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BACKTRACKING

Jennings really scorches; Bennett truly pops

A four-disc set revisits Waylon Jennings' progressive country; a Tony Bennett roundup reveals his pop primacy.

October 17, 2006|Robert Hilburn | Special to The Times

Waylon Jennings was a protege of Buddy Holly, a roommate of Johnny Cash, a musical partner of Willie Nelson and a favorite of Bob Dylan -- and a new, four-disc retrospective from RCA/Legacy Records shows why all those talents were drawn to him.

I'll even throw in another famous name for good measure: Elvis Presley.

He's who Jennings reminded me of the first time I saw him in the '60s in concert in Long Beach. The charismatic West Texas native performed only a half-dozen songs, but one, if memory serves, was a version of Gordon Lightfoot's "(That's What You Get) For Lovin' Me" in a voice so scorching and sensual it felt as if it could have burned a hole in the speakers.

At that moment, it was easy to picture Jennings as what Presley could have become if he had given up the wiggle and concentrated on progressive country music in the '60s rather than spend all those years making hapless movies.

The new boxed set, "Nashville Rebel," is an ambitious retrospective -- nearly 100 tracks and a 144-page illustrated booklet -- and the highlights are as dynamic as his Long Beach show.

**

Waylon Jennings

"Nashville Rebel"

(RCA/Legacy)

Jennings wasn't as consistently revealing a songwriter as some of the other great male country artists of his generation, but his voice combined the pure emotion of country and raw power of rock more hauntingly than any of them.

One of his strengths was in recognizing excellent songs, whether they were from country, folk or rock, and then being daring enough to record the songs even if the variety of styles sometimes confused country radio programmers.

Though the set doesn't include them all, Jennings reached out to tunes by Lennon-McCartney ("Norwegian Wood"), Dylan ("Don't Think Twice, It's All Right"), Neil Diamond ("Kentucky Woman") and Neil Young ("Are You Ready for the Country?"). (Virtually all of Jennings' early RCA work is available on Germany's Bear Family Records.)

Jennings complained long and loud about being held back for years as an artist by conservative country forces in Nashville, but his vocals on even the earliest RCA recordings in the set are terrific, especially such tracks as "Stop the World (And Let Me Off)," "Time to Bum Again" and "Love of the Common People."

Jennings hit his creative stride in the early '70s when he and his equally independent sidekick, Nelson, created the "outlaw" movement. Jennings' music from the period still mirrors the excitement of the "Outlaw" days in tracks as delicate as "Amanda" or as defiant as "I've Always Been Crazy."

Jennings' music wasn't as reliable after he left RCA, but he still delivered occasional gems, especially during his tenure with Nelson, Cash and Kris Kristofferson in the Highwaymen. As "Nashville Rebel" shows, Jennings, who died of complications of diabetes in 2002 at age 64, was truly one of the great voices of the modern pop era.

**

Tony Bennett

"Greatest Hits of the '50s" (Columbia/Legacy)

Bennett, who is back on the charts with a duets album featuring the likes of Bono and John Legend, is usually described as a jazz singer, but he has always struck me as closer to pop -- maybe because that's what he was singing when I first heard him.

In the pre-rock '50s, when major pop labels were beginning to respond to the rise of country and R&B, Johnnie Ray captured the teen pop imagination with "Cry." Ray's soulful and intense vocal on the 1951 single drew more from the passion of R&B than mainstream pop and it played a huge role in creating interest among young pop fans in R&B.

Bennett also brought urgency and passion to his hit singles in the early '50s, turning to country music for material (Hank Williams' "Cold, Cold Heart") and giving relatively conventional pop (Richard Adler and Jerry Ross' "Rags to Riches") such sweeping, vigorous interpretations that it took on special force.

Bennett's ties to soulful elements in those days didn't capture the media's attention the way the Ray's did, but a youngster in Memphis, Tenn., in the early '50s surely noticed. Twenty years later, in fact, Presley recorded his version of "Rags to Riches."

*

Backtracking, a biweekly feature, highlights CD reissues with special attention to artists or albums deserving of greater attention than they received originally.

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