The Texas country outlaw’s bid for a wider audience with ‘Are You Ready for the Country’ gets a closer look
The following is a feature album review first published in Picking Up The Tempo on July 7, 1976.
Sometime during June (1976) word reached me that Waylon Jennings’ new album was ready to go, so I called his co-producer Ken Mansfield (who lives in what once was Lash LaRue’s grandiose cowboy mansion on a Laurel Canyon hilltop) and hit him up for a pre-release listen.
“You’ll have to call Grelun Landon at RCA and get an okay from him,” Mansfield told me.
Waylon and Mansfield had totally bypassed RCA’s “you must record in Nashville” maxim for the first time in Waymore’s 10 years with that label by recording this whole new album at Sound Labs in L.A.
They were going to do it there with or without RCA’s blessing, so finally Jerry Bradley in Nashville said (and I paraphrase): “Okay, go ahead, do the album, give it to me when it’s done, and I’ll take care of the rest.” That no doubt meant that he’d somehow try to smooth any ruffled Nashvillian feathers.
The L.A. sessions were kept pretty secret, and most people with RCA didn’t know about it at all until it was too late for them to bitch about it. So knowing all that, Mansfield wanted to get RCA’s okay for a preview because he figured he’d already pushed them pretty far.
Landon, who heads RCA’s West Coast publicity bunch, has been an invaluable source of knowledge and personal guidance and advice to me over the last year and few months. (He and his assistant, Paula Batson, introduced me to Waylon in spring ’75). He’d heard the new album once, and knew I was acquainted well enough with Waylon to do it justice in a review, so he called Mansfield and cleared it immediately, God love
Half an hour later my ol’ ’68 Dodge van heaved a sigh of relief after being first-geared up the steep driveway to Mansfield’s Laurel Canyon house (nicknamed “The Hangover House,” as I was to discover later).
Waylon’s last studio album, “Dreaming My Dreams,” was mixed in Nashville with the emphasis for the most part on his well-deep vocals; the instrumentation was mixed way back. After listening to tunes like “Bob Wills is Still the King,” I couldn’t help but wish Waylon would release a live album (Lord knows he’s got enough tracks in the can for two live albums). In the studio, I think Waylon tends to hold back with a “maybe I’ll pick for you and maybe I won’t” attitude. Only he knows why. My conjecture is that he doesn’t think he’s a good enough picker.
Waylon, if that’s true, with all due respect I say BULLS**T. When you do cut loose onstage, you know you pick your ass off. When you hold back sometimes, I feel like ripping that rope border off your Tele and wrapping it around your neck. I’d never live to tell about it, and that’s probably why I haven’t done it yet.
Waylon’s First L.A. Sessions in 20 Years Merge Road Band, Session Aces
Though the styles are quite different, on Waylon’s new album guitarist John Leslie Hug (one of Mansfield’s studio pickers) pushes, inspires Waylon to get out there and PICK much the same way that George Terry pushes Eric Clapton these days.
Hug and Waylon sat off in a private room to work out their guitar parts, and Waylon dug the interplay enough to give John Leslie a ’51 Telecaster with a serial number somewhere in the 800’s. Not too shabby. But John Leslie definitely deserved it.
What Mansfield and Waylon did was merge Mansfield’s L.A. studio cats – Hug, keyboardist Barny Robertson, and bassist Sherman Heyes – with Waylon’s players – pedal steel veteran Ralph Mooney, bassist Duke Goff and drummer Ritchie Albright.
Added to that core were fiddler Billy (“he plays it all”) Graham and horn players Jim Gordon, Mack Johnson and Maurice Spears, plus the backing vocals provided by Barny’s lady Carter Robertson, Gordon Payne and Rance Wasson.
An L.A./Nashville marriage, in most cases, is a lost cause from the gate, but not on this album. They all sound so good together I wonder why the hell they didn’t try it before.
The offspring album puts a more equal emphasis on instrumentation and vocals than on any previous Waylon Jennings album. A lot of this can be justly credited to Barry Rudolph, a production-minded engineer who looks for sparks like no straight-laced Nashville engineer can do. Or is it allowed to do, put it that way.
Rudolph did the Hall & Oates album and an album by a group of tight funk-bumpists called the Cates Brothers, but aside from those efforts (both good) he’s a relative newcomer to the L.A. studio scene. He’s fresh, and that’s what the producers were looking for.
With that combination of singers and players, producers and engineer, the album could have turned out one of two ways: 1) a disjointed overproduced mess or 2) a consummation larger than its parts.
To these ears, the latter is true – “Are You Ready For The Country” is easily Waylon’s most fully realized album ever, all the way across the board, from county to rock ‘n’ roll.
‘Are You Ready for the Country’ (Neil Young)
The title song was, of course, written by Neil Young (from his ‘Harvest’ album in 1972), and the instrumental treatment is as powerful as Waylon’s testicular vocal delivery. He just rears back and dumps the whole thing in your lap: “Are you ready for the country/are you ready for me/are you ready for the country/ain’t I a sight to see…”
He’s saying, essentially, “here it is. This album is the closest thing to Waylon Jennings you’ve ever seen. Take it or leave it.” It comes off as a powerful personal statement, and speaking for myself, I’ll take it, even if the horns in the last chorus are a little off the wall.
‘Them Old Love Songs’ (Donnie Fritts, Troy Seals)
Songwriter (and longtime Kris Kristofferson collaborator) Donny Fritts and I, quite by accident, caught the same plane west at the end of last May on the day he quit Combine, his song publisher. He told me about “Them Old Love Songs” being on Waylon’s upcoming album.
Fritts calls himself an R&B writer, but he sure as hell doesn’t cut any crap on a country song, either: “Wish I had a true fine woman/I’d let her rock me all night long/maybe we could get it together/like people do in them old love songs…” Talk about your soulful ballad; there it is on Waylon’s album, complete with masterful dobro fills by the Moon.
‘So Good Woman’ (Waylon)
Waylon wrote a ballad for wife Jessi Colter called “So Good Woman”: “You’re so good, woman, you’re just too good for me/the way I am is the way I’ll always be/You know I run around all of my life/you coulda done better ’cause you’ve been a good wife/you’re so good, woman, you’re just too good for me…” And the way he sings it you know he ain’t lyin’.
‘Jack a Diamonds’ (Daniel Moore)
Daniel Moore, songwriter/fiddler/vocalist yodelist extraordinaire, wrote “Shambala” for Buckwheat Stevenson only to watch Three Dog Blight do it, and B.W.’s version got totally overshadowed. Disk jerkies said Three Dog had a track record and Buck didn’t. Daniel and Buck co-wrote “My Maria,” which gave Buck a track record.
Moore – along with his songwriter brother Matt, put together the Moore Brothers Band a couple of months ago and they’re considering a few label offers (A&M and MCA, I’m told). Meanwhile, they’re polishing their act at the Sundance Saloon in Calabasas (the last vestige of the old west now surrounded by San Fernando Valley suburbia at the western limits of L.A.) and the re-opened Topanga Corral. Anyway, keep a lookout for the Moore Brothers Band.
The first song recorded at the “Are You Ready for the Country” sessions was Daniel’s “Jack a Diamonds”; two albums ago, Waylon was ramblin’, and now he’s gamblin’: “Jack a Diamonds, Jack a Diamonds, take my money/you can have my life of luxury/you can have my precious silver-studded saddle, oh Lord/but you can not take my soul, take my soul today…” Clean, with the feel of Dodge City turn-of-the-century saloon gamblin’ parlors; Hug and Waylon are on acoustic guitars and the Moon cuts his mean dobro into the deck without makin’ it look anywhere near a marked (i.e. predictable) card.
‘Can’t You See’ (Toy Caldwell)
“Can’t You See” is a Toy Caldwell number that has almost been recorded to death, but f**k it. The Marshall Tucker Band (of which Caldwell is the lead guitarist and head songwriter) has done it at least twice, and Hank Jr. did it on his “Hank Jr. and Friends” album before he fell off a Montana mountain and almost bought the big one. Waylon’s version is like raw power unleashed, and makes it very easy to take an almost too-familiar tune. Side one opens with an ass-kicker, complete with the “whoop whoops” that come from his throat only when he’s havin’ a good time.
‘MacArthur Park (Revisited)’ (Jimmy Webb)
Side Two opens with “MacArthur Park (Revisited).” Waylon won a Grammy with The Kimberlys in 1969 for their version of Jimmy Webb’s tune, but for some reason he’s never been satisfied with it, Grammy or not. The tune has some kind of deep significance to Waylon, but he doesn’t talk about it.
The new version happened quite spontaneously. “I had told the engineer (Barry Rudolph) to keep an eye on Waylon at all times,” Mansfield explained as he rewound the tape and set up Side Two on the playback.
“I told him to record everything Waylon does,” he said. “So when Waylon walked out into the studio by himself between playbacks of other stuff, the tape was running. He picked up an acoustic guitar and started doing ‘MacArthur Park.’
“About halfway through, Ritchie went out and started playing to it,” Mansfield said. “I was hoping it would work, especially with that weird retard at the end of the song, but Ritchie was right with Waylon on it. One take. Moon went out and laid a steel part on it, and we added everything else later. We took the song to Graham Nash and asked him to sing on the last verse. He said he didn’t even like the tune, but after hearing the tape, he wanted to do it.”
It’s not hard to figure out why, either, because it’s the most soulful reading of anything I’ve ever heard Waylon do. He sounds like he must have been in tears at the end when he just powers through the crescendo. Regardless of what you think about Jimmy Webb’s cake out in the rain (I personally got tired of hearing Richard Harris’ version real quick – ’68, I think), this version by Waylon has got to be the last f**king word on the tune. I would venture that Waylon will never do it again, live or on record.
‘I’ll Go Back to Her’ (Waylon)
“I’ll Go Back to Her” is a stone honky-tonk “I’ve been a bad boy” tune Waylon wrote “a hundred years ago,” says Mansfield. It’s got Barny’s ‘tonkin’ piano, Moon’s cryin’ steel, and harmonizing clavinet (yes, Sweet Virginia, I said clavinet) and is soulfully country in an evolved Hank Williams vein: “I’ll go back to her where I’m wanted/maybe I can make up for the wrong/in spite of all I’ve done she still wants me/so I’ll go back to her where I belong…”
‘A Couple More Years’ (Shel Silverstein and Dennis Locorriere)
Dennis Locorriere of Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show and frequent collaborator Shel Silverstein wrote “A Couple More Years,” a slow 12/4-feeling country blues about bein’ a little farther down the life-road than the young lady in question should have to deal with.
Dig the second verse: “I’ve walked a couple more roads than you, babe, that’s all/and I’m tired of runnin’ while you’re only learnin’ to crawl/you’re goin’ somewhere but I’ve been to somewhere and found it was nowhere at all/and I’ve picked up a couple more years on ya, babe, and that’s all…” Who says Shel only knows how to write about bovine romance?
‘Old Friend’ (Waylon)
Waylon picks up the tempo a little bit with a tune he wrote about Buddy Holly. As almost everybody knows, Waylon was a bass-playing Cricket from about mid-’58 to early ’59, and that he gave up his place on the plane to the Big Bopper. He’s tired of being asked about that whole trip, and just doesn’t want to talk about it, so “Old Friend” is supposed to be his last statement on the subject:
“Wasn’t many years ago/seems like only yesterday/the last time I saw you laugh at me/and fly away… I remember all the good times/and the songs we used to sing/old friend, we sure have missed you/but you ain’t missed a thing… I’m sure you’ve heard the music/and all the changes it’s gone through/but the funny thing is lately/it keeps easin’ back to you/but there’s always somethin’ missin’/it’ll never be the same/old friend we sure have missed you/but you ain’t missed a thing… they been writin’ books about you/and the stories that they tell/make you look like some kinda angel/and we both know you was mean as hell/well, I’ve had my share of hard times/but I’ve been through the strain/old friend, I sure have missed you/but you ain’t missed a thing… people talk about you/after all this time/you were many things to many people/but you were a friend of mine/I been thinkin’ about you – and the things you’ve never seen/well, old friend, we sure have missed you/but you ain’t missed a thing…”
‘Precious Memories’ (Waylon, Ken Mansfield)
“Precious Memories” closes the album, and it’s Waylon’s first try at a spiritual. “It kind of spooked us at first,” Mansfield smiled, “because he’d never done anything like that before.” It’s a little out of context with the rest of the album, but then again maybe it isn’t. Only Waylon knows. In any case, it comes off well enough, and at least we can bet he won’t do an entire album of gospel tunes anytime soon. Willie can get away with it, maybe – we’ll see; his next album will be the gospel album that was supposed to be his first Lone Star release.
“This album was the easiest and best one we’ve ever done,” Mansfield beamed. “We did no more than three or four takes per song.” There was one tune that wasn’t included in the album called “Texas Sand,” which Waylon started to play because there was still some tape left over. None of the other players had ever heard it, but they did it anyway; two full takes in six minutes. The first one was kept and is canned for the moment.
Waylon Jennings’ Best Since ‘Honky Tonk Heroes’
I have never spent anywhere near 3,200 words on an album review, but who cares? Precedents were meant to be thrashed. If Waylon can do it on his album, then I can do it in my review. Another reason is I think “Are You Ready for the Country” is the best thing he’s done since “Honky Tonk Heroes” and therefore a very important album. It transcends any rock vs. country argument you care to come up with.
I just spent several minutes studying the album cover, which is his first gatefold cover. It is definitely classy work. But maybe my copy was printed a little off-the-money; I just can’t reconcile the air-brush job RCA did to remove the hair on Waylon’s chest, for God’s sake.
Details. Picky, picky, right?
Okay. The hair is inside the LP jacket anyway, inside the grooves, waiting for you to hear it. Don’t waste no time, either.
‘Are You Ready for the Country’ – Story Backstory
This is a Waylon Jennings feature album review I wrote on a portable college-sized electric typewriter at outlaw country singer, songwriter and performer David Allan Coe’s upscale North Dallas house on July 5-6, 1976, on my way home to L.A. from the 4th annual Willie Nelson 4th of July Picnic near Austin.
Texans Roxy Gordon and his wife Judy Gordon were producing/publishing Picking Up the Tempo (PUTT) mostly as a labor of love, spotlighting Texas music and culture and counterculture, out of DAC’s four-car garage, with his blessing.
The Gordons graciously allowed this non-Texan to contribute to the mag (other contributors included Joe Gracie and Joe Nick Patoski), and since I was in the neighborhood and wanted to make the July issue with a review of Waylon’s new album, I stopped to visit and write the piece that follows.
Coe was on the road at the time, and his wife and kids were our gracious hosts for a few hot summer days. DAC was OK with me because a year earlier, I’d been one of the few L.A. press guys who had the cojones to knock on the door to his tour bus, parked in front of the Troubadour in West Hollywood, and ask for a pre-show interview. DAC had this bad-ass reputation, but we got along just fine, though I did not share his racist opinions of black people and Mexicans.
Between 1975-1979, it was my great fortune to spend time with Waylon and his wife Jessi Colter – a chart-topping country singing star in her own right best-known for the album and title track hit “I’m Not Lisa,” produced by Ken Mansfield – on several occasions at their gigs and social gatherings in L.A., Nashville and Las Vegas.
Waylon an I had met in late May ’75, when I was a freshly minted associate editor at Cash Box, one of the three major music industry trade magazines at the time (Billboard and Record World the other two).
He had a new studio album coming up, and Paula Batson at RCA’s West Coast PR office knew I had a special interest in Texas music, so she invited me to the RCA building on Sunset to meet and interview him about “Dreaming My Dreams.”
Talking first about the Texas Playboys, Texas radio and the hippie-redneck-rock scene going on in Austin, Waylon and I hit it off right away. From there we had a great, wide-ranging interview; it ran overtime and he made the next interviewer wait. A photographer friend of mine, Matt Cupp, came along and took a few photos.
Waylon invited me to hang out with him later that day, when he guested on DJ Jimmy Rabbitt’s progressive country-redneck rock radio show on KMET-FM. They were old pals from Waylon’s pre-fame days on Texas radio. I can’t tell you how much fun I had being a fly on the wall in the studio that night with those two. I would love to find an aircheck.
My Cash Box feature about Waylon – actually my first feature as a (starving) pro-fessional writer – was well-received when it finally ran about six weeks later.
Better, Jessi actually phoned me at the mag’s offices just after it was published to thank me for “getting” what her husband was trying to do with his music. My editors were impressed their new kid had potential. Jessi was, and is, one classy woman, the only one known to wrangle Waylon’s heart. As he told me in our 1975 interview, and as I heard him say to others who spoke with him, Waylon knew he was “one lucky hombre.”
Jennings’ “Are You Ready for the Country” album followed “Dreaming My Dreams” by a year. He co-produced the sessions with Mansfield, the former Apple exec turned producer who’d helmed the sessions for Jessi’s huge “I’m Not Lisa” album for Capitol in 1975.
RCA released “Are You Ready for the Country” five months after the label’s million-selling “The Outlaws” album, compiling tracks by Waylon, Willie Nelson, Jessi and Tompall Glaser, so a much wider audience anticipated Waylon’s new studio album.
“Are You Ready for the Country” went on to top the country album charts, and spawned four hit country singles (“Can’t You See,” #4; “Are You Ready for the Country,” #7; “I’ll Go Back to Her,” #4; and “Too Good Woman, #7).
Waylon’s achieved respectable success in his bid for a wider audience: The album also made the pop Top 40 and scored gold (sales of half a million copies). And it set the stage for 1977’s “Ol’ Waylon,” Jennings’ first platinum (million-selling) solo album.
Other reviews of “Are You Ready for the Country” were generally positive, but some critics thought it lacked cohesion compared to Waylon’s earlier albums, particularly “Honky Tonk Heroes,” his thematic album of Billy Joe Shaver songs.
I stand by my take today: I think “Are You Ready for the Country” is just as strong as “HTH” in its own way, and was indeed Waylon’s breakthrough to a wider audience.
On Aug. 30, 2013, I sent a link to this Picking Up the Tempo review to Mansfield, who recounts those heady times with Waylon in a couple of his books I had just read.
“I just read your review…and I really dug it,” Mansfield wrote back. “Great insight, writing and ears. Thanks for the memories…K.”
Article: Waylon Jennings – ‘Are You Ready for the Country,’ PUTT, 7-7-76
Author: Stephen K. Peeples
Category: Blasts from the Past