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Published: 2013/10/09
by Brian Robbins

Old 97's & Waylon Jennings
Old 97's & Waylon Jennings

Omnivore Recordings

The first thing you hear is an electric guitar with a three-pack-a-day rasp, Duane Eddying its way through a twangy hook; the bass string – fretted at F – rings out, barking against the rest of the riff as it chases its tail to resolution. Another pass through and here comes the snap of the snare and the bawoop of the bass falling into position with a second six-string chugging out the rhythm as the lead guitar twangorams its way to a big open chord to end the intro.

And then comes the voice – that voice:

A hundred lists of reasons I keep ‘round
Why I never had a family
Why I never settled down
Why I’d sooner in the mirror see a hobo lookin’ low
But the reasons now escape me as I walk the iron road

And there’s no question about who that is, boys and girls: that’s ol’ Hoss hisself, Waylon Jennings – lost to us all back in February of 2002, but live and powerful here on “Iron Road” – one of two tracks recently unearthed from the vaults of the Old 97’s.

The backstory is a cool one that could have come right out of the pages of Head Neck Outlaw Country Comix, if there ever had been such a thing: young alt-country band (that would be the Old 97’s) plays a radio convention as they await the release of their debut album back in 1996; one of their heroes (that would be Waylon) is sitting in the front row during their gig – which blows the collective minds of the young band. Soon after said gig, the old hero brags up the young band to a big-league newspaper (that would be the Austin Chronicle), which doesn’t hurt their cause one bit. The band writes their hero a letter of thanks, summoning up the courage to add that if he ever wanted to make some music together …

Old 97’s & Waylon Jennings is a six-tune EP that offers up the results of an historic sitdown in a Nashville studio back in 1996 between Jennings and the Old 97’s (guitarist/vocalist Rhett Miller, guitarist Ken Bethea, Murray Hammond on bass and vocals, Philip Peeples on drums). To be clear, only the two opening cuts are from the multi-generational outlaw country summit – but the remaining four demos will tickle both newcomers to the world of the Old 97’s and longtime riders alike.

“Visiting Hours” is a stripped-down (guitar and bass) lurch through the world of a drunken wretch who sells “booze to kids now wearin’ my kid sister’s gloves … I don’t know what I’m doin’ any more.” The remaining three demos are tales built around leaving: the singer in “Fireflies” knows and admits he “got bit by the footlights/got caught in the headlights” a long time ago – and breaking his lover’s heart is the inevitable conclusion as he hits the road; Butler channels Woody Guthrie to let London know he can’t get out of there quick enough – “Great Britain, good riddance, goodbye” he sings; and even though he hasn’t left yet in “Born On A Train”, he’s well aware that he’s “been making promises I know I’ll never keep.” The arrangements are stark, but the emotions are solid – a lesson in the fact that attitude defines a genre as much as instrumentation.

For sure, though, the two collaborations with Jennings are worth the price of admission. The aforementioned “Iron Road” is a killer performance; you can almost hear the band’s nervousness in those opening moments – but the tune (written by bassist Hammond) and the arrangement fit Waylon’s vocal like a well-worn denim jacket. There had to have been some serious grins in the studio that day.

“The Other Shoe” is a mix of murder ballad and black humor as Jennings easily settles into the role of a cuckolded husband lying beneath the creaking bedsprings with a “blue steel .45,” who’s just “waiting for the other shoe to fall” before he takes care of business. The tale is told with the perfect mix of fact-of-the-matterness and twang: this is how it’s done, folks.

It’s a fine, fine thing that these cuts have been unearthed and made available. The downside is the inevitable wishing that Waylon Jennings was still with us; and the can’t-help-but-wondering about what else he and the Old 97’s might have done had they had the opportunity.

But we have this. And this is great.

*****

Brian Robbins twangorams around at www.brian-robbins.com

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