When The Jukebox Cries
Waylon Jennings and Buddy Holly, 1959.
Backstage at the Surf Ballroom, Clear Lake, Iowa, in the frozen middle of the middle west, musicians were flipping coins to trade seats between a rehabilitated school bus and a charter plane. With 400 miles to go to Moorhead, Minnesota, out of clean clothes and aware that the bus might break down before the next gig, a seat on the plane to the nearest airport at Fargo sure was tempting to a 21 year old Waylon Jennings, the brand new bassist for The Crickets. The Big Bopper had the flu, and heck, Waylon was “skinnier’n a rail and could sleep anywhere” so he chose the bus. Before boarding, his bandleader, Buddy Holly, teased him: “I hope your damned bus freezes up again.”
Waylon shot back, “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes.”
That night, February 3, 1959, the plane did crash. Buddy Holly died, and back to west Texas went Waylon Jennings, who, mourning the loss of his friend and having seen first hand the parasitic touring circuit of rock n roll in theatres, high schools and ballrooms, would find solace playing country music in Southwestern honkytonks. With a burden of guilt and shame, those key ingredients of country music, Waylon’s story became one of clawing conflict and hard won redemption.
Waylon became a figurehead of country music, but not before he struggled for years under the trickle-down effects of the Nashville Sound, a rigid record production system that kept country music a polished, provincial niche in American music. In the early 1970s, rock settled into a malaise and punk had yet to emerge from arty metropolises, so the most innovative action around was in southern towns, from Tennessee to Texas. A movement developed of roughneck, deep throated (mostly male) songwriters in Nashville who grabbed their turn in the spotlight. Collectively, their vision was both nostalgic and modern: gritty pastoralism cut through with asphalt arteries and amphetamine-fueled truck routes. Referred to intermittently as wandering gypsies or telecaster cowboys, another name stuck that described the nomadic singing bards of the 1970’s: outlaws.
Billy Joe Shaver and Waylon Jennings.
They were outlaws because mostly they broke the rules defining country music of the time, although they probably broke some furniture, fenders and livers along the way. Scandalous stories aside, these musicians were earnest writers who, fueled by pills and booze, studied traditions and stayed up all night exchanging songs in bars and hotel rooms, with the goal of making a better culture from one they loved, but viewed as corrupted. While real outlaws were bleeding out in honkytonks, these outlaws were nerding out on turns of phrase and economy of means. Most of them were struggling songwriters who’d penned songs that would become standards of the country cannon, but were denied solo recording time because of their off-color soulful voices and ideas about authenticity. By 1973, when the outlaw movement began to crystallize, most of these singers were already in their 30s and 40s. As disc jockeys, contract songwriters, and janitors at recording studios, they had been studying music for decades. They were record nerds curating a hybrid mass of influence, grabbing onto the new sound that swept the country.
It seems at this time everyone felt an urge to align with Nashville. In the late 60s, rockers like The Byrds, The Beau Brummels, and Bob Dylan produced country-tinged albums in Nashville studios, and in 1972 The Rolling Stones incorporated country and southern gospel into Exile On Main Street. It was a time of intense cross pollination between soul and country (Tennessee’s largest cities, Memphis and Nashville, served as capitals for each genre) with shared songs becoming staples for both genres, such as Chokin Kind, You Don’t Miss Your Water, The Games People Play, Love of The Common People, The Dark End of The Street, Patches, and hundreds more. While much of the motivation of swapping songs was trying to score a cross-genre hit, the search for an authentic voice led singer-songwriters to create a unity of folk-rock-soul-country that proliferated like interstate highways.
Willie Nelson and crowd, Dripping Springs Picnics ‘73 and ‘74. Note the change, as he adopts full outlaw apparel.
In 1971, Willie Nelson left Nashville and retuned to Austin, Texas and began carving out a new niche, drawing both hippies and country fans to his shows. He invited Waylon down to play some shows in Texas, culminating in the huge outdoor festival The Dripping Springs Reunion of 1973. Waylon had been developing a reputation as the “Nashville Rebel”, but nothing prepared him for the audiences that greeted him in Texas: thousands of heathens swirling in long hair and pot smoke, publically getting it on with one another. Country music became a refuge for southern poets, country hippies, drug-addled hillbillies, Rhodes scholars, fingerless pickers, professional songwriters, Jewish cowboys, disillusioned country stars, freelance journalists and ex-cons. In 1974, Waylon released Honky Tonk Heroes, which became the center of this universe. Most of the album’s material was written by Billy Joe Shaver (ironically, Jennings did not write many songs) who, with several missing fingers and a rugged Texas pedigree, wrote songs Waylon described as “ragged, with mistakes and bad notes, that hardly sounded finished; but it was as simple to the point as I could make it. You didn’t need a twenty-piece orchestra. It was all there. The song was true to itself. You could feel what was happening inside it.”
Billy Joe Shaver’s missing fingers, photo from 2011.
A loose federation of brilliant, stripped-down albums were released in a period between 1968 and 1979 that stand as testaments to this era, as musicians tapped into one another and discovered one another, egging each other on, producing each other’s records, and scoring each other record deals. Not all of them were labeled outlaws, but they carried the spirit. Kris Kristofferson writes of his discovery of a young songwriter, in the liner notes of John Prine’s 1971 self-titled album:
John Prine caught us by surprise in the late-night morning let-down after our last show in Chicago. Steve Goodman (who’d shared the bill with us that week) asked us to go to Old Town to listen to a friend he said we had to hear, and since Steve had knocked us out all week with his own songs, we obliged.
It was too damned late, and we had an early wake-up ahead of us, and by the time we got there Old Town was nothing but empty streets and dark windows. And the club was closing. But the owner let us come in, pulled some chairs off a couple of tables, and John unpacked his guitar and got back up to sing.
There are few things as depressing to look at as a bunch of chairs upside down on the tables of an empty old tavern, and there was that awkward moment, us sitting there like, “Okay, kid, show us what you got,” and him standing there alone, looking down at his guitar like, “What the hell are we doing here, buddy?” Then he started singing, and by the end of the first line we know we were hearing something else. It must’ve been like stumbling into Dylan when he first busted onto the Village scene (in fact Al Aronowitz said the same thing a few weeks later after hearing John do a guest set at the Bitter End). One of those rare, great times when it all seems worth it, like when the Vision would rise upon Blake’s “weary eyes, Even in this Dungeon, & this Iron Mill.”
He sang about a dozen songs, and had to do a dozen more before it was over. Unlike anything I’d heard before. Sam Stone. Donald & Lydia. The one about the Old Folks. Twenty-four years old and writes like he’s two-hundred and twenty. I don’t know where he comes from, but I’ve got a good idea where he’s going. We went away believers, reminded of goddamned good it feels to be turned on by a real Creative Imagination.
Kristofferson, writing prose like he would a song, doesn’t just tell the story plain. He hits notes of time like rolling piano keys, the late-night morning revealed by an intelligence that is two dozen years old or over two hundred? But that is the temporal territory that these artists meander, and that’s what makes it so strange, set against the voracious existentialism of rock or the visceral/political expulsions of punk. Where other popular music requires a balance of content and form, the method of delivery of content is everything. In country, the lyrics, and the phrasing of those lyrics, are the content and the form. A country song without words is like a bucket with a hole in it. What the songs can hold, usually in under 4 minutes, is an immense span of time and an expansive sense of place.
John Prine, photo from back of Diamonds In The Rough sleeve, 1972.
I sometimes wonder why I am so compelled by this music, having grown up in the Northeast, a generation behind (these musicians are all around the same age as my father, a secular Jewish psychologist). Having been raised to defy macho boys’ clubs, I’ve fled the sticks to the city, and am now an artist living and working in Brooklyn. Punk, hip hop and indie rock were my touchstones, and where I grew up in rural Vermont, listening to country music meant you rode American-flag and Bald Eagle-clad four-wheelers strapped with coolers full of Budweiser, shooting at deer from your moving vehicle in a drunken haze (in Vermont there is a term for this, it’s jacking deer). If you were a country-listening patriot, your truck had Yosemite Sam mudflaps and a gun rack, your lawn was full of junked cars and shattered kiddie pools, and your house probably had been left only partially-sided (with the insulation exposed) for a number of years. I still have trouble figuring out how war and Walmart ended up claiming country music’s main demographic. Beginning with Hank Williams and Johnny Cash’s live prison albums, for years I’ve been digging in record crates to find those undesired country records with those magic dates of 1968, 1971, 1973, or 1974 on their sleeves, learning as I listen.
Photo from Jerry Jeff Walker’s Viva Terlingua!, 1973.
There is an inherent romance in listening to records, in setting a needle down onto vinyl, as music seems to take a shape more robust than the forced compressions of radio or digital media. Certain records hold within the grooves a depth of sound that carries transmissions that seem to reflect the expansive planar architecture of the turntable. If hypnotized by the plodding rotation of the record, a mental landscape forms from receptive anticipation. For if the needle is a traveler on the black spinning roads of the sound itself, the platter suggests a plateau, while the black vinyl illuminated by a recessed pilot light suggests a spinning tire illuminated in neon night, and chrome accents of the mechanics reflect like accents of a brand new sixteen wheeler. When the needle drops on a certain record, say Tom T Hall’s The Ballad of Forty Dollars (1969), and the guitar plucking descends into his booming, haunted voice floating over the churning bass-driven beat of That’s How I Got To Memphis, you are locked into a car on an interstate of black night, looking out the window at passing lights, as the recording wobbles in an exact mimesis of the wobbling of the record on the platter. You’re somewhere outside of Memphis (have you ever even been there in the nighttime before?) with a broken heart, piano keys trickling by like passing gas station signs. Hardly an exaggeration that this is the most chugging lugubriousness you can encounter, when suddenly you are dumped into the double-time of Cloudy Day, where Hall professes to forget “the interstate that brought me to this town / I’ve been here for seven months and still I do not know my way around / Well, I’d like to find a quite place, the trouble is I don’t know where its at / I don’t know which way is best / But I think I’ll be headin’ west / so I’ll be walkin’ where the land is flat,” while he sits around an apartment too hot for summer and too cold for winter, which he didn’t like much “because it smelled like food” and the neighbors complain because he likes to pick and sing. In the chorus he sings “cloudy da-ay” like a rupturing sky and subjects you and me, him and her and all of them, and the whole population to this incoming storm. Within the first two songs, just a few seconds over 5 minutes, we’ve fallen out of love, served a solitary sublet in Memphis and then rolled off like a summer storm coming in from the endless plains of the Midwest. Next track prickles in: Shame on The Rain, and we are back to regret all over again. After side one, you realize they don’t call records LPs (Long Players) for nothing.
Listening to the record in 2012 can transport you on a melancholy summer night from a tiny claustrophobic apartment, where you are looking out at the lights and life of the New York City streets, on the edge of the vastness of America — to a melancholy summer night in a tiny claustrophobic apartment, where you are looking out at the lights and life of the Memphis streets, in 1969, in the vastness of America. But also, the song speaks to the very principle that ceases to stagnate in America: motion. Those rainy days came a hundred years ago, and they continue to come, just as sure as they are a metaphor for those people blowing in and out of town. The signal they send speaks always of impending consequence. That is the collapse of time available if you are willing to follow.
Hall’s lyrics are some of the simplest around, but for other singers the poetry of motion is more effusive, and always told from a singular, isolated vantage. And that solitude strikes the essence of the songs, which is characterized by deep, profound loneliness. Stripped of booze-soaked nostalgia, that translates to an ethos of individuality. Even amongst compatriots, even in love, loneliness rules. Kris Kristofferson, opening his legendary love-lost ballad Me & Bobby McGee: “Busted flat in Baton Rouge / Headed for the trains / Feelin’ nearly faded as my jeans / Bobby thumbed a diesel down / Just before it rained / Took us all the way to New Orleans / I took my harpoon out of my dirty red bandana and was blowin’ sad while Bobby sang the blues / With them windshield wipers slappin’ time and Bobby clappin’ hands / We finally sang every song that driver knew.” Of course the next line takes the scene of nostalgic bonding and severs it right away: “Freedom’s just another word / For nothing left to loose.” The song is about destiny, and there is no escaping that. This gets more to the point of how country music functions culturally, as the individual looses the tethers of family, place, fixed position, and sets out to find a moveable feast, a center within. Is there any wonder why country music is called country? It’s not about living in the woods, but rather, like Woody Guthrie singing This Land Is Your Land, it’s describing the country. The whole, the entirety of a continent, as ingested and absorbed through one writer’s inner landscape. Walt Whitman condensed into 3 minutes and 30 seconds.
And so the music follows this context, as each and every song is set to trainwheels churning or tour buses rolling, mere exit ramps from impending isolation. Kinky Friedman, the Jewish Cowboy, chooses to describe in his critique-laden Sold American a forgotten country star “writing down his memoirs on some window in the frost / Roulette eyes reflecting another morning lost”, with an emphasis on ‘some window’ as if it were merely found one night rambling through. Tompall Glaser covers Sold American the same year on his haunting masterpiece Charlie (1973), the first side of which is filled the songs Mr. Lonesome and Loneliest Man sandwiched around a song about how he is such a mess he has been Barred From Every Honkytonk in town. For Tompall, deep sadness isn’t just a mood, it’s a competition; it’s a tradition descending from the spirituals of ethereal disappearance, such as I Saw The Light and I’ll Fly Away, which close out that first side of Charlie.
Perhaps that is part of these artists’ appeal: they are stylists, cohesive in content, but unique in tone. From similar experience, the individual take emerges, the lumber of life constructing philosophical or socio-political dimensions. Hear Billy Joe Shaver sing, “good luck and fast bucks / they’re too few and far in between / There’s Cadillac buyers / and old five and dimers like me.” What a politician might call class warfare is just an everyday reality of haves and have-nots.
Billy Joe Shaver, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker, Terry Allen and others all escaped, through their music, from poor Texas towns in what writer Grover Lewis described as the Cracker Eden of the 1950’s: “the ethos of the place – what it promoted – was absolute white supremacy, reinforced by old time religion and male chauvinist prickism.” For some, without the craft of song, the art they made their own, they would have succumbed to the tragedy and misery they recalled in their songs. Terry Allen sings on his album of remembrances of growing up in Lubbock (On Everything) (1979): “And its crazy / yeah crazy in the backyards/ the bedrooms / the kitchens / crazy… out in the streets/ Ah, through all their cities / and even smaller towns / It most certainly seems / some disease of the dream / has been goin’ round.” And regardless of whether Allen’s song is about shooting speed or driving too fast, the fact remains his characters won’t stay still, going “100 miles an hour / down the blue asphalt line / Listening to the Wolfman of Del Rio.”
Waylon @ Max’s Kansas City, January 1973.
Waylon, stripped of the pomp and sequins Nashville tried to impose on him, took up leather and denim and his “common labor shoes” to become the distillation of that “disease of the dream” that had been going round. He was able become this distillation through multiple means, including his hard work, deep baritone, his history of hits in Nashville, and his shrewd sense of self-image. Dave Hickey (amongst the first writers to recognize the emergence of outlaw country) writing shortly after Waylon’s passing, noted “Waylon never confused cowboys on the stage and cowboys on the range.” But what really galvanized his standing was his insistence on simplicity, his elimination of frivolity. His songs became stronger, lower, more bass and rhythm heavy, with the prickly treble of string orchestra of the Nashville Sound subdued in the service of a strutting beat. It was his voice that carried the nuance, as his melodies moved around that beat. Dave Hickey also noted that he did this “at the exact moment that American painters and sculptors were cutting away the obfuscation and expressive nonsense that had accrued around American art during the post-war period, at the very instant that the kids at CBGB’s were beginning to jettison the pretentious theater that was drowning rock and roll, Waylon was taking country back where it had never been.” Note he says back where it had never been. Where punk and minimalism had sights set on the future, country was pointing a route to the future while mining the past. Collapsing time, again.
It seems unfair that Waylon gets so much credit, because he stood on the backs of the pioneers beneath him. His history his one of right place, right time. He was a cipher that people could project their ideas upon, and talents like Billy Joe Shaver, Tompall Glaser, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson saw in him the vehicle to manifest in physical form the things they felt were right, or were lacking. Waylon was the one who recognized the honesty and integrity of these writers, and he propelled them from obscurity. But also, his image was right; his huge physique in leather and boots and jeans, accents of silver jewelry, aviator shades, and his ‘W’ logo blazing neon on the stage. He was a star. His look was so cool, and rightly his debut in New York City was not some cushy uptown theater, but the downtown artists’ bar Max’s Kansas City. There, New York tastemakers fell for him, perhaps the most ardent being Robert Smithson.
Views of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, 1970.
Interesting that the preeminent landscape artist of the 1960s, himself a figurehead of a movement, fell head over boot-heels for the symbol of the soundtrack of the American landscape that Smithson and his cohorts were carving up with backhoes and dynamite. Since the 1950s, America began rapid expansion of the interstate highway system, the same system that supported the growing circuit of touring country and rock musicians, which so often figured into the lyrics of the songs they sang in the honkytonks, fairgrounds, bars, ballrooms and stadiums that connected those roads. As Waylon became the emblematic outlaw, blowing from town to town, Robert Smithson and a group of artists began to use the tools of highway building to make massive artworks in the western landscape, dubbed Earthworks.
Smithson, known for his eclectic tastes, surely saw something in Waylon that resonated in his own work. Although Waylon wanted to bring country back to its roots, he must have felt honesty required him to embrace the modern world and its signifiers. The physical construction of his songs and his physical appearance revealed aesthetic contradictions. The acoustic twang and harmonicas set against the Telecaster guitar over strutting bass and drums paralleled the beard, long hair and cowboy boots set against the crisp leather, jeans, belt buckles, shades and rings —- these details allowed him to be both traditional pastoralist and shrewd urban road warrior.
Waylon Jennings, The Telecaster Cowboy Outlaw.
In Smithson’s work there exists a similar conflict. In order to evade associations with 19th century landscaping, he used the most brutal construction methods to undercut tidy pastoralism. It was not enough to make formations of rocks, for they might suggest something merely ancient. In order to collapse temporal constraints, he sought to locate his Earthworks in reclaimed industrial sites or locations where natural phenomena might mimic his fancy for futurism. He wrote, “I am convinced that the future is lost somewhere in the dumps of the non-historical past; it is in yesterday’s newspapers, in the jejune advertisements of science-fiction movies, in the false mirror of our rejected dreams.”
Robert Smithson, Asphalt Rundown, 1969.
In the gallery, he could use painted steel and mirrors to obliterate purity and fixed positions of time, but out west he found lakes where salt crystals and the chemical components of the water would naturally create colors and crystals, allowing a futuristic glass-like lattice work to crawl over his displaced rock formations. Smithson poured glue and asphalt down embankments, making gestural paintings with the industrial essence of the highway system. And in a posthumously produced video produced as a collaboration by his wife Nancy Holt, the couple explore the otherworldly landscape of Mono Lake. The soundtrack is overlaid with two of Waylon’s songs that they had recently seen him play in Las Vegas in 1968.
Michael Heizer was the third artist in the footage of Mono Lake to make the pilgrimage to see Waylon play in Las Vegas, as well as another regular at Max’s Kansas City—-that is, when he wasn’t spending most of his time in the western wilderness. According to art historian Suzaan Boettger, he personified “the western stance of heroic individualism and stubbornly solitary pioneering,” who would “enact a rough ‘outlaw’ sensibility.” Heizer, who showed up at upscale New York art collectors’ houses in cowboy boots, jeans and a cowboy hat, resembled a tanned leathery Marlboro Man, reeking a hardscrabble authenticity to east coast art patrons. After getting his foot in the door of the New York art world, he fled to the desert, blowing holes in canyon walls and making ‘expressionist paintings’ on dried lakebeds by skidding out on his motorcycle. Again, a fusion of the pastoral, the romantic, and the crassly modern.
Earthworks by Michael Heizer.
It may not have yet been written into the definitive history of art, this convergence of country music and contemporary art, but it deserves to be noted. Earthworks artists weren’t the only connections. Renowned art critic Dave Hickey was not only good friends with Billy Joe Shaver and Terry Allen and an acquaintance of many of these performers, but he also wrote about them early and often. He also wrote and sold some songs in Nashville in the late 1970s, as well as an article in Art In America in 1971 that challenged the pastoralist view of Earthworks.
Hickey’s buddy Terry Allen, aside for writing two of the best concept country records of the 70s, is a visual artist, running the gamut from painter to installation and sound artist. Emerging from Chouinard/CalArts at the height of its enrollment of future avant-garde artists, Allen has produced a unique body of work that I can barely even begin to describe.
Installation by Terry Allen.
I’m sure there are dozens of other anecdotes of this confluence. If anyone out there is aware of anything I’ve missed, please feel free to comment.
Robert Overby, Screen Door, cast concrete, 1970.
Some great records from this era, my favorites in bold:
Tom T. Hall, The Ballad of Forty Dollars, 1968
Tom T. Hall, Homecoming, 1970
Tom T. Hall, In Search of A Song, 1971
Willie Nelson, Yesterday’s Wine, 1971
Willie Nelson, Phase & Stages, 1974
Willie Nelson, Red Headed Stranger, 1975
Willie Nelson, Face of a Fighter, 1977 (This is compilation of songs from the 60s)
Willie Nelson, The Troublemaker, 1976
Tompall Glaser, Charlie, 1973
Tompall Glaser, The Great Tompall and His Outlaw Band, 1976
Jerry Jeff Walker, Mr. Bojangles, 1968
Jerry Jeff Walker, Viva Terlingua, 1973
Kinky Friedman, Sold American, 1973
John Prine, John Prine, 1971
John Prine, Diamonds in the Rough, 1972
John Prine, Sweet Revenge, 1973
Mickey Newbury, ‘Frisco Mabel Joy, 1971
Jerry Lee Lewis, Another Place, Another Time, 1969
Jerry Lee Lewis, She Still Comes Around (To Love What’s Left of Me), 1969
Johnny Cash, At Folsom Prison, 1968
Johnny Cash, At San Quentin, 1969
Terry Allen, Juarez, 1975
Terry Allen, Lubbock (On Everything), 1979
Kris Kristofferson, The Silver Tongued Devil & I, 1971
Kris Kristofferson, Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends: The Publishing Demos 1968-1972, 2010 (shoulda come out then, we waited til now)
Townes Van Zandt, any album between 1968 and 1978 are great.
Waylon Jennings, Love of The Common People, 1967
Waylon Jennings, Don’t Think Twice, 1970
Waylon Jennings, The Taker / Tulsa, 1971
Waylon Jennings, Honky Tonk Heroes, 1973
Waylon Jennings, This Time, 1974
Waylon Jennings, Dreaming My Dreams, 1975
Wanted! The Outlaws, 1976
Billy Joe Shaver, Old Five And Dimers Like Me, 1973
Bobby Charles, Bobby Charles, 1972
Gram Parsons, GP, 1973
Gram Parsons, Grievous Angel, 1974
Gram Parson & The Flying Burrito Bros, Sleepless Nights, 1976
Emmylou Harris, Elite Hotel, 1975
Emmylou Harris, Pieces of The Sky, 1975
The Byrds, Sweatheart of The Rodeo, 1968
David Allan Coe, Penitentiary Blues, 1969
David Allan Coe, Once Upon A Rhyme, 1974
Joe Ely, Joe Ely, 1977
The Flatlanders, More A Legend Than A Band, 1990 (recorded in the 70s but unreleased)
Henson Cargill, Skip A Rope, 1968
Jack Clement, All I Want To Do In Life, 1978
John Harford, Aereo-Plain, 1971
Paul Seibel, Woodsmoke and Oranges, 1970
Steve Young, Rock, Salt & Nails, 1969
Steve Young, Seven Bridges Road, 1972