Tracing the career of an oft-recorded giant like Waylon Jennings in a mere four discs is tricky business, but RCA Nashville/Legacy has done a superb job. Documenting Jennings's evolution from rock 'n' roller to folk rocker to unrepentant country Outlaw avatar, it's a fascinating journey, even without his A&M recordings from the early '60s (see the essential Phase One: The Early Years 1958-1964
). Disc 1, which covers 1958 through 1969, does feature Jennings's festive, Buddy Holly-produced take on "Jole Blon" and a rare Trend single from 1961, "My Baby Walks All Over Me." Most of its 25 tracks were Chet Atkins productions that meld the smooth Nashville Sound of the time to harder rhythms that suited Waylon's authoritative baritone voice. In songs such as "Love of the Common People" and especially the doom-laden ballad "Something's Wrong in California," we hear Jennings finding a sound suited to his attitude (Fred Carter's snarling guitar on "Nashville Rebel" would become a signature component of Waylon's music) and developing into a formidable interpretive singer who could sell a song with sensitivity or muscular vocal brio.
In Disc 2, 1970-1974, when the Outlaw movement flowered, Jennings was at the forefront with "Honky Tonk Heroes," "Ladies Love Outlaws," "Amanda,"-- assured, literate, intimate tunes by Billy Joe Shaver, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Steve Young, and Waylon himself that broadened country's audience and lingua franca. Those gains are consolidated on Disc 3, 1974-1980, when Waylon continued writing compelling original (and often self-referential) tunes such as "I've Always Been Crazy" and the reality-check classic "Don't You Think This Outlaw Bit's Done Got Out of Hand" and supplementing his repertoire with covers from an American songbook that included both Jimmie Rodgers and Neil Young ("Are You Ready for the Country"). In the 1980-1995 period covered on Disc 4, Jennings was for a time adrift on MCA, but his excellent Will the Wolf Survive (title tune by Los Lobos' David Hidalgo and Louie Perez) is featured with three cuts, and he hit another high-water mark in collaborating with Johnny Cash, Willie, and Kristofferson on the Highwayman sessions, the chart-topping title track being a highlight of this collection. A story well told: in music, in Waylon's formidable presence on disc, and in first-rate annotation. It's quite a ride.