50 Years Ago: Waylon Jennings Cuts ‘Honky Tonk Heroes’ & It Gets Heated
If you’re a fan of Outlaw country music and Waylon Jennings, then you probably know the story of his landmark 1973 album Honky Tonk Heroes forwards and backwards. Featuring all Billy Joe Shaver songs except for one, it is one of the defining albums of the Outlaw era, it put Billy Joe Shaver on the map, it’s wildly influential even still today, and is arguably one of the most important country albums of all time.
But not taking for granted that some don’t know the story, here’s a quick refresher: Billy Joe Shaver was at Willie Nelson’s Dripping Springs Reunion just outside of Austin in 1972—aka the Hillbilly Woodstock as it came to be known. While backstage hanging out, Shaver plays “Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me” and Waylon Jennings gets a whiff of it. Waylon was so impressed, he invites Billy Joe to Nashville to write songs together. Whether Waylon was serious, or whether it was one of those “Hey, stop by if you’re ever in town” sort of things that you never expect folks to take you up on, Billy Joe Shaver took Waylon seriously, and took off to Nashville.
Waylon Jennings spent the next six months dodging ol’ Billy Joe Shaver, until Billy Joe got so hell bent on showing Waylon his songs, he accosted him in the hallway of the studio, telling Waylon that if he didn’t listen to his songs, he’d kick his ass right there in front of God and everybody. Waylon tried to give him $100 to go away, but Shaver persisted. Finally after Shaver broke him down, Waylon listened, and decided to cut an entire album of Billy Joe Shaver songs.
But this wasn’t the end of the drama. Waylon Jennings had just won creative control from RCA Records after years of being under the oppressive thumb of producer Chet Atkins. Now that Waylon could do whatever he wanted—which at this point was cut an album of Billy Joe Shaver songs—he though he was free from people telling him what to do. But Billy Joe Shaver had other ideas.
50 years ago today, February 21st, 1973, Waylon Jennings was in the studio recording the title track to Honky Tonk Heroes. Billy Joe Shaver was in the studio too, and he was not happy with what Waylon was doing with his song at all. If you know the song “Honky Tonk Heroes,” it takes a very unconventional approach to the rhythm for a country song. This was all part of what Waylon’s drummer and right-hand man Richie Albright trying to separate Waylon from the herd.
Richie notoriously told Waylon at one point, “There’s another way of doing things, and that’s rock ‘n roll.” The song “Honky Tonk Heroes” starts off rather traditionally for a country song. But then about 90 seconds in, it launches into a more aggressive and electric rock-style sound. Then at the end, the song drops down into a half time beat. That half time beat at the end of “Honky Tonk Heroes” was perhaps one of the most landmark and influential portions of the whole album.
But Billy Joe Shaver was having none of it. He didn’t want Waylon getting fancy with his songs. “We were doing the album and Billy Joe was around, and we began ‘Honky Tonk Heroes,’ so we cut the first part of the song and we stopped, and Waylon said, ‘This is the way we’re going to do it,'” Richie Albright recalls. “And Billy Joe had been sitting in the back and he come walking up, saying, ‘What are you doing? You’re fucking up my song. That ain’t the way it goes.’ Pretty soon Waylon and Billy Joe are just hollering at one another.”
Here was Billy Joe Shaver having a major country artist record an entire album of his songs, and he’s running the risk of blowing it by getting on the bad side of Waylon. “Billy Joe didn’t understand the way we were putting it together…” explains Richie Albright.
“His songs were of a piece, and the only way you could ever understand Billy Joe was to hear his whole body of work,” Waylon Jennings said in his autobiography. “That was how the concept of ‘Honky Tonk Heroes’ came about. Billy Joe talked the way a modern cowboy would speak, if he stepped out of the West and lived today. He had a command of the Texas lingo, his world as down to earth and real as the day was long, and he wore his lone Star birthright like a badge.”
Later as the session went on, Billy Joe Shaver eventually saw the grander vision they had in mind. “When we put it together, [Shaver] said, ‘Yeah. That’s good. That’s the way it goes,” Richie Albright recalls.
The story of both the song “Honky Tonk Heroes” and the album illustrates how sometimes through conflict can come great creativity. If Billy Joe Shaver had never accosted Waylon Jennings in that hallway, who knows what may have happened with the Outlaw movement. And if “Honky Tonk Heroes” was never recorded the way it was with the unusual time changes, perhaps the album wouldn’t have gone on to be as well-received and influential as it eventually was, and continues to be.
February 21, 2023 @ 11:30 am
Probably an unpopular opinion but I feel like this album gets a little bit too much credit and appraise from this community, likely due to the cool story and a more underground guy like Billy Joe’s involvement. I consider 7 (the grand majority) of Waylon’s other 70s albums to be undoubtedly better. Like I said though, probably an unpopular opinion.
February 21, 2023 @ 2:45 pm
I agree. In my opinion, it’s a much more interesting story than it is an interesting album. My personal preference is Dreaming My Dreams, as far as total album.
February 21, 2023 @ 5:58 pm
Yes here, here. I love all of Waylons albums but Dreaming My Dreams is the cream of the crop. Artistically and musically it just takes the cake. Neil Diamonds quote in the liner notes says it best about the emotion in the songs. I personally love Lonesome, Onry, and Mean as well.
February 21, 2023 @ 7:09 pm
Agree on Lonesome Onry and Mean, especially because it contains my favorite of all Waylon songs: Mickey Newbury’s San Francisco Mable Joy.
February 28, 2023 @ 1:39 pm
I realize this isn’t what’s being talked about but I met Waylons band up close (the band that died in plane crash)I was at Jenkins junk yard in Newton Illinois when Waylons bus pulled up to get a bottle of LP gas for the bus it was kinda cold out they were openly gripping about Waylon laying down in the River Park Motel while they had to get the LP gas they were giving a concert in the gymnasium at the high school
March 9, 2023 @ 11:21 pm
What makes it special is it was a breakthrough in the way things were done in Nashville (and still done today in most cases). Back then all an artist did was sing, he didn’t pick the backing musicians, he didn’t pick the songwriters, he didn’t pick the studio and most importantly of all he didn’t produce the entire thing themselves. Waylon doing this was a threat to the Nashville Establishment many of whom got wealthy though they had no real musical talent of their own. If an artist could do be his own producer a lot of people were going to be out of a job. Shooter Jennings put it best in his song Outlaw You
Let me paint a picture for you, Nashville in ’62
The formula had proven true, they didn’t let nothing new through
When Waylon came to town, they didn’t like his original sound
They tried hard to keep him down, they tried hard to starve him out
But he kept playin’ shows and pressin’ on, chippin’ away, song by song
After years and years of strugglin’ strong, he got his chance and he took it to #1
With “This Time” back in ’74, with his band in the back and 4 on the floor
That one record busted down the door and the record labels had the control no more
Then in ’76 came the Outlaws record, sold the first million in country music ever
Those old boys with long hair and braids stayed true to their sound and freed the slaves
And all these years later, the suits got back their grip
They took the outlaw concept and they re-packaged it
And there’s a million Ol Waylon fans
Singin’ “Don’t y’all think this outlaw bit has gotten way out of hand”
February 21, 2023 @ 11:44 am
Question: in “You Asked Me To”, is it addressed to a woman? God/Jesus? Both?
A favorite concert memory is seeing Billy Joe in NYC. A song ended and, from far away from the stage, shouted out “Thunderbird” and they went right into it. It wasn’t a typical Billy Joe Shaver crowd, so maybe they heard me and were gratified that there were hardcore fans in the crowd. Regardless, it was cool!
February 22, 2023 @ 11:19 am
As a follower of Christ, I believe it’s about a woman, solely based on the “I’d turn and walk away from you” line. Turning and walking away from a woman might be hard, but it would get better over time. Turning and walking away from God means spending an eternity apart from Him in a burning hell. Plus, a woman might ask a man to leave her alone, but God would never ask someone to leave Him alone. That’s just my opinion, of course.
February 21, 2023 @ 12:16 pm
This is my favorite Waylon album as well, though I love Lonesome, Ornery and Mean and Ol Waylon as well. And come to think about it, Dreaming My Dreams is pretty good too. One observation about those 70s records he did: Often, in many of them he would put 3 or 4 half-time weeper songs in a row, and man it made listening a bit tedious. But with Honky-Tonk Heroes, for me it had a perfect balance of song tempos and it kept the album interesting from start to finish. Shaver’s genius and Waylon’s interpretations have withstood the test of time.
Johnny Cashless Society
February 21, 2023 @ 1:57 pm
There are probably Waylon albums that I listen to more often (“This Time” has been getting a lot of spins lately), but “Honky Tonk Heroes” stands unique even among the peak albums he recorded in the 1970s. Picking a top track from the record is nearly impossible – but I have to say “Ain’t No God in Mexico,” the title track and “Black Rose” are Waylon’s best up-tempo songs.
Also, I have to agree with the poster who talked about the sequencing on this record. Waylon really did seem to have a tendency to pack in a lot of slow songs in the middle of his records, which can make for a hard listen. This is one of the few records he did where that is not an issue.
February 21, 2023 @ 12:26 pm
Both Waylon and Shaver both found that razor’s edge of being headstrong, creative and influential, while also being drunk emotional violent imbeciles.
February 21, 2023 @ 1:19 pm
I got to meet the Godfather of Outlaw Country at a Rolling Stones concert (he was out on the mezzanine level in between bands). I shook his hand and thanked him for being a main character in creating the outlaw movement. Without him and his attitude, the music we love might not be there for us to enjoy some 50 years later. God Bless Texas & God Bless Billy Joe Shaver.
February 21, 2023 @ 1:35 pm
If there was a Mount Rushmore of ’70’s country albums, this one is up there. Kevin Smith summed it up a few posts back – Shaver’s genius songwriting and Jennings’ takes on these songs (or as Waylon famously said in an interview “… taking another man’s song and making it your own”) damn sure have withstood the test of time. This is my favorite country album of all time.
Thom's Country Bunker
February 21, 2023 @ 1:47 pm
I could listen to this record on a loop for hours and not get bored… in fact, I probably have! Talk about ‘lightening in a bottle’ stuff, I think this is country’s “Thriller!”
Billy Joe always assumed the tensions mentioned above were the reason they never worked together creatively again, though they remained friends.
‘What could have been’ eh?
February 21, 2023 @ 1:52 pm
There’s a great animated version of this story over some interview with Captain Midnight including some colorful exchanges.
This is my favorite album by my favorite Country singer. The only flaw is Waylon being forced to tack on the out of place “We Had It All”.
February 21, 2023 @ 2:32 pm
For me, the definitive version of Honky Tonk Heroes is on Shaver’s “Live At Smith’s Old Bar”. Doesn’t hurt that Eddie is tearing it up on lead guitar. That must’ve been one helluva show!
February 21, 2023 @ 4:09 pm
With respect to listening to the album, the devil made me do it the first time. The second time, tenth time, one-hundredth time, one-thousandth time, I done it on my own.
February 27, 2023 @ 5:09 pm
I introduced Billy Joe to my black rose, my wife Cynthia. He autographed her titty. I saw Billy Joel perform over a dozen times and without a doubt had the best times of my life.
February 21, 2023 @ 4:44 pm
It’s funny: In the ’90’s and 00’s, Billy Joe really came into his own as a performer of his own songs, both on record and in live performances, first with his son Eddie on electric guitar, and then continuing on his own.
Waylon had so many great hits and other recordings of his own material and that of an diverse array of songwriters, that I really don’t find this album to be all that essential. If I want to hear Billy Joe Shaver songs, I’ll listen to “Shaver” or Billy Joe, who did them better than anybody.
February 21, 2023 @ 5:14 pm
This story never gets old!
February 21, 2023 @ 7:16 pm
After high school years of 60s rock and roll (lived in a suburb of San Francisco and spent every weekend at the Fillmore, Avalon and Winterland), Honky Tonk Heroes was the first or second country album I ever bought (Grievous Angel was the other) and, I admit, I bought it because I thought the cover photo was extremely cool. Loved it once I listened to it and still do.
February 21, 2023 @ 8:32 pm
Up until this evening, The Eagles in concert in Cleveland 2018, at the Q – were the undisputed champions of the concert going experience.
Honey, they have NOTHING on Mr. Tab Benoit.
Oh-my-word, 2 hours and 11 minutes of pure sex from a guitar playing, blues singin’, long, tall, drink of water.
I am hooked.
Benoit & JD Simo on Night Train, during the encore =’d Pure 🔥
$35. ticket at a 400 seat venue.
Holy crap, Holy crap, Holy crap.
What Just Happened …
February 22, 2023 @ 11:29 am
“What Just Happened …”
You left yet another strange, random, off-topic comment in a Savingcountrymusic.com comments section.
February 22, 2023 @ 12:04 pm
: D let me add that Tab’s rendition of Honky Tonk Angel, last night, was the best – Hands Down, of any i have heard.
He is a monster virtuoso.
February 23, 2023 @ 2:17 pm
Ah, yes. Another Tab convert. Told ya. When I saw him at the Handlebar, he had the whole crowd singing along with “Jambalaya” by the second verse. And the way the girls at the show were sashaying along to “New Orleans Ladies”…well, it had to be seen to be believed.
February 23, 2023 @ 3:12 pm
: D Trev,
i owe you and Corncaster, Big time.
A six pack, homemade Chocolate chip/M&M cookies.
Out running errands currently, and you KNOW whose CD is in.
February 21, 2023 @ 11:58 pm
That’s an interesting question I always thought it was referencing a woman never did think of it in an sacred kind of way before.
U.S. Custom Tees
February 22, 2023 @ 1:01 am
I think Honky Tonk Heroes is probably my overall favorite country album of all time.
February 22, 2023 @ 6:34 am
Great album got to get my picture taken with Billy Joe in Austin and saw Waylon and Willie in ’78 at the Nassau Colliseum.
One great album that Waylon did is ‘White Mansions’, I had the record, but can’t find it and I have most everything I bought to this day.
I know it is controversial today, but would be a good story Trig someday (not that you don’t have anything else to do), since most people don’t know about it.
February 22, 2023 @ 7:20 am
February 22, 2023 @ 9:00 am
I featured White Mansions in a vintage album review a while back. Have also mentioned it other times throughout the years, including a rundown of concept albums I did a few months ago.
February 24, 2023 @ 8:04 pm
I read that just now and would like to say that, aside fron the album review, I truly enjoyed the perspective you gave to the time you wrote it when you described the engrained loss in the hearts of southerners. Even today, still resonates. I, like yourself, believe that both psrts needed preserved, good and bad. Preserved that thst may be viewed by a generation with understanding and not hatred.
February 22, 2023 @ 6:48 am
Pick it Moon !!!!
February 22, 2023 @ 7:44 am
I sat outside on the patio of a small club in Cincy with Billy Jo and Eddy after a show way back when. Just shooting the breeze with the band and several patrons for a good 20 minutes. He was long past his outlaw days by then but a memory I will always treasure. Thanks for the history Trigger I never heard the story behind the album before.
February 22, 2023 @ 8:12 am
I have to wonder, what it was about Waylon that made Shaver so insistent on having him do his songs? Of course, the results speak for themselves… but initially, what did Waylon have that made Shaver so insistent… they were both brash young men who grew into the epitome of cool, Texas Cool, I might add … listening to some of Waylon’s not so famous songs makes me like and respect him even more… for instance, “Alone” and “Cedar Town Georgia”… I wonder if Shaver heard those as well to make him so insistent?
February 22, 2023 @ 9:25 am
Was it Top Cats in Clifton by chance? I was at that show also. I have said many times, best three concerts I ever have ever seen were Shaver in 95-96.
February 22, 2023 @ 9:30 am
My thought is that Shaver was hungry for success. He has this amazing moment with Jennings and clearly, he sees a BIG opportunity. Waylon was a big name by this time, he’d already had some hits, he was a movie star ( Nashville Rebel) and so Shaver wasn’t about to let it slip away. I think any songwriter who is praised by a big label artist, is gonna jump at the potential opportunity. Clearly, it paid off for Shaver.
February 22, 2023 @ 1:17 pm
Although the album was highly regarded by critics it fell short in both sales and single airplay.
The Honky Tonk Heroes LP peaked at #14 on the Billboard album chart. Waylon’s previous release Lonesome, On’ry And Mean peaked at #8 and the subsequent album “This Time” went to #4. Lack of a significant single hit clearly had a negative effect on sales.
The first single release We Had It All was Waylon’s weakest performing solo 45 of the 1970’s peaking at #28.
The second single You Asked Me To stopped at #8. The single version was a remix of the LP track that added Don Brooks harmonica overdub and a slightly longer fade ending. So far that version has only been available on CD as one of two bonus tracks on the 1999 Buddah/BMG reissue of the Honky Tonk Heroes album.
Although album airplay was not tracked by Billboard in that era, the album’s title track did receive a fair amount of airplay on country stations that did program album tracks. Some country stations featured LP tracks during their evening and overnight shows.
February 22, 2023 @ 3:20 pm
Thanks Trigger for that link, exactly what I was looking for and you nailed it!
The other great album on that subject that totally portrays the period, in a period correct perspective was Poco’s Blue and Gray from 1981, a beautiful album about such a tumultuous time in our history that needs not be burried, but studied so that we can learn from it.
Thanks agian for the time you spent to provide such a great review of such a lost gem!
February 23, 2023 @ 9:08 pm
this album and willies “me and paul” are the yeardsticks to measure all country music. both have sincerity and power and they take you to that place!
February 25, 2023 @ 7:35 pm
All said !What a cast of characters Tom Paul G.,Richie,Waylon,Willy,Billy Joe, Texas tore Nashvilles ass up! And always will man,Ray Wylie Hubbard,Townes,Blaze,Guy Clark,Skinny Dennis,Jerry Jeff Walker made himself son of Texas! List goes on ZzTop and they did it Thier way,Texas is Outlaw Music