Whether or not you consider Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings real rebels or outsiders anymore, they do represent a dying breed of country artists. By virtue of their age, origins and traditions, they provide a living link to an older and wilder America, which is why they could create something called the "outlaw country" movement a decade ago.
The problem all three have faced is how to keep their music vital now that the outlaw ethos is passe' and their images and careers all but set in the history books. Because of his varied talents, Nelson's solution has been to relax and pursue his creative whims and musical interests willy-nilly.
His latest record, "The Promisedland" (Columbia FC 40327), is typical of his tidal wave of album releases over the last few years. It offers a couple of great songs, one pure indulgence ("Bach Minuet in G"), too many standards and plenty of enjoyable instrumental play. In other words, it sounds more like the work of a talented musician than of a great artist.
Most of the album is devoted to Nelson's laid-back western jazz sound, part honky-tonk and part cocktail lounge. Like Merle Haggard, he likes to play band leader and instrumentalist, and his Spanish-tinged acoustic guitar shares center stage here with the celebrated fiddles of Jimmy Belkin and Johnny Gimble. The playing of these pros is so tasteful and Nelson's singing so respectful, especially on jazz standards such as "Basin Street Blues," that they often fail to get inside the material and find something new.
The album's finest moments come when Nelson engages songs whose reflective and personal lyricism suits his unique conversational phrasing. On both his own "I'm Not Trying to Forget You" and David Jones' "Here in My Heart," Nelson creates an atmosphere of soul-baring intimacy. The slightest break in his flat and dry delivery opens a world of loss, guilt and confusion. On these songs Nelson is an artist bringing emotions, not just instruments, to life.
If Waylon Jennings has had a harder time than Willie Nelson, perhaps it's because Jennings' outlaw persona was so central to his best music. He recently overcame a long-term drug problem, and on "Will the Wolf Survive" (MCA-5688) he tries to open a fresh musical era for himself with a new label and producer. Unfortunately, Jimmy Bowen's eagerness to revitalize Jennings' music with an overly busy, modern production undermines the album.
It's too bad, because Jennings' cracked, leathery voice does sound revitalized here, biting down with anger on the funky "That Dog Won't Hurt" and smoldering with grief on "Where Does Love Go." But the haunting folk sound of the latter is dissipated as an ungainly procession of keyboards and guitars swoop in and out of the song. Producer Bowen also grants an annoyingly sharp presence to the percussion and rhythm guitar that cuts through all of Jennings' vocals here.
Both Jennings and Bowen hit bottom on a misguided version of Los Lobos' "Will the Wolf Survive." While the song's seriousness puts the starch in Jennings' delivery, it gives Bowen the license to pit a tinkling mandolin against a hard-rock guitar in a ludicrous instrumental duet.
If Jennings at least sounds involved on his solo release, the same can't be said for him or Johnny Cash on their new duet album, "Heroes" (Columbia SC 40347). In the last decade, the country duet has disintegrated from an authentic tradition to a marketing gimmick, and this pairing shows why. Cash and Jennings each possess ruggedly masculine and idiosyncratic singing voices, but their attempt to share the same musical space renders them closer to accommodating in-laws than cantankerous outlaws.
What Jennings and Cash do share is a rather nostalgic view of America and a willingness to get misty eyed over the good old days of flag waving, movie heroes and rambling. The songs here, mostly ballads, pander to this sentimentality, and producer Chips Moman'scq grandiose use of strings only deepens this musical corn. The album cover depicts Jennings and Cash as tough desperadoes, and you only wish that one of them had the sense to admit that this record just wasn't big enough for both of them.