Album Review: The Music Inside: A Collaboration Dedicated to Waylon Jennings Volume 1

Various Artists

The Music Inside: A Collaboration Dedicated to Waylon Jennings 

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In the liner notes for the album, and in form of a letter to her late husband, Jessi Colter writes: “I think you’d say, “you done good hoss!” and to the artists “It’s supposed to be this way.” And rightfully so because Jennings would be more than proud with the execution of volume one in this three part celebration of his music and legacy, coming nine years after his death. It gathers the best of the new (Jamey Johnson, Randy Houser, Sunny Sweeney, James Otto) and old (Kris Kristofferson, Alabama, John Hiatt, Patty Griffin) to pay tribute to one of country music’s original outlaws.

It’s fitting that the record would begin with a cut by Johnson – the best voyeur into Jennings’s legacy in modern country. On That Lonesome Song he paid tribute by cutting “Dreaming My Dreams” and “The Door Is Always Open” and perfectly captured Jennings’s energy and charm on the album’s title song. Here, he wraps his distinctive baritone around “This Time,” Jennings’s first number one hit from 1974. While it lacks the punch of his other tributes to the outlaw, it’s well sung and smartly executed. There is little doubt that Johnson has found his lane, if anyone was meant to sing classic country music it’s him.

As much as Johnson is celebrated for his associations with Jennings’s music, The Music Inside gained attention for another track – “Are You Sure Hank Done It That Way” which preceded the project as the first single. The track reunites the members of Alabama and marks the first time they’ve recorded together in nine years. Radio largely ignored the tune, which is a shame because it’s message, that Hank Williams Sr wouldn’t make country music the way it’s made in modern times, is as relevant today as it was when the song first charted in 1975. While they do a competent job with the song, it lacks the punch of their esteemed recordings. It’s softer and doesn’t hit as hard as their classic songs from the 80s and 90s, which could be do to their advancing age. Randy, Teddy, and Jeff are looking very worn these days. But in any event, it’s great to hear them again, if only on one song on a tribute album.

But the whole album isn’t artists that could’ve punched harder. When women come to play, they add the spunk needed to elevate the mostly even tempo set. Proving she’s quickly becoming one of my favorite female singers on the charts today, Sweeney adds a fire to her duet of “Good Hearted Woman” with Colter. I had reservations about two women taking on the Willie and Waylon classic, but they pulled it off brilliantly. If you’re going to purchase the album for only one track let it be this one – it’s well worth it. With her solo hits “From a Table Away” and “Staying’s Worse Than Leaving,” and this duet, Sweeney is establishing herself as a force in modern country to be reckoned with. She’s more than a fine vocalist who’s pioneering a new neo traditionalist meets modernism sound.

Griffin is the other welcomed female singer on this album. She has the catch-22 of being paired with Kristofferson, country’s legendarily poor vocalist. She shines next to him, which isn’t exactly hard, but also has to hold up the song on her own since he fails to do so himself. But she’s also the record’s biggest surprise. I know her more for her songwriting contributions to Dixie Chicks’ Fly and Home albums and have never listened to her sing before. Griffin is a fine vocalist in her own right and more than commands the spotlight.

Another artist with the vocal ability to bridge the gap between tradition and modernism is Houser. His stripped down country/blues rendering of “I’m A Ramblin’ Man” is far and away the best vocal on the whole album. I’m wondering if Houser knows the excellence he implements here. His is a voice suited for these kinds of songs and not the southern rock he often releases to country radio. When he gets the vocal and production right, it can be so powerful that it takes me aback. He may be the finest male vocalist in the genre today and this is another step in his acceleration to greatness.

Overall The Music Inside is a fine surprise. I wasn’t expecting it to be nearly good as I found it to be. Every cut is a stellar tribute to one of the most influential men in country music history. Colter has done a great job at honoring her late husband’s legacy while giving fans a worthwhile and enjoyable listen filled with a few gems. Volumes 2 and 3 are coming later in the year, and if they hold up to this initial offering, than this could be an essential listen and a look inside a man worth remembering, and celebrating for decades to come.

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