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Willie Nelson & the Outlaws of Country Music

AUSTIN — It is a strange, almost schizoid vision in the white heat of the Texas noonday sun. From the open stage we look out into the aerial blaze, then down and out across the littered remains of a scrubland meadow wherein 70,000 children loll in their bare minimum plus beer, cooler, stash, cowboy hat, and auto keys. They have cast themselves adrift into the blissful squalor of the rockfest Good Life on this proud, official state of Texas governor-de­signated Willie Nelson Day, and Wil­lie is playing for them now. It is the Fourth of July. Pride is every­where — rebel yells, Texas Lone Star State flags, Willie’s name. Every­body looks to be having a very good time. Willie’s annual picnics are infamously stoned. Nashville is horrified. Willie is 42 years old, and he is singing about the pain of an old divorce — one of his own songs — with a lyric so depressingly accurate that while the music is quite thrilling and the song a masterpiece of form, you. still have only two basic choices if you know what it’s about: face the pain or hit the intoxicants and wallow in it.

The crowd hears this musical, wound in waves across the strewn meadow, and sways along, and there is an atmosphere of cozy, communal good feeling.

***

There are four basic forces at work here. First is Willie Nelson, who is country music’s most profound chronicler or life’s more-than-little ups and downs, and a hippie of sorts.

Second is Austin, Texas — population 350,000, 10 per cent black, 12 per cent Mexican, 50,000 college students, bastion of liberalism in cowboyland, chief industries education and government, chief sports football, politics, and music, a damn fine place to retire to (especially if you’re under 40) — which has clasped Willie forever to its bosom, and is also, not incidentally, the most enthusiasti­cally undiscriminating audience this side of the Vatican. Austin is to Nashville and country music in 1975 what San Francisco was to Los Angeles and pop in 1967 — a refuge and musical breeding ground: a Scene. Nobody records in Austin, nor does much business there. It is, simply a playground.

Thirdly, there is Nashville, which is everything that Austin isn’t. Though laced with a few watering holes for the “new” country scene (Waylon Jennings, Willie, Kinky Friedman, Krisanrita, Billy Joe Shaver, Tompall Glaser, Jerry Jeff Walker, Doug Sahm, Sammi Smith et al, most noticeably Tompall and Waylon’s sanctuary hidden behind Music Row), Nashville in general is not too receptive to the sound and image of the Country Outlaws or whatever you want to call them. That’s why Willie left town after a long career of feeding songs to the “stars” while his own records (and his own identity) were never given the promotion they deserved. Like he sings in “Sad Songs and Waltzes,” a song written in Nashville and addressed to an estranged lover: “I’m writing this song all about you … I’d like to get even … with you ’cause you’re leavin’ but sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year.”

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Nashville is caught in its own mess — basically a matter wherein country country music owns the so­cial ethic but none of the financial power, which is held by those record companies, artists, and publishing houses that are fortunate enough to be dealing in the highly lucrative business of country-pop. Country pop is anything that comes out of Nashville and makes it onto the pop charts — which means about five times the revenue you can make on a country chart entry. Country-pop is what has become known as “The Nashville Sound,” a formula for suc­cess in a cultural climate that leans towards music that is soft, instant, mellow, and catchy. Country-pop is Charlie Rich, Tanya Tucker, Johnny Rodriguez, Lynn Anderson, Donna Fargo: slick and smooth but none too profound. Country-pop is Nashville’s best bet for the future. In hard times like these, it is the only course which makes sense to the company accountants. And that leaves Roy Acuff, Hank Snow, Ernest Tubb, and many other Fathers of Country Music — the real, old-line honest stuff — out in the cold when it comes to record-pushing time. It also offends the hell out of the Outlaws.

In country-pop Nashville, hillbilly funk bites hard on its tongue in the cause of family entertainment and those big AM markets. It also labors under the weight of a private/public double standard which has come along with the popification of real, hard country music à la Hank Wil­liams and Jimmie Rodgers. You can say it to your friends, but you can’t sing it so’s the public might hear. And if, perchance, you are not of that particular persuasion, you can get shut out so quickly, and with such little apparent disturbance of the waters, that likely as not you won’t know it until the money dries up and the doors begin to close in your face. You can say that in Nashville, people can’t stand to be impolite. You can say it that way, or you can say that there’s enough hypocrisy in Nashville to make a rat puke. Laid-back Nashville is dead serious.

And in Nashville, there is a terrible shortage of places to play, to get that mainline fix of live audience acceptance. The Opry lumbers on within the framework of its own identity crisis, but the real picking gets done in studios, homes, and motel rooms. In Texas, it’s different. It’s also different in style. If you’re from Texas (like Willie and Waylon and Doug Sahm and Jerry Jeff and Billy Joe Shaver) you’re automatically OK. If you’re not but would like to be, it’s like Willie sings it on his new (and brilliant). “Red Headed Strang­er” album: “It’s nobody’s business where you’re going or you come from … You’re judged by the look in your eye.” Texas is the West, where intuitive mysticism rules from the bright white sky, and the unwritten laws are made to be broken with style. Nashville is like a hillbilly lawyer; Austin is more akin to the OK Corral.

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That was thirdly. Fourthly, there are the Nashville Outlaws themselves, who —with the exception of Nashville’s hard core of supreme talent (George Jones, Dolly Parton, Charley Pride, Hank Thompson, Conway Twitty, and the aforemen­tioned Fathers of Country Music)­ — are the only country artists worth constant attention. On the sidelines of musical worthiness, you can also count the small amount of country­-style talent that makes it through the L.A. record mill — currently Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris — and the few wild cards in Nashville’s deck (Mickey Newbury, Hoyt Axton, Jimmy Buffett, Johnny Darrell, Roger Miller, Jerry Lee Lewis, Moe Bandy, Freddy Fender, Stoney Ed­wards, Ray Stevens, and a few more. Then there’s Merle Haggard, who is a world unto himself and acts that way, and that’s about it.)

The Outlaws, though, are (being outlaws) a breed apart, and their place in the musical development of country music is, like their place in its current sociology, an interesting blend of past and future.

Whereas most of Nashville’s country-pop product is based on the simple, clean song structures of Hank Williams and cut with the influences of mainstream American pop, the Outlaws’ roots lie more in the direction of Jimmie Rodgers (whose blues influence was quite obvious and specific). Bob Wills (who first wed country and blues and jazz into a giddy, semi-free-form brand called Western Swing), and Elvis Presley and his cohorts at Sun Records (that’s rockabilly: country meets r&b). That’s the past. The futuristic elements of the Outlaws’ work are futuristic only insofar as they go beyond majority Nashville’s development. Mainly it’s a matter of instrumentation. recording tech­niques, and lyrical content. Put up against modern rock/pop music, the Outlaws’ style is distinctly “old”­ — more akin to Elvis end Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins than Elton John or the Rolling Stones. Put up against modern Nashville pop, their style is hard, spare, and honest. No banks of violins (they use fiddles now and again); no Jordanaires; no oceans of brass. The Outlaws go further back into country’s roots and further for­ward towards basic rock & roll than most country musicians dare or would want to. Theirs is a meetmg between the hard musical core of country and the more sophisticated lyrical sensibilities of modern rock.

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While the most popular Nashville country-pop songs are created by a well-worn process whereby the songwriter’s mind is lit up by some everyday experience or current so­cial theme and then, by a form of déja vu resulting in the solid-gold realization that this happens to everybody, moved to write a country song (with hook, and keep it simple), the songs chosen by the Outlaws are usually quite specifically personal and not at all facile. They reflect a complex reality hitting psychologi­cal home base on multiple levels with a subtle emotional economy. To put it more simply, the Outlaws’ ranks are filled with American poets. Put together with the music — straight c&w, blues, Tex-Mex, West­ern Swing, and rock & roll — the the result is music that moves you as it moves you. The Outlaws chronicle the hard edges of American life and sing the psychology of white soul, no holds barred. They do for the country what Lou Reed does for the city. The suburbs take care of themselves.

The Outlaws will take their songs from wherever they can get them (including genuine freaks like Shel Silverstein and quite a few other well-educated converts to their ranks, plus the more sophisticated Nashville mainstays like Harlan Howard), but Billy Joe Shaver, Kristofferson, Bob McDill, Alan Reynolds, Steve Young, Lee Clayton, Tompall Glaser, and Jack Clement are the outstanding writers of the genre. Currently, Waylon Jennings must be considered its most compelling onstage performer. Willie Nelson, however, is the one man in whom it all comes together. I’d make a case for Willie being the best songwriter working in America — bar none, in any field — at the drop of a hat. And thank God for whatever kept him alive until he hit Austin and found some kind of personal peace.

***

Willie Nelson is a calm, decent man, a pillar of quiet strength, a survivor. His life history reads like some appallingly accurate soap opera of the mind and his songs — especially the older ones like “Hello Walls,” “Ain’t it Funny (How Time Slips Away),” “Night Life,” and “Touch Me” — chronicle its progress like so many late-night barroom crises. Now Willie moves amongst a  family of supportive personnel — some of whom may shoot each other occasionally, but what the hell — ­that’s Texas — and we are faced with the prospect (already realized in “Hands on the Wheel,” the joyous finale of the “Red Headed Stranger” album) of hearing his genius applied to both sides of the life-and-death game. Listening to “Red Headed Stranger” — the almost unbearably poignant, superbly performed tale of a cowboy who murders his sweetheart and her new lover, wanders the land in a black rage (“Don’t boss him, don’t cross him, he’s wild in his sorrow, he’s riding and hiding his pain. Don’t fight him, don’t spite him, just wait for tomorrow. Maybe he’ll ride on again”), and eventually finds happiness with new woman­ — you are struck by three basic thoughts. First is the fact that this particular musical masterpiece is the best cowboy movie since “High Noon.” Second is the realization that Willie and his gut-string, Spanish­-style amplified Martin are wedded more comfortably and with greater emotional impact than any other musical combo that comes to mind. Third is the image of Willie’s smile.

***

It is dark now on the Fourth of July. Doug Sahm has floated “Mendocino” out into the crowd and made us happy that he’s still making music even if he has given up on the music business. The Pointer Sisters have sashayed through their act with stunning styles, blowing quite a number of lily-white minds. Krisanrita are hidden away in the dark someplace, having made out once again in the eternal Willie Nelson Picnic backstage Winnebago contest. The Charlie Daniels Band has provided enough boring boogie to flatten an elephant. The picnic pro­moter is trying to persuade his guards to let him through the stage door. And news of Jack Clement’s move from Nashville to Austin has given rise to intriguing speculations on what might happen if he gets it together to build a superior recording studio out there on the ranch. Willie, bless him, is smiling. ❖

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Outlaws as Oligarchs: Waylon and Willie Outsell ’Em All

Last month RCA’s Outlaws, an anthology of cuts by Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Tompall Glaser, and Jessi Colter, outsold Bob Dylan’s Desire, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Gimme Back My Bullets, and various other pop heavyweights; it also outsold every country album on the market.

Irony flourishes in an industry of schemes. For more than 50 years, country music has had a thirst for the pop charts, a thirst that has been satisfied by such men as Vernon Dalhart in the 1920s, Gene Autry in the 1930s, Eddy Arnold in the 1940s, Elvis Presley in the 1950s, and Johnny Cash in the 1960s. But in recent years that thirst became a spectacle of gaudy desperation, as country music devolved shamelessly into Easy Listening. When Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors,” the classic middle-of-the-road country song, crossed over to the pop market, country music rushed to imitate its success. The ensuing kitsch did little but alienate much of the existing country market, and things got so bad, so hideously bland that Chet Atkins, one of the people guilty of changing the music to middle-of-the-road mush, did gentle penance by apologizing publicly for what he had done.

Enter Willie Nelson and his first Columbia album, Red Headed Stranger. Made at an out-of-the-way studio in Garland, Texas, at a cost of only $3000, Red Headed Stranger was all that country music had ceased to be: hard edges and inner graces. There were people at the company whose brains puked at the thought of releasing such a record, but Willie won out by agreeing to cut his next two albums in the accepted fashion if Red Headed Stranger failed to make money. The album was released in October 1975. It hit the top of the country charts, then it went high on the pop charts, as a single from the album, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” (which Elton Britt had recorded in 1945), became the biggest crossover hit since “Behind Closed Doors.” And that’s how Willie Nelson, after 17 years of moiling against the country music industry’s grain, finally took the wheel.

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Willie and others whom the industry had considered freakish growths upon its Dresden-doll skin were now given credence and respect. Teeth went tight with wrath in 1970 when Kristofferson showed up in street clothes to accept his CMA award for “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” but at the 1975 awards ceremony similarly unorthodox behavior by Waylon Jennings was loudly applauded. The day of the outlaws had come.

There are true tales about many of the old-line country singers, tales of gunplay and whisky and dunes and dunes of Benzedrine and high-heeled caravans of open-mouthed girl-things, garish Iliads of honky-tonk excesses that are rarely encountered except in Don Siegel movies. But these men were never considered outlaws, for they never allowed their personal lives to tint their public images. You either stayed in the closet or you repented publicly, as Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard did. If you fucked up, the consequences were grave, as Hank Williams discovered when he was thrown off the Opry. These were the grievous angels Gram Parsons spoke of.

Nothing those old-timers did pissed off the industry as Kristofferson had in 1970 with his sins against decorum. There he stood, the most successful songwriter of the season, and he just didn’t seem to give a fuck. This surly yanking at the paternal dewlap, this was outlawry of a kind that none of the old-timers would have dared. But you can’t throw someone off the Opry if he’s never cared about being on it. Within a year, Kris had become a star beyond reprehension. His “Me and Bobby McGee,” which had been a country hit for Roger Miller, became a pop hit for Janis Joplin in the summer of 1971, and when Kris’s second album, The Silver-Tongued Devil and I, was released that same summer, it crossed over to the top of the pops.

Five years earlier that could not have happened, but by 1971 the cultural paradigm was changing. White suburban punkdom pushed aside its pretensions of social conscience as one would a copy of “Raised Skirts and Bare Buns” after jerking off. The ’60s were an embarrassing diary in the eyes of the ’70s, and Black Sabbath and Lou Reed were the sound of that diary burning. In a way, Kristofferson was also. Kids who a few years before had affected a vicarious identification with the culture of colored folk now began adopting the ways of the redneck eidos.

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When Willie Nelson started performing with younger, rock-bred people on their mutual Austin turf in 1972, the thrill of benediction was felt. Willie convinced his friends, such as Waylon Jennings and Tompall Glaser, that these long-haired kids were a great country audience, and they too began performing for the kids. Austin became to country music of the ’70s what San Francisco was to rock of the ’60s, a college town turned secondary music capital, and in Michael Murphey’s “Cosmic Cowboy” the scene found its anthem. Willie and Waylon started making music as they had rarely done before; albums such as Waylon’s Honky Tonk Heroes and Willie’s Phases and Stages ooh’d and yelled with freedom.

Staring plainly if numbly at the overwhelming success of Willie’s Red Headed Stranger, the country music corpus could no longer ignore the weird beast that had grown within its stomach, so it accepted it as it has always accepted success. Industry people looked back on Kristofferson without anger and told anyone who would listen that they knew Willie way back when and what a good old boy he was.

These guys are oligarchs now, not outlaws, and to consider them outlaws in 1976 is silly except as nostalgia. A battle was fought and the good guys won, it’s as simple as that. The effects of the victory are many and glorious. Willie Nelson, the William Carlos Williams of neon, hadn’t had a Top Ten country record since 1962, and now he’s the most popular country singer in America. Waylon Jennings, who had always had hits but had never really let loose, is now making the best country music the world has heard since the ’50s. Tompall Glaser, the most innovative and knowing country artist of recent years, is finally getting some of the recognition due him. And, perhaps most important, a lot of the older artists who had been seduced into a more middle-of-the-road sound are easing back toward the source. George Jones told me last month that his next album will be done without orchestral frills or any other sweetening, and I think when he and producer Billy Sherrill make that album, more people will become aware of what George Jones is: the greatest singer alive.

But the romance that has replaced the reality of the outlaws is starting to give off an ominous, electric odor. An outlaw establishment threatens. Texas Music, a slick Dallas monthly which published its first issue this month, will not publish any negative comments about the outlaws, a policy that reeks of the ways of such established fluff-rags as Country Song Roundup and Music City News. During the early months of 1976, industry people cased out Austin, and it is more than probable that a less manicured extension of the music establishment will be seeping into Texas before too long. I shuddered when RCA mailed out plastic, made-in-Korea vests with the Waylon logo stenciled on their backs. Will personae of outlawry be affected like so many Nudie suits? Will new teeth gnash when Ernest Tubb shows up in suit and tie to accept his award of recognition from the Outlaw Music Association?

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It’s depressing to hear kids in Austin, kids supposedly swept away with interest in western swing, tell about how great the Light Crust Doughboys were. The Light Crust Doughboys were an awful band, sort of like the Archies of western swing, and none of those kids have ever heard a Light Crust Doughboys record or they’d know it. The mystique for them is more important than the music. They say they love western swing, but sitting totally ignored in a Houston apartment, playing his fiddle for an audience of furniture and wallpaper, is 61-year-old Cliff Bruner, the greatest western swing veteran alive.

Some came out of the outlaw scuffle empty-handed. Bobby Bare tried his best to fit in with the desperados, but made the mistake of loading his pistols with Shel Silverstein songs. Billy Joe Shaver, one of the most gifted songwriters involved in the scene, went berserk with his own image and his recent music resembles a large, bragging saddle sore. Tom T. Hall, in the midst of it all, went and recorded a song that included the line, “I love little baby ducks.” David Allan Coe, the Joey Gallo of Country Music, remains an acquired taste, like Carstairs and Coke.

Willie, Waylon, Tompall, and the others who fought and won the war against blandness love country music as much as Hank Williams did, and they make country music better than Hank did. That’s why I hope they don’t end up heading down the wrong highway, or find themselves like John Lee Hooker, totemized on a stage before a mass of ceremonially appreciative trails.

Besides, there is work still to be done. I suggest that all pardoned outlaws unite to wreak God’s will: Amnesty for Jerry Lee Lewis!

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Shooter Jennings

The outlaw-country scion bombed in a big way with 2010’s concept-rock experiment Black Ribbons, a record which the Times’s Ben Ratliff memorably described as “rampagingly awful, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that Waylon Jennings’ son returns to what he knows best on the upcoming Family Man. Get a sneak peek tonight.

Mon., March 5, 2012

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Country Music, Faded Stardom, Liquor, and Age in Crazy Heart

Yesterday’s honky-tonk hero, Bad Blake, arrives at a Clovis, New Mexico, bowling alley. It’s another in a string of low-paying, low-turnout gigs with pickup bands half his age, grinding the Greatest Hits out of an old Fender Tremolux, including his breakout—with the chorus, “Funny how falling feels like flying . . . for a little while.” Bad’s not flying these days; he’s dying slowly on a bourbon diet, holed up in motels watching Spanish-language smut.

Actor turned writer-director Scott Cooper adapted Crazy Heart from Thomas Cobb’s 1987 novel (the title is a Hank Williams B-Side). Cobb wanted Waylon Jennings for Bad Blake; Jeff Bridges finally got the part, though the now deceased Waylon and Bad’s other inspirations hang over it. Jennings’s “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” gets soundtrack play; Bad’s shabby-romantic look recalls Kris Kristofferson, his perpetual hangover, “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.” The movie never specifies but seems to take place around ’87, before cell phones eliminated distance, with the sad orneriness of country music more evident than it is today. It’s easy to forget, as Billboard’s Country charts fill with faintly twangy pop and lazy paeans to dogs and trucks, that this music has an atavistic darkness. Cobb wrote while Jennings was just detoxing from decades of storied self-abuse and Johnny Paycheck was serving time for a barroom shooting.

Bad has just about bottomed out when a small-time journalist, Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), meets him for a rare interview—and sticks around. Crazy Heart follows the slow recovery of atrophied emotional responses that starts when Bad gets involved with Jean and her young son.

Cooper knows exactly when a scene’s over, fills his movie’s margins with distinct bit players (Beth Grant’s middle-aged groupie, Rick Dial’s pudgy part-time keyboardist), and is a smart custodian to Bridges’s Bad Blake. The part is a vindication of Bridges’s unaffected talent and is his best in years. He’s as good a reactor as actor, so patient and sedentary that his performance’s quiet ache sneaks up on you when he’s doing nothing more dramatic than settling onto a barstool. Bad recites his age as a refrain—”I’m 57 years old”—and it seems Bridges has lived them all. It’s in the habitual gestures, the way he negotiates with a mic stand and passes a drink from his chest to the bedside table with a coil of the wrist—for Bad is usually sprawled and splayed.

The physical effects of Bad’s drinking are almost luridly seen, lingering over his dry heaves, the soft, pale torso, his gut spilling out of his often unbuckled pants. The spiritual attrition feels harsher, as Cooper contrasts huddled, dank interiors with the big sky outdoors, and shows that the saddest thing about being a drunk is the memories that go missing. Jean worries she’ll disappear in a blackout, too. Gyllenhaal, usually badly used and badly lit, doesn’t make a false move here. Their June-November relationship works because of her lucidity and Bridges’s easy-come charm. (An improbably virile career alcoholic, Bad is used to drifting into women and doesn’t have to bully.)

Bad’s other love—estranged—is Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), a former sideman, protégé, and surrogate son who has eclipsed his old boss’s fame, selling out amphitheatres. You expect a showbiz grotesque, but when they reunite, Sweet is deferential toward Bad, embarrassed by their switched fortunes and maybe what the old man thinks of his cheesy-rakish Nashville makeover (he rather daringly wears a pair of dangly earrings). The duet, a spiritual-conversational tradition in country music, gives them one great, anxious scene. Having hired Bad as an opener, Tommy sneaks onstage to sing with him. He thinks he’s supporting the old man; Bad resents having the biggest stage he’s seen in a while being stolen and hates himself for envying the younger man. No one says any of this. It’s all implicit in their exchange of glances, and epitomizes the movie’s double-sided look at the relationship between private feelings and public performance.

In its attention to stage dynamics, Bad’s dickering with sound guys, and the distinct personalities of his different pickup bands, Crazy Heart shows a rare knowledge and respect for real, played music. Robert Duvall’s interest in country is long-standing—his first directorial outing, We’re Not the Jet Set, was named after a George Jones–Tammy Wynette song. He plays Bad’s hometown bartender and confessor with casual perfection, and is among the producers. Another is T-Bone Burnett, who wrote and arranged the film’s songs with Stephen Bruton, a longtime Kristofferson collaborator who died this year. They sound like feasible hits; Bridges and Farrell sing their own parts—and well.

Made with Country Music Television money, Crazy Heart‘s winding road to Sundance avoided the superficial novelty of the “indie” market. The subject, rehabilitation, is old and resonant. (Says Waylon: “We’ve been the same way for years/We need to change.”) No scene feels obligatory, and Crazy Heart shows a pragmatic but tender understanding of the relationship between physical breakdown and the discovery of morality. It’s merely a well-done, adult American movie—that is to say, a rarity.

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Offend in Every Way

With the unexpected and rousing success of the Blue Collar Comedy Tour bringing bawdy, boys-only redneck humor back into the national spotlight, it’s more than a little strange to see the equivalent male stars of popular country music increasingly demurring, growing ever more sincere in their courtship and storytelling. Matinee idols like Keith Urban, Josh Turner, and Billy Currington treat love with reverence and casual sex with happily polite tact: When the former goes bad it’s cause for weeping and wallowing, while the dissolution of the latter usually spawns nostalgia or a cosmic c’est la vie.

Consequently, what seems to be getting rarer is charmingly boorish shit-talk, the rough and manly joking of the barroom and honky-tonk that hearkens back to Jerry Jeff Walker, David Allan Coe, and Hank Jr. (not to be confused with Brad Paisley and Joe Nichols’s current fratty shtick, which isn’t actually funny). Even Toby Keith, the obvious heir apparent to that slyly crude lineage, has lately been getting big blue notes and claiming he ain’t as good as he once was.

Whether this is savvy marketing meant to please the ladies or just more fallout from the p.c. wars is uncertain, but it practically guarantees there won’t be a mass audience for Shooter Jennings’s wonderfully coarse breakup ballad “Aviators,” wherein the proudly homely son of outlaw legend Waylon Jennings leaves his lady stranded at the Waffle House, subsequently adding insult to injury by hitting on the poor girl’s mother and, conveniently, forgetting to tell her he shot her dog.

It’s just one wickedly humorous moment of many on Jennings’s second album; elsewhere, Jesus posts Shooter’s bail, and later, Jennings laments that “all your heroes turned out to be assholes.” It’s a near given it won’t sell as well as the hunks, but you get the sense Shooter couldn’t care less, considering how strung out and weary the modicum of fame he’s earned so far seems to have made him.

Growing up the scion of outlaw country’s first family (mother Jessi Colter was outlaw’s lone visible female and just released a fine new record herself), Shooter seems none too eager to emulate his daddy’s outsize stardom, even going so far as to cover Bocephus’s fame-sloughing classic “(The) Living Proof.” Most likely he’d have been happy plying his beloved Southern rock in perpetual obscurity, only the sounds of Skynyrd and the Stones got trendy again and now Shooter’s doing battle-scarred songs about drugs and groupies when he’s only actually had one minor hit to date. Electric Rodeo lacks anything so anthemically pleasing as “4th of July,” the Mellencampish rocker that got Jennings’s unsightly mug on CMT for a few weeks last year, and that probably suits Shooter just fine. Nashville ain’t been the place to git-r-done lately anyhow.

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Music

Sifting through a passel of more and/or less current country reissues—redundant or worse are Warner Bros./Rhino’s one-disc Randy Travis, HighTone’s Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore best-ofs, RCA’s Ultimate Clint Black and John Anderson and Jerry Reed Country Legends, and the mawkish Love Songs Epic/Legacy laid on George & Tammy—I found two for the A shelves. Ultimate Waylon Jennings is for we who think BMG’s title-by-title reissue program makes less sense than the Black Sabbath box (although 1978’s I’ve Always Been Crazy sounds sane enough). Beyond “outlaw,” nobody ever specifies what Jennings does and doesn’t do with his strained, resonant, masculine baritone—his “Me and Bobby McGee” is uglier than Kristofferson’s. But on sure shots you can forgive him his pain. Highlights include the belated “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand” and the wounded “The Taker,” a Kristofferson song about a lady some other slimeball done wrong. Dwight Yoakam, of course, is that slimeball. Although there was no such thing as purist honky-tonk before he came along, now there is, and in controlled doses it’s as sharp as the crease in his crotch. The 20 selections never tail off, and neither does Yoakam’s voice as it transports Buck Owens from the flats of Bakersfield to the Blue Ridge mountains of your mind.