Remember after Johnny Cash died, when scores of country celebs started donning “Cash” T-shirts in an effort to assert what a personal and heartfelt influence he was, even though their newest albums sounded like warmed-over Jimmy Buffett records?
Well, on “Outlaw: Celebrating the Music of Waylon Jennings,” a roster of more Americana-inclined stylists and hardcore country traditionalists put their musical minds and souls where their wallets normally are. The record chronicles a 2015 tribute concert held for Jennings, the late Lone Star stylist and figurehead performer of the so-called “outlaw country” movement that ripped Nashville out of its bank of safe, self-pitying songs and tossed it onto the highway of life, along with all the danger elements that came with it.
Given the Buffett-ization of modern country, few Nashville celebs inhabit “Outlaw,” although a few Kentucky ambassadors show no shyness in taking the wheel. Out of the starting gate, Chris Stapleton detonates the party with “I Ain’t Living Long Like This,” the Rodney Crowell tune Jennings scored a major hit with in 1979. Not only do Stapleton’s unaffected but soul-saturated vocals cruise with consummate authority, the tune establishes in its first line what the whole outlaw movement, as well as Jennings’ ascent within it, was about. “I look for trouble and I found it, son — straight down the barrel of a lawman’s gun.”
On the accompanying DVD to “Outlaw,” another Kentucky renegade, Sturgill Simpson, slides with Southern dignity through the 1974 Lee Clayton-penned Jennings hit, “Memories of You and I.” Simpson has regularly discounted stylistic comparisons to Jennings, but the influence of the country icon’s slow smoked reflection is as regal as it is undeniable.
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“Outlaw” also boasts fine performances by Robert Earl Keen (a beat-crazy bust-up of “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way”), Kacey Musgraves (a lovely, longing take on “The Wurtlizer Prize”), Jamey Johnson (on a gorgeously spacious and patient “Freedom to Stay”), Shooter Jennings (a dramatic barroom reading of “Whistlers and Jugglers”) and Alison Krauss (a stunning, graceful “Dreaming My Dreams of You” that sounds like it was written just for her).
But the whole party comes back to Kentucky when Willie Nelson and Stapleton team for one of the great duets the former cut with Jennings at the height of the outlaw movement over four decades ago, “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.” Though age has begun to show some wear in Nelson’s voice (he was 81 at the time of this show, for crying out loud), his sense of steadfast soul remains undiminished. Hearing Stapleton beside him, full of a youthful brand of the same rustic spirit, makes “Outlaw” more than a simple tribute. It’s a righteous, roaring passing of the generational torch.