Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way (1975)
Good tribute songs are not a dime a dozen. But if anyone deserves one for his hard traveling in Country music, it’s Hank Williams.
Guys like Waylon Jennings don’t come cheap either, so his praise of an idol is honest, as his twisting, turning career will tell you.
Are Your Sure…?
Waylon was in Buddy Holly’s backup band on the famous 1959 Winter Dance Party Tour in the midst of which the flower of American Rock-N-Roll went down in a field in Iowa. Waylon’s heavily textured voice, his innovative way of interpreting the electric country guitar sound, his general “outlaw” attitude plus his ability to knock out hit songs and albums place him well inside legend territory. (His six-packs-of-cigarettes-per-day habit, his hard drug use and his romantic, musical marriage to the nightingale-voiced Jessi Colter serve to gild the image. His and Coulter’s moving duet of “Suspicious Minds” stands up proudly to the Elvis version.)
The pounding, marching, determined beat of “Are Your Sure Hank Done It This Way” informs us of the determination that Jennings had to muster in order to buck the Nashville music establishment when he was starting out and even well after he had become a star. It was a long and winding country path, so filled with nuance that the music giant published an autobiography, Waylon. He told wife Jessi, “I’m going to write my story before somebody gets it wrong.
Somehow, Jennings broke through the music industry’s syndrome of self-destruction by kicking drugs and generally cleaning himself up. In “Hank” he explores all that was good and much that was off-putting about the Williams’ legacy. And he calls for change:
It’s not just a change Waylon calls for in the live-fast, die-young outlook. He’s calling for an end to the phoniness that infected and still infects mainstream Country and by extension, Pop. The song is a clarion call for authenticity – the way Hank done it.
It’s curious that Waylon would choose an out-and-out Rock song to make his case. But not to say that a grain of Country salt is lost in the possum stew. The sense of the open road, fresh air and homespun ways trot through the song like cows coming home to be milked.
His slappy, twangy guitar is put through a phaser that provides a sip or two of modernity, creating the audio peaks and valleys that come through the special effects machine’s modulation technology. It’s a superb touch on what could have been just a Country-stomper song.
He is ably backed by Billy Ray Reynolds on guitar and Ralph Mooney on steel guitar. Duke Goff provides the heavy bottom on bass, and the drumming assignment with its irresistible beat is filled by Richie Albright.
Fundamentally it’s a Country stomper, though, with a new engine and a set of fancy wheels. Not much happens in terms of chord progression – it’s a simple A-D-A-D move.
The rhythm makes no changes either. Flat out, it says “don’t stop me now ‘cause I’m going into town.” You can close your eyes and picture a dancehall whether you’re in rural Vermont; Bakersfield, California; Turkey, Texas, or Knoxville, Tennessee. You can picture something like, but not quite exactly, the Texas Two-Step. Whatever it might be, there’s a lot of noise from boots on the boards.
Waylon’s voice is in mint condition on “Hank.” He gives Williams just enough adulation; you get a sense that if Waylon is not quite on the same level, he knows he’s within shouting distance. (Eleven Jennings albums and 16 of his singles hit #1. His 1976 smash album Wanted! The Outlaws, was the first Country album ever to go platinum.)
The Outlaws’ “Suspicious Minds”
But there was a price to pay for all the beauty, pleasure-making, toe-tapping, ass-smacking fun Jennings brought to the world of people who know his work.
I’ve seen the world with a five-piece band
Looking at the back side of me
Singing my songs and one of his now and then
But I don’t think Hank done ‘em this a’way
No I don’t think Hank done ‘em this a’way
He died just short of his 65th birthday and long before had to curtail his touring due to the pain of diabetes-related afflictions, and from, eventually, amputations.
Not quite midway through “Hank,” and then again as the song closes, a very impressive Country jam gives us the sense of an old-fashioned hoe-down that snuffed the “awl lamps” and suddenly flipped on the electric lights for the first time ever. The only shame is that even during his most powerful, the rulers of the record world saw fit to shorten up the breaks. His band could rock and roll, and they should have been given rein to do so.
The Country strand of DNA has largely been stripped from Rock-N-Roll as of late. Speaking of Waylon, Hank and others makes us feel the loss within the larger genre. Neil Young keeps it alive, for one, The Felice Brothers for another.
When you listen to “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” you can see Neil lurking about the giant pointillist tree on the cover of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. In fact, the rhythms and sensibilities of “Cinnamon Girl,” “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” and “Hank” are closely related. Waylon could have easily covered the single “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” and knocked it out of the pasture.
“Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” – Neil Young
It might be noted that Neil Young created his own paean to Williams (and others) called “From Hank To Hendrix,” a Country gem. The commonality shared by Waylon and Neil? Singular visions, superb voices and crossing over in the genuine sense from Country to Rock and back, seemingly at will.
Authentic artists and vocalists like Jennings come along so rarely. One day someone may sing, “Are you sure old Waylon done it this way?”
Let’s give his wife, highly accomplished singer and country beauty, Jessi Colter, the last word: “But now with American Idol there’s a whole lot of kit cars built instead of an original that comes on the scene. There’s some great vocalists and beautiful [music]. It makes you think that everybody can sing. It’s just different; it’s a different time and place. An original like Bob Dylan, I don’t know if we’ll ever see that again.”
- Waylon Jennings on meeting John Lennon: “I met John Lennon, and I – you know – we were cutting up and everything at one of the Grammy things. And I said, man, you’re a lot of – you’re funny. I didn’t know you were funny. I said, I thought you were some kind of mad guy or something like that. And he said, me? He said: Listen, people in England think you shoot folks.” (NPR, 1996)