An All-Star Lineup Pays Tribute to Waylon Jennings
By Deborah Evans Price
© 2011 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association, Inc.
Few artists have built a more colorful or compelling legacy than Country Music Hall of Fame member Waylon Jennings. His maverick spirit and artistic integrity continue to inspire today’s Country talent even after his death in 2002, as documented on The Music Inside: A Collaboration Dedicated to Waylon Jennings.
Produced by Witt Stewart, Founder/CEO of the online music retailer ScatterTunes, the project consists of three CDs to be released over the course of a year by Stewart’s Scatter Records in partnership with Big Machine Label Group.
The idea came to Stewart during a visit to his hometown of Lubbock, Texas. “I stayed with my mom, and during that period I started reflecting on my life,” he recalled. “You do that when you go back to the same house you were raised in. I started remembering the early days of getting into music and how much I loved Waylon. There was some inspiration from what was going on with Johnny Cash, which he deserves, but I thought, ‘We need to shine a light on Waylon.’ So that was my goal — to bring Waylon to a new generation.”
Jennings’ widow Jessi Colter offered her support after a meeting with Stewart. “It was the song that he asked me to do, the fact that he had researched it and knew what Waylon had said about it, that it never had gotten its due,” she explained, referring to “Mama,” which she recorded for a later disc in the series. “It also got my attention that he was really ahead of the curve on Internet marketing, his knowledge of the technology that it’s taking now to get to the masses. I knew he had something special to offer.”
Next, Stewart contacted Scott Borchetta, President/CEO, Big Machine Label Group, with whom he had worked previously on a deluxe digital version of Taylor Swift’s Speak Now sold exclusively at Target. “The first Country Music that really appealed to me personally was Waylon and Willie (Nelson) in the late ’70s,” Borchetta said. “That was the music that drew me into the business, so the opportunity to be able to work with Jessi and Witt made all the sense in the world.”
Plans for The Music Inside soon expanded beyond the original idea to feature 16 to 18 songs. “Witt just couldn’t stop cutting,” Borchetta said. “He’d find somebody else who was a huge Waylon fan, who he and Jessi wanted to be included, so all of a sudden he’s getting close to 30 songs.”
Rather than pick which tracks to shelve, Kelly Rich, VP, Sales, Marketing & Interactive, Big Machine Label Group, came up with the three-CD plan. “We didn’t want to have somebody feel like they were just one of 30 songs that were cut,” Borchetta noted. “We felt it was a better way to salute these great songs and the artists who gave their time and appreciation on the performances for all this music. It felt like the best way to represent it was a series, not just throw it all out at once and hope people discover it. In this opportunity, we have three release dates to cut through and engage people.”
With Jennings’ longtime guitarist Reggie Young playing on every track, all of the artists were encouraged to put their creative stamp on their songs (all of which were written by Jennings unless otherwise noted below) and co-produce their recordings. “It was really always about the artist,” Witt said. “Things just happened, like with Sunny Sweeney: I’d always wanted to do ‘Good Hearted Woman’ (written by Jennings and Willie Nelson) with a woman singing it, and the more I got to know her and listen to her voice, I thought it would put Waylon’s stamp on it to have Jessi sing with this new artist. I just love the way their voices blend, even though they are so different. Then in the studio, Sunny said, ‘The first song I ever recorded in my life was a demo to get gigs, and it was “Good Hearted Woman.”’ Those little things happened over and over.”
Colter demurred from picking any favorite performances on the album, but she did admit having a soft spot for “Belle of the Ball,” recorded by her and Jennings’ son Shooter, and Trace Adkins’ take on “You Asked Me To” (Jennings and Billy Joe Shaver). “I can only listen to it at special times because it really gets to me emotionally,” she said, quietly.
She does like the way Stewart added Jennings’ vocals to John Hiatt’s version of “Just to Satisfy You” (Jennings and Don Bowman). “I loved John Hiatt doing that and then Witt being able to know how to apply Waylon to that track and the tempo being exactly set,” she said. “We didn’t know if that was all going to work. Going into something like that, you’re just not sure. You’re hoping for the right outcome, but these things have turned out actually better than we would have wished for.”
Randy Houser’s bluesy approach to “I’m a Ramblin’ Man” (Ray Pennington) reflects Stewart’s encouragement to be original as well as Houser’s appreciation for Jennings. “I wanted to make sure to bring honor to him, his music, his name, his legacy and to his family,” Houser said. “I didn’t want to screw it up. But I did my own thing to it. I knew that Waylon was a fan of the blues, but I also know Waylon was about people making music their own way, so I felt really good about recording it the way I did.”
Other tracks from the first volume, released Feb. 8, include Jennings by himself on “Go Down Rockin’” (written by Leann White and Tony JoeWhite) and co-produced by Robby Turner; Jamey Johnson’s version of “This Time;” James Otto singing “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand;” Patty Griffin and Country Music Hall of Fame member Kris Kristofferson on “Rose in Paradise” (Stewart Harris and Jim McBride); and Chanel Campbell on “The Wurlitzer Prize (I Don’t Want to Get Over You)” (Bobby Emmons and Chips Moman).
The next two volumes will include Dierks Bentley on “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean” (Steve Young), Country Music Hall of Fame member Vince Gill on “Amanda” (Bob McDill), Jewel on “Dreaming My Dreams” (Allen Reynolds) and Josh Thompson on “Love of the Common People” (John Hurley and Ronnie Wilkins), among many others. Vol. 2 is set for release June 14, the day before what would have been Jennings’ 74th birthday; Vol. 3 is due out Oct. 26, the day prior to Jennings’ and Colter’s 42nd wedding anniversary.
The first single from Vol. 1 is Alabama’s “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way.” “I just really liked Waylon Jennings,” said Randy Owen, who reunited with fellow group and Country Music Hall of Fame members Jeff Cook and Teddy Gentry for the project. “He was funny and a great storyteller, but my deal with him was listening to how he played his guitar. He and I used to like the same sounds. I never was privileged to be in the studio with Waylon when he was cutting, but I figured he would be proud of the way that we cut this one.”When asked how much rehearsal was necessary before recording their version, Owen smiled and replied, “We played this song for tips. We don’t need to rehearse it. We remember what happened 25 or 30 years ago. We can play this one.”
Borchetta picked this track as the first single for several reasons. “We have a lot of great artists on the project, but we don’t have a lot of single rights,” he said. “So we had to find somebody that was willing and able to give us single rights. Most of these artists are in play with their own releases. We can’t come in and ask them to participate on this and at the same time roll over them with a single off of the Waylon project while they have something out on their own release. So it’s always difficult to get single rights when you have these kinds of tribute albums. Alabama is at a place right now where they were able to give us those rights — and also, obviously, they knocked it out of the park.”
Fans will get a glimpse into the recording sessions in a documentary. “We filmed a big part of this, so there’s a documentary that will be released,” said Stewart, referring to the digital version being made available on Jennings’ Web site. “Every physical CD will have an enhanced four minute documentary trailer. When you buy the CD at Target, Wal-Mart or wherever, you can put it in your computer and watch the trailer. Then you can go to www.WaylonJennings.com and buy and download the documentary.
“I’m very proud of Witt,” Colter said, with a smile. “I couldn’t have spearheaded it. I’m too emotionally involved. I think Waylon one day will tell him that he really appreciates what he’s done.”
On the Web: www.WaylonJennings.com