Honky Tonk Heroes (Waylon Jennings)

I owe this song and my further acquaintance with Waylon’s ouevre — and much else — to Peter Guralnick. I first became tangentially aware of Peter when I got into blues as a kid and my mother mentioned that Dr. Guralnick’s son wrote about blues. Dr. Guralnick had removed her impacted wisdom teeth and later dealt with my impacted canines, and he recently celebrated his 102nd birthday. But being a pigheaded kid I didn’t follow up on this first clue and only discovered Peter’s work in my late teens — I don’t remember whether I read Lost Highway or Feel Like Going Home first, because I immediately read the other and in my memory they are merged into a single book.

I learned a lot from those books, but the most important thing was that you didn’t have to sort music into categories — that you could like Waylon Jennings and Howlin’ Wolf for the same reasons, and think of them as singing variations of the same kind of music, along with Hank Williams, Skip James, and Elvis Presley. I didn’t necessarily share all of Peter’s tastes — though I shared a lot of them, and  later found we share many others that didn’t get into those books — but I hunted up every record he mentioned and many of them became central to my understanding of music and led me down the paths I’ve followed ever since.*

Peter described Waylon’s Honky Tonk Heroes as his “landmark album,” so I went right out and bought it, and it sure was a landmark for me. I had tended to dismiss contemporary country music, but that album got me on a kick that extended through another eight or ten Waylon albums, a couple of Willie Nelson’s, at least one of Tompall Glaser’s, and then I connected to Joe Ely and Merle Haggard and worked my way backward to Hank Williams and Bob Wills and forward to Lacey J. Dalton, John Anderson, Dwight Yoakam, and so on and on.

I learned at least a dozen songs off Waylon’s records, but most of them didn’t really suit me — I could never sing “The only two things in life that make it worth living/ Is guitars are tuned good and firm-feelin’ women” with a straight face. This one became a regular in my repertoire, not because it suited me in an autobiographical way but because it suited my ragtime-based guitar style. I learned it one afternoon, played it at the Nameless Coffeehouse in Harvard Square that evening, and got applause for the guitar break, which had never happened before, so I kept playing it.

I only saw Waylon live once, and he was as good as I’d hoped — he still had Ralph Mooney on steel, and the rest of the band was loose and powerful, and he seemed natural, charming, and wild, just like in Guralnick’s piece. His records were mostly spotty, and when I listen back these days I tend to put together my own mixes, but there’s still something in his voice that I can’t get anywhere else, and I still enjoy fooling around with a lot of those songs:

The highway is hotter than nine kinds of hell
The rides are scarce as the rain
When you’re down to your last shuck, with nothing to sell
And too far away for the trains

Like “Honky Tonk Heroes,” that one was penned by Billy Joe Shaver, who wrote most of that landmark Waylon album and deserves his own entry. I saw him a bunch of times over the years, interviewed him a couple of times, love his writing, and he’s a whole other story.


*In an earlier post I credited Doug Sahm and Band with setting me on that path, and that record probably hit me at about the same time as Guralnick, though I don’t think I made the connection at the time.