Three years before his untimely passing in 2002, Waylon Jennings spent a few days laying down what would be his last studio performances. Recorded in his friend (and steel guitarist) Robbie Turner’s home studio, the tapes featured Jennings and his guitar working out new music and revisiting older tunes. Jennings no longer had the full vocal power of his earlier years, but his phrasing, tone and low baritone notes were intact; he sounds physically weakened in spots, but still mentally charged. Shortly after the sessions, Jennings moved back to Phoenix, and the tapes sat unfinished until last year, when Turner gathered select players to add instrumental backings to the performances. The result closely captures the flavor of Jennings’ earlier recordings, skillfully weaving the players around Jennings and his guitar into a final mix that feels whole.
By utilizing players who’d worked with Jennings before, Turner was able to craft backings that are sympathetic to the singer and his sound. As with Johnny Cash’s American Recordings, there’s an unmistakable specter of mortality coloring the songs and performances. The title track is unapologetic, summing up Jennings’ last stand with the hook line “if I can’t go down rockin’, ain’t gonna go down at all.” There’s also a fired-up early run-through of “Never Say Die,” which would become the title of Jennings last live set in 2000. Earlier songs take on added poignancy, such as a version of “I Do Believe” that’s sung wearily, as if struggling to balance the hear-and-now with a here-after that was closing in. Similarly, “Belle of the Ball” is rendered more wistful and nostalgic here than as originally heard on 1977’s Ol’ Waylon.
Hearing these songs as life-end reflections is partly a product of hindsight. Jennings then-new “Friends in California” would have been the story of a wounded spirit in 1970, but looking back at 1999 from 2012, the protagonist’s troubles read more prophetic and terminal. Similarly, the romantic resignation of “The Ways of the World” is layered with additional meaning as Jennings contemplates “the ways of this whole world are not always fair / most things are never what we want to find,” and Turner dresses this latter song in steel guitar and atmospheric interludes that underscore the song’s pondering. Arriving ten years after Jennings passing, this set is like a letter delayed in the mail; it’s unexpected, enjoyable and bittersweet. [©2012 Hyperbolium]
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