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Pop Music Review : Jennings Plays With Texas-Size Personality

October 26, 1994|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA ANA — Never underestimate the dedication of the country music fan. At the Crazy Horse Steak House on Monday, Waylon Jennings was beginning to tell about the time he was hospitalized with heart problems between shows at the very same club.

"About seven years ago. . . ." he began. He got no further before several members of the audience interrupted to correct him: "It was six years ago and one day!"

Whatever the date, for the hard-living country singer to whom Rodney Crowell's "I Ain't Living Long Like This" seemed a personal credo, it was a significant turning point. Not long after the Crazy Horse incident he wound up having coronary bypass surgery and changing his ways.

"I've given up everything except oxygen and you-know-what" he declared. "And you know which of those I'd give up first."

Jennings is looking the trimmest he has in decades and the gray has mysteriously vanished from his now-styled hair. His early show performance may not have been as rowdy and rambunctious as some in the past, but there's something to be said for clear-eyed determination as well.

"Let's see Billy Ray Cyrus do that!" Jennings crowed after rocking the aforementioned Crowell tune down like a thrown bull. The 57-year-old Texan clearly knows how to rock with a ferocious personality lacking in the current rock-raised crop of country singers.

Like other country legends, personality is at the core of Jennings' talent. His voice, lyrics, banter and guitar work all speak of who he is and where he's been. There have been times when that's verged on self-parody with all that "Outlaw"-era swagger, but who didn't trip over their legend a few times in the '70s?

*

Jennings--who was playing in Buddy Holly's band when Holly died in 1959--has certainly done enough for one lifetime to have earned the right to coast on his legend.

Instead he's touring with a spunky, challenging new album, "Waymore's Blues (Part II)." Produced by Don Was, who has revitalized the careers of Bonnie Raitt and the Rolling Stones, the album features more Jennings-penned songs than we've heard in ages--some brave solid stuff, and a few toss-offs.

Some of the better songs didn't make it to his set list Monday. Of those that did, there was the album's title track, a slow-chugging blues-shaped song about the ups and downs of his scraggly ways. Of the downs, he sang: "I couldn't make out with a credit card in that cat house over there / Women got my number, but they don't call 'cause they don't care." The other winner was another song about losing, "No Good for Me," about a wild-living love who looked like an angel, "And for somebody else she may be / But she was just no good for me."

Of the other album songs, Tony Joe White's "Up in Arkansas" was a pleasant-enough tune, accented by band member Jerry Bridges' wah-wah guitar work, but it offered Jennings little to make it a personal statement.

Fortunately, his between-song talk is nearly as expressive as his songs, and he prefaced the tune with a remembrance of his own small-town upbringing in West Texas, where the land was so flat, "Your dog could run off and you could watch him go for around three days."

Jennings' other narrative excursions included an account of his most recent hospitalization for operations on his hands that temporarily left him unable to unbutton his jeans. "There I was in New York, looking for an honest face."

In doctor-speak, he'd been told, "You may suffer a bit of discomfort," he said. The subsequent pain he felt, he said, made him inclined to seek out the doctor once his hands healed "and pinch him on the cheek and say, 'That's "a little discomfort." ' Then I'm gonna take a pair of pliers and pull his bottom lip over the top of his head and say ' That's what it feels like.' "

His digits are clearly functioning again, given the guitar solos he was snapping out. On the slow, moody "Amanda" he rolled out a throbbing low solo on the Duane Eddy section of his Telecaster's neck. As usual, Jennings had a sharp band, particularly pedal steel player Fred Newall. A recent addition to the band, Newall's soaring solos were watched with rapt attention by Jennings.

Jessi Colter, Jennings' wife, joined him on "Suspicious Minds" and "Divided We're Through."

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