Waylon Jennings - vocals, guitars, banjo; Ralph Mooney - pedal steel guitar; Gordon Payne - lead guitar; Rance Wasson - guitars; Barny Robertson - keyboards; Jerry Bridges - bass; Richie Albright - drums; Guest: Jessi Colter - vocals; Guest: Hank Williams, Jr - guitar, vocals; Guest: Jerry Reed - guitar, vocals
With a career that lasted half a century and spawned no less than 16 number one singles, few artists have had as important an impact on modern country music as Waylon Jennings. Born in Littlefield, Texas, Jennings dropped out of high school to become a DJ at the age of 15. He moved to Lubbock and became close friends with Buddy Holly, who was also his musical mentor. Holly taught Jennings how to play guitar and bass, and encouraged him to become a writer and singer. Jennings left radio to record for Brunswick Records in 1957, with his first record produced by Holly himself. When Holly needed a new bass player for the Crickets in 1959, he called Jennings, who took the gig. On February 3rd, Jennings gave up his seat on a small private plane that was scheduled to carry himself, Holly, and Ritchie Valens to the next gig. The other star on the tour, the Big Bopper, had the flu, so Jennings infamously let him take his seat on the four-seater plane, which ended up crashing and tragically killing all three stars.
Jennings re-emerged in the 1960s as a country star with the help of Chet Atkins, who signed him to RCA Records, where he would remain for over a decade. He relocated to Nashville during an era of rather strict corporate policies, but determined to have his creative freedom, he began broadening the scope of country music by embracing elements of rock music and using his road band in the studio, both highly discouraged practices in Nashville at the time. This rebellion against Nashville corporate traditions and production formulas (in addition to his well publicized embracement of illegal substances and battles with addiction) became a critical aspect in the development of his "outlaw country" persona. It was Jennings' determination to have complete artistic freedom that was also embraced by friends and musical collaborators such as Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard that established the "outlaw country" genre. In time this would have a profound impact on subsequent generations of country songwriters and musicians, creating a new blueprint for much of modern country today.
This 1983 performance, recorded at the epicenter of country music, Opryland, is a perfect example of Jennings blurring the lines between country and rock before a Nashville audience that has now come around to embrace his way of doing things. With a setlist emphasizing much of his strongest material of this era as well as paying tribute to many of his own influences, this is an exciting performance that starts off cooking and burns the entire time Jennings is on stage. From the opening number, "Don't You Think," to the set-closer, "(I'm A) Ramblin' Man," Jennings and his well-seasoned road band tackle a wealth of great material with several special guests dropping by to join in the fun.
The first half of Jennings' set serves as a nice sampling of his 1970s/early 1980s repertoire while simultaneously recognizing several great songwriters. In addition to "Don't You Think" which kicks off the set, Jennings spices up J.J. Cale's laid back "Clyde," Bob McDill's "Amanda," Jimmy Bryant's more classic country flavored "Only Daddy That'll Walk The Line" as well as putting his own spin on Little Richard's "Lucille," which would hit #1 a few months prior. Joe Rainey's "Breaking Down," another Top 10 hit that year is also included, as is his popular theme song for The Dukes Of Hazard television show and one of Jennings signature songs, "Luckenbach, Texas (Back To The Basics Of Love)."
The second half of the show features several guest joining Jennings on stage, beginning with his talented wife, Jessi Colter, on a compelling duet performance of "Storms Never Last." However, the centerpiece of this performance is a three-song tribute to the groundbreaking country musician, Hank Williams. Helping Jennings out is Hank Williams, Jr, which makes this sequence all the more special. Interestingly, rather than pay tribute by performing Hank Williams' songs, they instead perform numbers that are all written in tribute to Williams, beginning with "The Conversation," a song written and recorded by Jennings and Hank Williams, Jr., that literally is based on a conversation between the two about Hank Williams, Sr., that would also hit big that year. The two also tackle a choice pair of songs that explore the struggle for artistic freedom and Hank Williams, with "Leave Them Boys Alone" and "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?" All three of these songs are superb performances that also serve to link the three generations of country music groundbreakers.
As Jennings begins heading toward a close, he delivers two major crowd-pleasers with "Mamas Don't Let You Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys," one of the most unforgettable songs on his 1978 Waylon and Willie collaboration album followed by a sizzling version of Rodney Crowell's "I Ain't Living Long Like This," which by this point had become one of Jennings' signature songs. For the last two numbers, Jerry Reed joins Jennings on stage and together they tear it up on readings of the classic soul number "Hold On, I'm Coming" and "(I'm A) Ramblin' Man," songs also recorded for Jennings' 1983 albums, It's Only Rock And Roll and Waylon & Co. These songs serve as a high-energy conclusion to a remarkably strong set.
Despite this being the tail end of Jennings most challenging years (he would finally win his battle with his addictions the following year), this was still a highly productive and prolific phase of his career. Jennings' legacy has come to be defined by his determination to follow his own path and create music on his own terms and the results are perfectly encapsulated in this live Opryland performance.