When Jimmy Carter hugged Willie Nelson on the Merriweather Post Pavilion stage in July of 1978, it was the only time in recent memory that an American president has publicly embraced a man wearing a braided ponytail, a gold earring and faded jeans. It was the ultimate triumph for Nelson and his fellow country music "outlaws."
Nowhere had the principle of macho manhood been more staunchly defended than in country music. For most of the '70s, the Nashville music industry drew in the circle of covered wagons and bravely fought off the unpolished sound, unorthodox ideas and unrefined looks of the shaggy long hairs.
Now the industry finds three of its biggest male stars -- producer Billy Sherrill and singers Johnny Cash and George Jones -- embracing the outlaw movement musically as President Carter did physically. One the epitome of Nashville slickness, Sherrill has produced rowdy outlaw albums by David Allan Coe -- "Compass Point" (Columbia JC 36277), and Johnny Paycheck -- "Everybody's Got a Family -- Meet Mine" (Epic JE 36200).
Sherrill also produced George Jones' "My Very Special Guests" (Epic JE 35544). Jones revives his career in duets with progressive country singers like Nelson, Paycheck, Waylon Jennings and Emmy Lou Harris. Johnny Cash revives his career by using Harris' husband, Brian Ahern, as his producer on "Silver" (Columbia JC 36086). Cash sings duets with Jennings on the country anthology, "Banded Together" (Epic JE 36177), and with Harris' songwriter, Rodney Crowell, on "A Believer Sings the Truth" (Caehet CL-3-9001).
Male duets seem to be in the air. Jones and Cash join voices for "I'll Say It's True" on "Silver". Nelson sings nine Kris Kristofferson tunes on "Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson" (Columbia JC 36188) with harmonies by the composer.
Everyone involved seems to have realized a key point. The outlaw movement led by Nelson, Jennings, Coe, Paycheck, Harris and Crowell was not a rebellion against tradition, but a rebellion for tradition. It was the Nashville establishment that was emasculating the folk roots of country music and turning it into corporate entertainment. It was the outlaws who were preserving the raw, rebellious emotions.
Jones and Cash have recognized the outlaws as their true heirs; the outlaws have recognized them as their spiritual fathers, and everyone has benefited.
Though the quality of his 10 partners on the new duets record varies greatly, Jones' singing shines on each cut.
On Nelson's "Night Life," Jennings comments, "I feel like a musical straight man," as Jones sings circles around him. Jones makes the blues sound lush as Nashville's best studio musicians knock themselves out on the cut. Nelson himself adds his understated voice to Jones' on "I Gotta Get Drunk." Their performance defines the essence of honky-tonking.
Jones' oddest collaboration is with Elvis Costello, Britain's brilliant, angry rock 'n' roller. Costello wrote "Stranger in the House" for this duet, and it jerks the tears with the best of them. At the end of the remarkable number, Jones mutters, "Thank you, Elvis."
Jones' best duets are with his contemporaries. Jones and his ex-wife, Tammy Wynette, sing an intensely personal version of "It Sure Was Good." Jones and Pop and Mavis Staples locate the common ground of the white and black gospel traditions on "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." They lift it to inspiring heights.
On "Silver," Brian Ahern has stripped away the sticky strings and puffy platitudes that have clogged up Johnny Cash's music for years. Cash's vocal range is undeniably narrow but his voice has a gritty edge that cuts effectively on songs of hardship. On this album he gets the right songs for his voice.
He resurrects "Cocaine Blues" with its lurid tale intact. Tom T. Hall's "The L & N Don't Stop Here Anymore," an unsentimental look at coal town poverty, is sharpened by Cash's restrained anger and Ricky Scagg's mournful fiddle solo.
"A Believer Sings the Truth" is a small label double album dominated by gospel hymns. Everyone in Cash's far-flung family joins in and the large troupe is often unwieldy. But when Cash digs into the repertoire of his roots, he pulls out a few glowing chestnuts, like "Gospel Boggie" and "I've Got Jesus in My Soul."
Cash's two duets with Waylon Jennings are the highlight of the excellent country anthology, "Banded Together." Cash and Jennings have similarly low, grainy voices. The more disciplined Cash and the more adventurous Jennings reinforce each other on two perfect rabble-rousing numbers, "There Ain't No Good Chain Gang" and "I Wish I Was Crazy Again."
"Compass Point" features five brand new Coe songs and four he wrote in the '50s. The record's best song is a 26-year-old tune, "Merle and Me," as good a country criminal song as you'll hear.
Johnny Paycheck's new record is less successful. Paycheck's voice is well-suited for swaggering bragging, but his one-gear vocals work on little else. Paycheck removes all the tenderness from Lester Flatt's "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms."
"Willie Nelson Sings Kristofferson" is a welcome reminder of how good a singer Nelson is and how good a songwriter Kristofferson is. Kristofferson writes for a low, grainy voice full of drama. He himself has the low-grainy voice, but not the drama. Nelson has it all.
This is the closing of the circle that the outlaw movement was after all along.