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It's ironic how country music, once a realm where the adage "respect your elders" was all but religious law, has become so negligent of its aging Great Men. Even the youth-obsessed rock and pop game doesn't urge its elders out to pasture in the lazy and fattening grasses of somewhere like Branson. But just as I sat down to write this, I read an article by former Dallas Morning News country critic (and Observer contributor) Michael Corcoran about the flip side of this Great Divide: how country's crusty ol' codgers can sometimes miss those new, young commercial country acts with some genuine merit. Point well taken, even though Corky -- a good friend with whom I can enjoy artistic disagreements -- singled out Waylon as one of the aging outlaws whose grudge against the pre-millennial Music Row isn't justified by his recent output. Sorry, Corky, but you're way off base on that one.
Before we give a DNA test to the evidence, consider this: Bitching has been a Waylon trademark all along. His ability to raise a ruckus about what's wrong and buck the system enabled Jennings to be the first modern major-label artist in Nashville to record how he wanted with his own band, his attitude serving as the spark and the fuel for the outlaw movement's stance. But he's more than just a rebel. After all, Jennings cut a whole album of songs by the then all-but-unknown Billy Joe Shaver, covered Los Lobos ("Will the Wolf Survive") years before the Wolves became a respected institution, and even made the banal "MacArthur Park" at least palatable. And all it takes is a listen to "Dreaming My Dreams With You" for this nearly confirmed bachelor to believe again in the seemingly dead notion of true, sweet, enduring love. Let's face it: The man can raise hell, push the artistic envelope, and be as intoxicatingly romantic as candlelight and fine wine.
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Then there's Waylon in the 1990s, still making challenging records with guts and spirit, but somehow also being sent out to stud by the cognoscenti, Corcoran hardly being a lone offender. Yet 1992's Too Dumb for New York City, Too Ugly for LA was an energetic, spare, yet witty little gem, while last year's Closing In on The Fire found him tackling the role of being a country-music rocker at the end of the American Century with courage and finesse. So don't count Waylon Jennings out. Maybe there's some greater reason why he didn't board that plane out of Clear Lake, Iowa, some four decades ago, the one that went down with his friend and bandleader Buddy Holly on board. Whatever the case, instead of grazing on the easy green at some dinner theater, he's still kicking up his heels on records and the road. The man who observed how "Living Legends Are a Dying Breed" some 20 years ago still has enough life in him to measure up to the legend.