Roots Watch: Johnny Horton, Waylon, and Patsy Speak for Themselves
There are some long-gone classic country acts we rarely see raised any more without filtering, reduced, even if glorified, to some one-note comic book version of themselves, or only presented through tears—real or mechanical—and then, of course, there are others we barely get to see again at all. This month, by sheer coincidence, we get unexpectedly fresh and potent looks at three great artists who share having worked and mastered the fuzzy borderlands between hard country and general pop or rock, and, best of all, I think, we get these surprising reintroductions to them through projects designed to let them speak for themselves.
Johnny Horton: I’m a Fishing Man (DVD) He was one of the most ready and able singers 1950s country had, who took on beer-tear crying honky tonk and was very good, then rockabilly-tinged country and was great, and Americana-predicting saga songs and was very successful, in pop as much as country. (Many of the millions who bought “The Battle of New Orleans” didn’t know that it even was that stuff called “country”—the sort of problem the CMA was founded at the time to deal with.) Horton is high on my list of those who’ve most warranted being in the Country Hall of Fame but hasn’t gotten in yet, and one reason for not reaching the critical mass to get in may be that footage of him live and at work, sticking forever in the mind, has been near-totally absent.
With pleasing shock value that annotator Colin Escott registers in the notes, this Bear Family DVD treasure chest brings forward over an hour of virtually unseen vintage Horton footage culled from an “outdoorsman who sings” TV show he filmed in the early ‘50s, in Hank Senior-era honky tonk band mode, from varied appearances on ABC’s prime time late ;’50s Ozark Jubilee when he’d become a star, and, in some ways best of all, a private sound film shot live at a Detroit concert in September, 1960, not long before he died in a car crash at his peak. So here he is, striking, though, like his close buddy Johnny Cash, he tends to stand and strum more than shake like Elvis. (No footage from his more rockabilly “Honky Tonk Man”/”One Woman Man” period has yet emerged, or film that exists from Ed Sullivan and Dick Clark Show appearances, which the owners value so much they don’t license it or let it be shown at all.) But here we see him slamming out “Sal’s Got a Sugarlip,” taking part in a priceless one-off trio with Eddy Arnold and Molly Bee on “Be Honest with Me,” and performing the movie theme sagas that scored so big. So now you can see what the man did rather than hear about it second hand and I’m here to say you’ll be taken with it.
Waylon Jennings: Goin’ Down Rockin’— The Last Recordings. (CD) If anybody deserves better than to be reduced to a “music establishment-hating outlaw” stick figure, it’s this great artist, who, whatever his well-known personal and career issues, was in his music and performances a tower of admirable humanity and complexity— strong enough not to be belligerent, comfortable enough in his intelligence never to play the dumbass, confident enough in his masculinity to feel no need to constantly remind us about it. And, oh yes, one of the strongest vocalists country’s ever seen, a genre-changing rhythmic instrumentalist and, as this set of end of life songs reminds us, an often telling songwriter to boot. Now here, waiting to be heard since 1999, are these late recordings Jennings laid down simply, (more than demos, less than finished), and handed to his friend and latter day steel player Robby Turner to get together and put out someday, some way. Reggie Young, the soulful picker excellent enough to be Waylon’s guitar player, features prominently as well; it was Johnny Horton who’d introduced Reggie to Waylon, annotator producer Colin Escott points out. (My friend Colin’s been busy, as always, fighting the good fight.)
It’s taken ’til now for Turner and company to feel they’ve done them justice for release, and they have—wisely taking a modest, effective approach, not trying to imitate the sound of Waylon’s pulsing band and records precisely, but not getting in the way of what he put on tape, either. (Maybe they learned a lesson from the fate of the over fussed-with recordings left behind by Waylon’s one-time bandleader Buddy Holly—doing less is more. That the last track here, maybe the last from Waylon, is a Cajun number, and his very first ever was “Jole Blon” produced by Holly, may be a sly signal that this was so.) The modest production fits part of what was best about Waylon and these last, varied recordings. One song it brings forward well is his wondrous “I Do Believe,” which I recall him performing on Austin City Limits once, an immensely moving personal spiritual testament, moving for its level of modesty and the sort of admittedly hard-earned and arrived at faith so rarely heard in, well, musical spiritual testaments. There are waltzes and honky tonk songs and songs about Nashville and women. It’s very special and all Waylon.
Patsy Cline: Crazy for Loving You (Exhibit) Much has been well said about this new Country Hall of Fame exhibit already, and well, but I’ll add: the results of the Hall’s well-considered idea of letting Patsy speak for herself as the basis of the exhibit are very much worth catching. From the handwritten autobiography at the entrance, to the isolated tracks that let us hear how she approached her vocals on some famous cuts, the homey artifacts such as her kitschy but perfect and funny salt and pepper shaker collection (my grandmother, living in Greenville, South Carolina at just the same time, happened to collect stuff just like that, so it speaks to me doubly), are respectful and telling antidotes to the post-Hollywood Patsy seen mainly through tears. Yes, the later songs were heartbreakers, but this was one tough and generally joyous woman, a born jazzy pop and rockabilly singer at heart who, most of the time, sang like that. (You didn’t take on “The Cline,” as Jan Howard recalled feisty Patsy referring to herself in the excellent first week panel program). Patsy’s speaking for herself at the Hall.
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