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Honky Tonk Heroes

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Honky Tonk Heroes
Studio album by Waylon Jennings
Released July 1973
Recorded 1973, RCA Victor Studios; Nashville, Tennessee
Genre Outlaw country
Length 27:21
Label RCA Victor
Producer Waylon Jennings
Tompall Glaser, Ronny Light, Ken Mansfield
Waylon Jennings chronology
Lonesome, On'ry and Mean
(1973)Lonesome, On'ry and Mean1973
Honky Tonk Heroes
This Time
(1974)This Time1974

Honky Tonk Heroes is a country music album by Waylon Jennings, released in 1973 on RCA Victor. With the exception of "We Had It All", all of the songs on the album were written or co-written by Billy Joe Shaver. The album is considered an important piece in the development of the outlaw subgenre in country music as it helped revive the honky tonk music of Nashville by injecting a rock and roll attitude.


Jennings and manager Neil Reshen had renegotiated the singer's contract with RCA Records in 1972, which gave him creative control over his work. By 1973, Atlantic Records was attempting to sign Jennings who, with fellow country singer Willie Nelson, had become dissatisfied with RCA because of the company's conservative influence upon their music. Nelson, who had signed with Atlantic, was becoming more popular, and this persuaded RCA to renegotiate with Jennings before it lost another potential success.[1] Jennings' music had already evolved from his early recordings with the label, especially on his previous three LPs Good Hearted Woman (1972), Ladies Love Outlaws (1972), and especially Lonesome, On'ry and Mean (1973). This evolution was spurred by the singer trying to capture the dynamics of his live sound on record (often by using his backing band the Waylors rather than studio musicians) and his choice of material, which often included songs composed by writers outside the Nashville mainstream.

Recording and composition[edit]

Jennings had invited the then unknown Billy Joe Shaver to Nashville to write the songs for his next album after hearing him sing "Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me" just before the 1972 Dripping Springs Reunion. When Shaver got to Nashville he spent six months unsuccessfully trying to speak with Jennings, who had apparently forgotten the invite. Eventually, with the help of local D.J. Roger "Captain Midnight" Schutt, Shaver turned up at a RCA recording session Jennings was doing with producer Chet Atkins, and tried to confront the singer, who merely offered Shaver $100. Shaver refused the money and told Jennings that he was willing to fight him if he would not listen to his songs. In the 2003 documentary Beyond Nashville, Shaver recalls:

"Finally I caught him in Studio A of RCA. He came out of the control booth and he had a couple of bikers - bikers hung around with him a lot, some pretty tough looking customers - and I'd had enough. I just said, 'Hey Waylon!' And he turned. I said, 'I got these songs that you claimed you was gonna listen to, and if you don't listen to 'em I'm gonna whip your ass right here in front of everybody.' And boy, whew. Man! Everything got quiet and them old boys started formin' and Waylon stopped 'em. He said, 'Hoss, you don't know how close you come to gettin' killed.' I said, 'Well, I've had enough. You done told me you was gonna do this. Now I'm full of songs and I want you to listen to 'em."

Jennings offered to record "Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me" and told Shaver to sing another song – if Jennings liked it he would record it and Shaver could sing another; but if he did not like it, Shaver would have to leave. Shaver sang "Ain't No God in Mexico", followed by "Honky Tonk Heroes" and "Old Five and Dimers and Me".[2] Jennings was so taken with Shaver's tunes that he decided he would record an album consisting solely of the Texan's songs.[3][4] RCA producer Chet Atkins was reluctant to record the material of an unknown writer, but since he had creative control, Jennings decided to record the album anyway,[2] although the executives of RCA Records delayed its release. Jennings later recalled, "His songs were of a piece, and the only way you could ever understand Billy Joe was to hear his whole body of work. 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."[5] Jennings was also spending more of his time at Tompall Glaser's "Hillbilly Central" studio at 916 Nineteenth Avenue South in Nashville, attracted by the laid back, communal atmosphere that was the antitheses of the traditional setup that Jennings had endured at RCA since 1966. Jennings brought Glaser back with him to RCA Victor Studios to co-produce Honky Tonk Heroes. "Tompall and I were best friends," Jennings reminisced in the audio version of his autobiography Waylon. "We met at about the time he broke up with his brothers, and I kind of took their place in his life." Jennings and Shaver worked on the songs for several weeks, with Shaver believing that Jennings was not closely following the phrasing of the tunes, and in some cases he played the songs repeatedly so that Jennings would understand them. The title cut was especially problematic, with Jennings and Shaver - both temperamental personalities - clashing over the arrangement. In Michael Striessguth's book Outlaw: Waylon, Willie, Kris, and the Renegades of Nashville, Jennings drummer Richie Albright recalls:

"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.' 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. Billy Joe didn't understand the way we were putting it together...then we put it together and he said, 'Yeah. That's good. That's the way it goes.'"

The album that resulted is what many call the outlaw movement's first true record and Jennings' artistic zenith. Almost all of the songs on Honky Tonk Heroes contain a defiant, restless longing for and celebration of the road ("Moving is the closest thing to being free...") and a rock and roll swagger that was entirely new in Nashville circles. Although concept albums were not new in country music, with stars like Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, and Porter Wagoner all having recorded LPs with unifying themes, Honky Tonk Heroes offered a more progressive take on the enterprise, resembling the albums Mickey Newbury had recently recorded and the blockbuster Red Headed Stranger album that Willie Nelson would release two years later. In addition to Shaver's brooding compositions, Jennings rounded out the collection with the tender ballad "We Had It All," written by Kris Kristofferson keyboardist "Funky" Donnie Fritts. According to Michael Striessguth's book Outlaw, RCA had asked Waylon to tack on one more song to augment the Shaver songs, in hopes of landing a hit single, and after considering Steve Young's "Seven Bridges Road," Jimmie Rodgers' "T for Texas," and Shel Silverstein's "The Leaving Coming On," Jennings opted for the Fritts tune, which would go on to be recorded and performed by Rod Stewart, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones. Released as a single, "We Had it All", peaked at number 28 in Billboard's Country Singles.[6] Jennings and Shaver also collaborated on the hit single "You Asked Me To," which spent fifteen weeks on the Billboard country singles charts, reaching a peak of number eight.[7] In the liner notes to The Essential Waylon Jennings, Wade Jessen quotes the singer: "We wrote this one night in the dark over at Bobby Bare's office across the street from a Burger Boy where we'd been playing pinball. Shaver said, 'I've got it started. Let's finish it.' We wrote it pretty well in the dark." Shaver recorded his own version in 1977 for the album Gypsy Boy, with special guest Willie Nelson on guitar and vocals.[8] "You Asked Me To" also appeared as the closing song on Elvis Presley's 1975 album Promised Land.

Two songs, "Low Down Freedom" and "Black Rose," were produced by Ronny Light. "We Had It All" was produced by Jennings and Ken Mansfield. Like the music within, the album cover was also at odds with the elaborate, often overwrought cover designs from Music Row, featuring an unpretentious shot of a smiling Jennings and his unkempt friends sat around a studio laughing and drinking. In a 2008 interview with Dan MacIntosh, Shaver said of the LP, "Oh, it was great, because the songs were bigger than me. And I couldn't possibly sing as good as Waylon. And at the time, Waylon was just great, so great, and I knew something was gonna happen good for him, and sure enough it helped me and it helped him, too, and that's a pretty good trade."

Release and critical reception[edit]

Initially, the executives of RCA Records, and Chet Atkins, tried to avoid releasing the album,[9] which finally came out in May 1973.[10] It got a mixed reception from critics, although it is now regarded as one of the most important albums in the history of country music and is listed in Robert Dimery's 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die. It reached #14 in Billboard's Top Country Albums and #185 in the Billboard 200.[11] while "You Ask Me To" peaked at number 8.[12] It received praise from magazines that did not often cover country music, like counterculture bible Rolling Stone, which raved, "After many years of overproduction on record, Waylon Jennings' new album offers an opportunity to hear the crisp, robust no-nonsense sound which has been his trademark since his early days with Buddy Holly's Crickets." The Music Journal described the album as "certainly brash, lively and down-to-earth. Thoroughly infectious too."[13] Regarding the composition of the songs, Stereo Review wrote: "Billy Joe Shaver songs have [Jennings] in a corral if not in a box...This is like picking Kris Kristofferson up by the literary ankles, shaking him vigorously, and using every damn nugget that tumbles out."[14]

Professional ratings
Review scores
The Music JournalFavorable.[13]
Stereo ReviewNegative.[14]
Allmusic5/5 stars[15]


Honky Tonk Heroes helped add to the outlaw image of Jennings,[16][17] and the album is considered an important piece in the development of the outlaw subgenre in country music.[18][19] Shaver, who is regarded as helping push forward outlaw country,[20] feels that the album was "the touchstone of the Outlaw movement".[21] Stephen Thomas Erlewine in a retrospective review in Allmusic felt that Jennings had been looking for a musical approach which had roots in country and rock, and Shaver's songs – "sketching an outlaw stance with near defiance and borrowing rock attitude to create the hardest country tunes imaginable" – provided that common ground.[15] Erlewine believed that the album arrived at the right moment to revive the honky tonk music of Nashville by injecting a rock and roll attitude that would produce outlaw country.[15] Kenneth Burns, in Robert Dimery's 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, says that Honky Tonk Heroes is "one of country music's landmark albums", and points out Jennings' rock and roll roots as bass player for Buddy Holly.[22] In 2013 author Michael Streissguth wrote, "The album christened country music's outlaw era...and bathed in risk, having gambled on the work of an untested songwriter."

Track listing[edit]

All tracks written by Billy Joe Shaver, except where noted.

Side one
1."Honky Tonk Heroes" 3:36
2."Old Five and Dimers Like Me" 3:06
3."Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me" 3:03
4."Low Down Freedom" 2:21
5."Omaha"Shaver, Hillman Hall2:38

All tracks written by Billy Joe Shaver, except where noted.

Side two
1."You Ask Me To"Shaver, Waylon Jennings2:31
2."Ride Me Down Easy" 2:38
3."Ain't No God in Mexico" 2:00
4."Black Rose" 2:29
5."We Had It All"Troy Seals, Donnie Fritts2:44
Bonus tracks
  1. "Slow Rollin' Low" – 2:44
  2. "You Asked Me To" (Billy Joe Shaver, Waylon Jennings) – 2:38


  • Bass – Henry Strzelecki
  • Bass [The Waylors] – Bee Spears
  • Bass, Bass [String] – Joe Allen
  • Cello – Byron Bach, Martha McCrory
  • Drums – Buddy Harman, Willie Ackerman
  • Drums [The Waylors] – Richie Albright
  • Electric Guitar – Billy Sanford, Dale Sellers, Reggie Young
  • Engineer [Recording Engineer] – Al Pachucki, Tom Pick
  • Fiddle – Tommy Williams
  • Harmonica [The Waylors] – Don Brooks
  • Liner Notes – Roger "Capt. Midnite" Schutt
  • Organ – Andy McMahon
  • Piano – David Briggs
  • Rhythm Guitar – Billy Reynolds, Dave Kirby, Eddie Hinton, Randy Scruggs, Steve Young, Waylon Jennings
  • Rhythm Guitar [The Waylors] – Jerry Gropp, Larry Whitmore
  • Steel Guitar [The Waylors] – Ralph Mooney
  • Technician [Recording Technician] – Chuck Seitz, Mike Shockley, Ray Butts, Roy Shockley
  • Viola – Marvin Chantry
  • Violin – Brenton Banks, Lawrence Herzberg, Lennie Haight, Sheldon Kurland, Stephanie Woolf, Steven Maxwell Smith

Chart positions[edit]

Chart Peak
Billboard Top Country Albums 14
Billboard Top LPs & Tapes 185
Song Chart Peak
"You Ask Me To" Billboard Hot Country Songs 8[12]
"We Had it All" Billboard Hot Country Songs 28[6]


  1. ^ Petrusich 2008, p. 106.
  2. ^ a b Shaver, Billy Joe; Reagan, Brad 2005, p. 34.
  3. ^ Country Music Foundation 1998, p. 24.
  4. ^ Braley, Bethany 2005, p. 40.
  5. ^ Jennings, Waylon; Kaye, Lenny 1996, p. 190.
  6. ^ a b "Honky Tonk Heroes Singles chart". Allmusic. Rovi Corporation. Retrieved December 26, 2011. 
  7. ^ "Waylon Jennings ["Chart and Awards" section]". Allmusic. Retrieved 18 November 2010. 
  8. ^ Jurek, Thom. "Gypsy Goy". Allmusic. Retrieved 18 November 2010. 
  9. ^ Shaver, Billy Joe; Reagan, Brad 2005, p. 34.
  10. ^ Shaver, Billy Joe; Reagan, Brad 2005, p. 35.
  11. ^ a b "Honky Tonk Heroes Albums chart". Allmusic. Rovi Corporation. Retrieved December 26, 2011. 
  12. ^ a b Worth, Fred; Tamerius, Steve 1992, p. 505.
  13. ^ a b Caine, Milton 1973, p. 7.
  14. ^ a b Stereo Review 1974, p. 90.
  15. ^ a b c Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. "Honky Tonk Heroes". Allmusic. Rovi Corporation. Retrieved December 26, 2011. 
  16. ^ Schutt, Roger (1973). Honky Tonk Heroes (LP). Waylon Jennings. RCA Records. 
  17. ^ Ward, Robert, p. 309.
  18. ^ Pendergast, Tom; Pendergast, Sara 2000, p. 540.
  19. ^ Country Music Foundation 1994, p. 319.
  20. ^ Dansby, Andrew (2007). "Cary Baker's conqueroo – Billy Joe Shaver News Clips". Retrieved 6 June 2012. 
  21. ^ Billy Joe Shaver; Brad Reagan (1 Mar 2005). Honky Tonk Hero. University of Texas Press. p. 35. Retrieved 6 June 2012. 
  22. ^ Burns, Kenneth (5 Dec 2011). 1001 Albums: You Must Hear Before You Die. Hachette UK. Retrieved 14 June 2012. 


  • Braley, Bethany (2005). "A Fallen Angel Flies". American Cowboy. 12 (2). ISSN 1079-3690. 
  • Caine, Milton (1973). "The Journal Reviews". 31. 
  • Glaser, Dennis (2011). Music City's Defining Decade: Stories, Stars, Songwriters & Scoundrels of the 1970s. Xlibris Corporation. ISBN 978-1-4628-5767-8. [self-published source]
  • Reid, Jan (1976). "Who Killed Redneck Rock?". Texas Monthly. Emmis Communications. 4 (12). ISSN 0148-7736. 
  • Pendergast, Tom; Pendergast, Sara (2000). St. James encyclopedia of popular culture, Volume 2. St. James Press. ISBN 978-1-55862-402-3. 
  • Petrusich, Amanda (2008). It Still Moves: Lost Songs, Lost Highways, and the Search for the Next American Music. Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-86547-950-0. 
  • Shaver, Billy Joe; Reagan, Brad (2005). Honky Tonk Hero. University of Texas Press. ISBN 978-0-292-70613-2. 
  • Ward, Robert (2012). Renegades: My Wild Trip from Professor to New Journalist With Outrageous Visits from Clint Eastwood, Reggie Jackson, Larry Flynt, and Other American Icons. Adams Media. ISBN 9781440533143. 
  • Worth, Fred; Tamerius, Steve (1992). Elvis: His Life From A to Z. Wings Books. ISBN 978-0-517-06634-8. 
  • Country Music Foundation (1994). Country: The Music and the Musicians: From the Beginnings to the '90s. ISBN 978-1-55859-879-9. 
  • Country Music Foundation (1998). The Journal of Country Music. 21.  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  • Stereo Review (1974). "Popular Discs and Tapes". 32. CBS Magazines.