Shortly before his death in February 2002, Waylon Jennings returned to the studio in order to lay down what would be his final recordings. Working with his good friend Robby Turner, who serves as producer of this project, Waylon created an intimate set of performances capturing both the peace and turmoil that accompanied the singer later in life. Though most of those original recordings comprised of simply vocal and guitar, Robby pledged that he would finish the instrumentation and arrangements at Waylon’s request. Now, more than 10 years later, the project is complete.
Goin’ Down Rockin’: The Last Recordings stays remarkably true to Waylon’s classic sound. Standard arrangements of deep bass, moving pedal steel and acoustic/electric guitars make up the vibrant musical landscapes. And while Robby opted for an open sound that is at times reserved (the emotional and sometimes strained “The Ways of the World”) and at other times aggressive (the hammering “If My Harley Was Runnin’,” fueled by the desperation to regain one’s manhood), the key to the band’s authenticity is that Robby was Waylon’s longtime pedal steel player, while the project’s guitarist Reggie Young canvassed so many of Waylon’s songs with tasteful leads. Match that with Waylon’s unmistakably rich baritone, and the album feels comfortable and familiar.
Goin’ Down Rockin’ features both new and old material as Waylon revisits some of his earlier work. “I Do Believe,” which he recorded with Willie, Johnny and Kris as part of The Highwaymen, is an incredibly personal spiritual statement seeking to make sense of a greater power. In my own way I’m a believer, he sings with strong hints of that famous independence. “Friends In California” was written in 1984. Powered by an outlaw thump, the track delivers a wonderful hook signaling that Waylon had lost no part of his rhythm later in life. The collection’s best song may be “Belle of the Ball,” a beautiful ¾-time ballad that served as the B-side to the iconic “Luckenbach, Texas.” A vagabond dreamer, a rhymer and singer of songs, he describes himself before praising the woman who could love him unconditionally. While the song may be an example of Waylon at his most tender, his voice is arguably stronger here than at many times in his storied career.
Waylon was known for his fiercely independent spirit, and that comes through loud and clear on this set. Spent a little time in trouble but I do have my ways, he sings on the swampy title-track. Tony Joe White, who co-wrote the song, adds thick bayou twang, harmonica and a raspy verse to the tune. The delivery might be laid back, but a darkness lurks beneath the surface. “Wrong Way To Nashville” continues Waylon’s long-running feud with Music Row while also featuring an assist from the twin fiddles of The Time Jumpers’ Joe Spivey and Larry Franklin. On “Sad Songs and Waltzes,” Waylon laments that they just “ain’t selling this year.” You’re lookin’ at a man livin’ in the wrong time, he sings, feeling left behind by mainstream country. Funny then, that the very next song, “She Was No Good For Me,” is a country tearjerker in ¾-time.
Goin’ Down Rockin’ is vastly different from the final albums of Johnny Cash. While Johnny delivered haunting Southern Gospel on those releases that often featured unorthodox covers, this project celebrates Waylon’s original sound and style. The self-awareness of songs like “Never Say Die,” which quips about his “sexy walking cane,” reflects the thoughts and feelings he had at the end of his life and like he had always shown, he was Goin’ Down Rockin.’
Key Tracks – “Belle of the Ball,” “Goin’ Down Rockin’,” “Friends in California,” “She Was No Good For Me”