The Legend Behind 'Honky Tonk Heroes'

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An album that formed a cornerstone of the "Outlaw Country" movement in the 1970s has just been reissued. Music critic Meredith Ochs has been thinking about Waylon Jennings' Honky Tonk Heroes and its legacy for country artists today.


In the 1970s, a shift began in country music, away from the slick production of Nashville toward a rougher sound in both lyrics and instrumentation. The movement was called Outlaw Country and its effect is still felt today with mainstream country artists sometimes striving for outlaw credibility. This month, an outlaw country classic was reissued. Waylon Jennings "Honky Tonk Heroes" and that got music critic Meredith Ochs thinking about the record's legacy.

MEREDITH OCHS, BYLINE: The legend behind "Honky Tonk Heroes" is fantastic. It's 1972 in Dripping Springs, Texas.


WAYLON JENNINGS: (Singing) Low down leaving sun, I've done did everything that needs done.

OCHS: Country star Waylon Jennings meets a little known songwriter missing a couple of fingers named Billy Joe Shaver and makes him what was quite possibly a drunken promise, that he would record an entire album of Shaver's songs. When Shaver turned up in Nashville to collect, Jennings allegedly offered $100 to get lost and Shaver promptly offered to kick his butt.

Instead, the two made an album that would become a cornerstone of the outlaw country movement.


JENNINGS: (Singing) For loveable losers, no luck can't boozers and honky tonk heroes like me. Where does it go? The good Lord only knows. Seems like it was just the other day I was down at Green Gables hawking them tables, generally blowing all my hard earned pay.

OCHS: Even 40 years after its debut, "Honky Tonk Heroes" still sound relevant. It was a stark departure from the string-laden, heavily arranged and highly produced country-politan sound that was popular at the time. Spartan and soulful, it helped open the door not only for singer songwriters, but for artists to make records on their own terms.

Jennings jettisoned the ubiquitous group of Nashville session players in favor of his own backing band and co-produced the albums himself. Shaver's lyrics reflect the iconoclastic nature instilled in both men during their Texas upbringing.


JENNINGS: (Singing) Well, the first time I felt lightning, I was standing in the drizzling rain with a trembling hand and a bottle of gin and the rose of a different name. Well, the devil made me do it the first time. The second time I done it on my own. Lord put a handle on a simple head man and help me leave that black rose alone.

OCHS: Though its origin story may be apocryphal, there's no question about the legacy of "Honky Tonk Heroes." This album, chock full of outlaw country anthems, was recorded in Nashville, but with it, Jennings proved that you could buck the country music establishment from within and create a work of lasting influence and even have some hits along the way.


JENNINGS: (Singing) Long ago and far away, in my old common labor shoes, I turned the world all which a way, just because you asked me to.

OCHS: Waylon Jennings and his outlaw cohorts set the standard by steadfastly refusing to be defined by the music industry. And that's an artistic value that's worth celebrating with this reissue.


JENNINGS: (Singing) Let the world call me a fool, but things are right with me and you. That's all that matters and I'll do anything you ask me to.

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