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Interview: Waylon Jennings Tribute Album A Labor of Love for Wife Jessi Colter and Producer Witt Stewart

Jessi Colter
Courtesy of Jessi Colter

The late, great Waylon Jennings gets a tribute album befitting his legendary career, courtesy of his wife Jessi Colter and producer Witt Stewart.  In an exclusive interview with Taste of Country, the pair talk about Waylon, the new record and some of the amazing country stars that appear on it.

‘Waylon: the Music Inside: A Collaboration Dedicated to Waylon Jennings, Volume 1′ features new performances of some of Waylon’s most beloved songs by a wide range of country stars including Alabama (reuniting just for this album!), Jamey Johnson, Trace Adkins and Waylon’s own flesh and blood, son Shooter Jennings.

While you’re reading all about this exciting compilation, you’ll definitely want to head over to our free, exclusive listening party, where you can enjoy all eleven songs in their full glory. OK, here we go…

What made you decide to do this tribute to Waylon?
Witt Stewart: “I became aware of Waylon in the second grade. Our paths crossed a few times. I managed some bands down in Texas [and] we did some shows together with Willie and Waylon. I was always a huge fan. A few years back, when I was visiting home, you know, you start reminiscing about your past. I decided that I wanted to shine a light on Waylon, ’cause to me he was a man among men, he was the consummate artist, he was just the best. So I sought Jessi out and told her I had an idea, and it kind of went from there.”

Now, this is the first of three volumes? Is there a theme to each of the records, and how did it all come together?
WS: “Yeah, it started out as 10 songs, and there are 36 so far. The first one comes out in February, the second on June 14 — which is the day before Waylon’s birthday — and the third will be late October. Plus, we may even have a Christmas surprise. This way we don’t put it all on the table at one time. We can build more of a groundswell.

There’s no theme, other than it’s Waylon and it’s the music inside that made him. When you dig into Waylon’s music, you better take some time, ’cause it’s gonna take a while. So I researched and sought out people that loved Waylon. Obviously, Jessi and Shooter singing on it was a big plus, and, of course, Kris Kristofferson. Then, I wanted to get as many young people to shine a light on this idea from a new generation and from a new perspective.”

Jessi, there have been other Waylon tribute albums before. Were you involved in those, and what makes this one special?
Jessi Colter: “I made some major decisions on the RCA one [2003's 'I've Always Been Crazy - a Tribute to Waylon Jennings']. I chose Ben Harper — they wondered who he was — and James Hetfield of Metallica, who was a great friend of Waylon’s. I was part of him being involved, but there were some choices made when it came to business that were definitely wrong. Duotone did a good one [2003's 'Lonesome, Onry and Mean'], but didn’t involve me on the day to day or even the song to song. So when Witt came to me, he was genuine but it still took me time to trust him. Still, it intrigued me as a great prospect to furthering Waylon’s catalog and getting the young people to know him.”

Well, if you’re on the phone with us, he must have been worth that trust, right?
JC: “Witt has been true to his word, and I found him genuine in his desire to be fair to the artist. Some of them couldn’t believe what he was offering them contract-wise, as well as the artistic freedom. All in all, it would have been something that Waylon would have been happy with, had he been able to do this. It’s been a very heartwarming and challenging situation to watch what has evolved from this.”

Even with all the different singers, this record sounds very unified. Did the same band play on all of it?
WS: “I was there every minute of every time, but really the key to it was Reggie Young and Jenny Young. Even with Reggie being a Hall of Fame legendary guitar player, I’d never met him. When we recorded the first song, out in Jessi’s house, which we did on 2″ analog, she wanted to bring Reggie and Jenny in. After that full day of recording, at dinner, I said, “you know what, Reggie? You can play on every track you want to play on.” It just turned out that he was truly Waylon’s muse, if you will. I’d turn to him and ask, ‘Would Waylon like this? is this the right thing?” and he’d say, “Man, Waylon would think this was coooool.’”

And everything was recorded live?
WS: “Yup. I’d recorded several albums with Carol King, [and] from her I learned to record live, with everyone in the same room. So that’s how we did each of those tracks. There’d be different musicians, some artists would bring some of their players, but it was always Reggie. We just seized the moment. It was about giving the artists the freedom to do it as they felt it.”
JC: “It was so much fun to be part of the sessions. I wish I could have been in on them all. Sometimes there would be reasons I couldn’t be there. He’ll go shifting on the fly, as the pilots call it. He’ll grab and seize the day. We’re talking some real fun in the studio.”

Did any of the performances particularly surprise you?
WS: “I think one of the biggest surprises came from Randy Houser. I didn’t really know him. I was approached, I did some research, I liked his voice, but I didn’t particularly like his songs. So I said, ‘Randy, let’s do this as a blues. I want you to do it like no one in Nashville would let you do.’ So he came in with his ideas, him and Reggie picked up, and it turned into this really cool bluesy number. That one stands out as something totally different.

Then, just the magic of the moment — and Jessi was there — for the Hank Jr. track. We started out recording one song, and about an hour or so into it, he came into the control room and said, ‘Boss, this ain’t happening. I don’t like it. This isn’t working.’ We were doing ‘I’ve Always Been Crazy.’ So he asked me, ‘Has anyone done ‘Waymore Blues?” He sat on the couch, worked it out with Reggie, and we recorded it in about half an hour.”

Obviously, it must have been important to have Shooter involved.
WS: “When Jessi and I first met, she said, “Well, this sounds too good to be true. I’m gonna need Shooter’s blessing.” So we flew to Birmingham — he was playing a show over there. I’d never met Shooter. I’d never seen him perform. He had his band leave the stage and said, ‘I wanna do this special song that my father always said was his favorite song that he ever wrote. It’s Father’s Day, it’s my first day as a father, and it would have been my father’s birthday.’ He did ‘Belle of the Ball,’ just him and his piano; you could have heard a pin drop on that stage. I had tears rolling down my face. I turned to Jessi and said, ‘We need to record this song just like this!’”

Sounds like you got pretty close on the album version.
WS: “We recorded it in his living room in LA, Then I brought it back to Nashville and added Reggie on guitar and Jenny on cello, but that song to me still stands out as probably my favorite song. It was the consummation of us starting to work together. Plus, exactly what happened that night on the stage he captured again in his living room. I hear Waylon in that song. Shooter is an amazing talent in his own right, and I love that song. Also, if you listen, you can hear a little snoring down in here. His bulldog was sleeping at his feet the whole time! He said, “You want me to get the dog out?” and I said, ‘No, he’s in tune!’”

What record would you suggest to anyone who enjoys this collection, as a great starting point for Waylon’s world?
JC: “‘Are You Sure Hank Done it This Way,’ which he did with Jack Clement. That was just such a breaking point for him. Also, from the same album [1975's 'Dreaming My Dreams'], ‘Waymore Blues’ was probably his favorite recording experience. He loved recording, he loved being in the studio. ‘Honky Tonk Heroes’ [1973] was great, too. He did so many of Billy Joe Shaver’s songs on that one. Plus, that was the beginning point of him recording and engineering all of his own things.”

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