine way back in 1984). He recorded his last album in January of 2000, a live collection entitled Never Say Die. I’ve never put an ear to it and there’s a part of me that’s in no hurry to.
When I think about the man, I like the memory of the jam that helped melt those dirty snowbanks down back in the spring of 1978.