Dreaming Waylon's Dreams
Although Chuck Prophet ‘s latest album is a tribute to Waylon Jennings, it’s more than that. He has chosen to cover Waylon’s 1975 album Dreaming My Dreams in full, track by track. Prophet has said it was recorded “as a kind of dare” and never intended for release. Comparison with the original version is inevitable: with a couple of reservations, Prophet does a remarkably good job of re-interpreting these songs more than 30 years later.
Waylon’s album was recorded during his most commercially successful period in the 1970s. He wrote only a couple of the songs himself, mainly choosing favourite songs from other writers. Prophet very aptly described it in his recent Backroads interview as an auteur’s record: “That’s what Waylon was. He either wrote his own material or he picked his own material, he had his own band, played his own lead guitar. For a Nashville record, it was this undiluted self-expression from Waylon ... There’s so many things about that record that stayed with me. This is how you make a cool country record.
Tribute albums are a difficult proposition for any artist – on the one hand you want to keep something of the spirit and feel of the original recordings while on the other not falling into the trap of just changing the songs for change’s sake. Where Prophet scores highly is in the production and instrumentation of the songs - he is of course a very accomplished guitarist, and manages to bring many of the songs to life.
The opening track is probably the best-known song on the album. “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?” is still a great song, bemoaning the current state of country music by reference back to Hank Williams. The Waylon Jennings version was a number one country hit on its original release. Prophet’s version is slower and more deliberate than the original, allowing you to fully appreciate the clever lyrics, as relevant now as when it was written.
The second track “Waymore’s Blues” keeps up the pace, with Prophet filling out the song with some very proficient guitar playing. Perhaps not surprisingly given Waylon’s outlaw reputation, there are songs here about cowboys, and a lot about women – a man thinking back to his first love in “I Recall A Gypsy Woman”, a misbehaving woman in “High Time (You Quit Your Low Down Ways)” and leaving her behind in “I’ve Been A Long Time Leaving (But I’ll Be A Long Time Gone)”.
“The Door Is Always Open” is the song on the album that gets the most radical makeover. If the other tracks are Waylon’s dreams, this track is his nightmare. Waylon’s version has him telling a girl who has married another man that his door is always open should she change her mind and want to come back. In Prophet’s hands it is transformed. Starting with an electronic beat and random sound effects, he recites rather than sings the lyrics. The song develops from there into a manic free-for-all, with lots of echo and Prophet yelling “open the door”, “leave the door open” and “the door is always open” repeatedly. It doesn’t completely work, but it’s an interesting experiment.
By contrast, “Let’s Turn Back The Years”, a Hank Williams song, is sung straight, as is “Let’s All Help The Cowboys (Sing The Blues)” on which Stephanie Finch takes lead vocals. “Dreaming My Dreams With You” is a lovely song, but you start to notice Prophet’s limitations as a vocalist. Waylon, while he may not have had a great range, had a wonderful deep, relaxed and careworn singing voice, which at times Prophet struggles to match.
The disc was originally released in a (very) limited edition in 2007, and is now happily receiving a wider – but still limited – UK release. Prophet is touring the UK in May with his band the Mission Express. Apart from Stephanie Finch, they don’t appear on “Dreaming Waylon’s Dreams”, so it remains to be seen how many of the songs on this album will get a live outing, but it’s to be hoped that we’ll get to hear at least a couple of them.