Well, I did it again. I reached into my crates and pulled one of my Uncle’s records out at random to revisit. Interestingly, the record I chose, THE RAMBLIN’ MAN by Waylon Jennings, belonged to my grandfather and was added to David’s collection upon his father’s death. I’m not a big country music fan, but I must admit, I do like some of the classic country recorded in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Waylon Jennings is one of those outlaw country dudes whose name I recognize but of whom I know nothing. What little I have heard from Jennings comes from an EP he did in the 1990s (released in 2013) with the alt-country outfit Old 97’s. Apparently, however, THE RAMBLIN’ MAN is one of Jennings’s more commercially successful and mainstream records. Considering my grandfather bought it, the record must have been pretty popular at the time of its release in 1974. A few minutes of research online reveals that THE RAMBLIN’ MAN was the follow-up to Jennings 1973 classic HONKY TONK HEROES. It seems that in many ways, Waylon Jennings was a proto-modern country star, ushering in the current era of country by both being more mainstream and (seemingly) niche by operating as an “outlaw” country star.
THE RAMBLIN’ MAN opens with “I’m A Ramblin’ Man,” which, if I’m honest, it sounded to me like a Bud Lite version of Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere.” So I looked into it, and it turns out Cash’s song came out in 1996, well after this album came out. But it turns out “I’ve Been Everywhere” is an Australian song that came out in 1959 (featuring cities in Australia rather than US cities). Either way, “I’m A Ramblin’ Man” has a thumping bassline and probably sounds awesome while you’re cruising the backroads of America. But, it’s weird because the song is about how much traveling he does while also serves as a warning that you shouldn’t fall in love with him because, as the song states, he does so much rambling.
The second and third tracks I consider to be companion pieces. The second track, “Rainy Day Woman,” is about a woman who, to quote the lyrics, “she ain’t happy, ‘Til she finds something wrong and someone to blame, If it ain’t one thing it’s another one on the way.” Interestingly, however, he describes this woman as “a friend of mine.” Part of this song seems like it’s about a woman that only focuses on the negative things but, on the other hand, is a kind of safe port in the storm. This is not a great song. The third track, “Cloudy Days,” flips the script, and the song’s protagonist is trapped in a negative headspace where every day is a cloudy day (“Life’s just become cloudy days”) because his woman has presumably left him. Despite being a downer, the song’s glass-half-full optimism (“But you know they say if rain don’t come, Then love has no chance to grow”) won me over.
For the fourth track, Jennings chose to cover The Allman Brothers Band classic “Midnight Rider.” That track was only four years old when THE RAMBLIN’ MAN was released, which I think is important to consider. Today in 2021, there’s nothing risky or exciting about a country star covering a southern rock band like The Allman Brothers, but I suspect this was a bit surprising in 1974. The cover is…fine. The guitar work is obviously more stripped-down/less impressive. One strength that it has over the original, however, is Jennings whiskey-soaked vocals. Jennings’s voice is both traditionally masculine and robust, but there’s a tender gentleness about it as well. Listening to “Midnight Rider” makes me wish Jennings had done a whole album of this kind of covers (maybe he did?).
“Oklahoma Sunshine” is the best song on the album full-stop. Probably because I identify so much with the song’s protagonist who is trapped in a “God-forsaken city” but at night dreams an idealized version of his simpler life back home in Oklahoma. The song isn’t just about yearning for the country while being trapped in a city; it’s about missing an idealized version of the past and yourself. The song’s soaring chorus belies much of the melancholy, but it all still lands like a gut punch every time I listen to it. People often make the comparison that country is really just the blues for white people; for me, “Oklahoma Sunshine” proves this point.
Whereas “Oklahoma Sunshine” is a sad song done right, “The Hunger” is kinda the opposite. There’s good stuff in some of the lyrics (“Her beauty has been eaten by the hunger, And the acid winds of time”), but for the most part, I feel icky listening to it, which is probably the point. There’s probably a good song somewhere about a woman’s physical beauty fading as she continually fails to find (romantic?) fulfillment, but this track ain’t it. Likewise, “I Can’t Keep My Hands Off of You” is the kind of sad-sack country song that feels extremely cliche. Also, the lyrics are pretty creepy–he can’t keep his hands off his woman, AND she looks “just like a baby in a cradle.” That’s a big “eww” for me.
“Memories of You and I” pulls me back in with its mournful harmonica and confessional-style lyrics. Drink, money, and fame are no match for the painful memories of leaving this woman. There’s no bitterness in Jennings’s delivery or the lyrics, just achingly crushing sadness and regret. Simple and effective, “Memories of You and I” lays the blame where it belongs and is all the better for it. “It’ll Be Her” is also a simple yet very effective song about a woman who’s the absolute best. Both of these tracks showcase how much a performer makes a song. If I sang these (incredibly simple) songs, most people would feel very little, but he adds this whole layer of complexity with just his voice when Jennings tackles these songs.
THE RAMBLIN’ MAN closes with the song “Amanda.” The song is both a lament for his woman’s choice of a lover (“Fate should have made you a gentleman’s wife”) and a sober assessment of his life as a musician/getting older. It’s a good, sadly sweet song and the perfect way to close the album. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t add that my Uncle’s first daughter is named Amanda, and this probably made the song more emotional for me than it would be for most listeners.
Overall, I enjoyed THE RAMBLIN’ MAN. The instrumental and production side of things isn’t super interesting or varied, and the lyrics are primarily very simple, but Waylon Jennings sells the hell out of the songs. Even on the songs that I didn’t care for, the reason I didn’t care for them had nothing to do with Jennings and the authenticity he brings. And for me, “Oklahoma Sunshine” is an all-timer I can see myself revisiting again and again as time passes. Certain songs hit you harder and more emotional as you grow older, and time robs you of the things we all take for granted. So I can see myself sobbing like a baby while I listen to “Oklahoma Sunshine” in a nursing home one day.
An album can be a portal to another time and place. THE RAMBLIN’ MAN was listened to and enjoyed by my grandfather and my Uncle, and now me. It would have been cool to have heard this while they were still around so I could ask them what they thought about some of these songs. But since I can’t do that, let me do the next best thing: what did you think about THE RAMBLIN’ MAN? Am I crazy to think “Oklahoma Sunshine” is a stone-cold classic? Is “I Can’t Keep My Hands Off of You” as creepy as I claim, or am I being too hard on it?