Waylon Jennings, country music's definitive outlaw figure, sounds more like an in-law on his new album, "Black On Black."
There's still bite in his distinctively strong and rolling baritone, but this time around, Waylon proves himself to be a pretty amiable fellow. He gives a little growl on the two classic songs, Hank Williams' "Honky Tonk Blues" and Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," gets appropriately exuberant on long-time pal Bobby Emmons' "Get Naked With Me," and races through his own "Women Do Know How to Carry On," a rollicking tribute to the distaff sides' ability to endure not just men but hard times (though they're pretty closely tied).
But too often Jennings sounds like Gordon Lightfoot in Nashville, from the saccharine "May I Borrow Some Sugar From You?" to his obligatory duet with Willie Nelson on "Just to Satisfy You." As so often before, their contrasting voices -- Waylon's rough-hewn and whiskey-bent, Willie's ethereal and sun-dried -- complement each other beautifully, even if the song itself isn't up to their singing.
The mood of the album is most obvious in the Emmons-Chips Moman collaboration, "We Made It As Lovers (We Just Couldn't Make It As Friends)" and Rodney Crowell's beautiful "Song for the Life." The first is everything you'd expect out of the Nashville establishment: forced poignancy, cliched contrasts and insipid melody, but Jennings manages to transcend those limitations and make the song honest and personal. Crowell's song starts from strength, so the teaming of the fine young writer and the grizzled veteran imbues the common ground of "Song for the Life" with an urgency and immediacy lacking in much of the album.
If, after 20 years of upward audibility, Jennings has earned his headliner status, Bobby Bare must be getting a little frustrated at his breadliner status. He had a hit in 1958 with "All-American Boy" (about Elvis going into the Army) and while the hits ("Detroit City," "500 Miles Away from Home", "10" and "Drop Kick Me Jesus Through the Goal Posts of Life") have battled it out with the more-frequent misses, Bare has remained on the supporting-act level of the country-concert circuit.
"Drunk and Crazy" shows why. Bare has a hard time deciding whether he's an macho outlaw or a hard-drinking honky-tonker, so he pushes both images to the limit. His sidekick is songwriter Shel Silverstein, who's been writing for him for a decade and contributes eight of the 15 songs on the album.
The problem is that Silverstein's vices and virtues are as apparent lyrically as they are artistically. Like his classic cartoons, the brushstrokes are either sharp and witty (as in "Food Blues" in which a waiter answers the hapless Bare's innocent query as to "What's good?" with a tirade about exactly what's wrong with just about everything he might ever want to eat) or broad and obvious (the cliche-laden title song).
Some songs fall between the cracks ("World's Last Truck Drivin' Man" with its delicious image, "his left arm is losing its tan"); others fall under the weight of the cracks: "If That Ain't Love" has enough grinning nastiness to last through three barroom conversations ("took a shot at you, baby, deliberately missed, if that ain't love. . .").
Bare's lazy voice crawls over the melodies with an affectionate ease that makes even the weak songs bearable: good example are "I've Never Been to Bed With an Ugly Woman" and the optimistic, jingoistic "Appaloosa Rider." There's a chugga-chugga sameness to the production and it's interesting that Bare ends each side with semi-serious songs, Bobby McDill's "Song of the South" and Guy Clark's "Desperados Waiting for the Train," It's as if Bare willingly accepts the country-clown cloak thrown on his shoulders by fans, so long as he can reserve a bit of dignity for himself somewhere down the line.
THE ALBUMS: "Black on Black" (RCA) by Waylong Jennings and "Drunk and Crazy" (Columbia) by Bobby Bare. THE SHOWs; Jennings with Hank Williams Jr. Jessi Colter and others at Laurel Racecourse on Sunday from 1 to 7; Bobby Bare at Desperado's on Monday.