Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, at US Festival 1983

by:  Nick DeRiso

Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson took the stage of the 1983 US Festival as confirmed crossover country stars — but without all of the sell-out slickness that’s attached to the term these days.

No, Jennings and Nelson were unreconstructed rebels, each in their own fashion. You had Nelson, the cookie-cutter song plugger-turned-shaggy dog superstar. And Jennings, the rough-hewn outlaw playing by his own rules. Yet both had experienced, to that point, a series of unheard-of successes for musicians in their chosen genre.

Jennings’ album Are You Ready for the Country went to the top of the country charts three separate times in 1976 — part of a run of 54 charting albums between 1966-95, and 11 No. 1s. Nelson, meanwhile, produced a platinum project of standards called Stardust in 1978, a gutsy highlight in a career that’s produced some nine platinum and two double-platinum albums. Together, Jennings and Nelson helped fashion 1976?s Wanted! The Outlaws into the first platinum country music recording, and later collaborated on Waylon and Willie in 1978, WWII in 1982 and The Highwaymen albums from 1985-96, among many other projects. Jennings was on television, as the narrator and theme-song singing star of TV’s “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Nelson, meanwhile, had become a part-time movie actor appearing in 1979?s “The Electric Horseman,” followed by appearances in “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Thief,” and “Barbarosa.”

These guys, somehow, were as a famous as they were outsider cool. So who’s to tell them they didn’t belong on an US Festival bill that included U2, Fleetwood Mac, David Bowie, Ozzy Osbourne, Van Halen, The Police and the Clash? In the middle of all that, June 4, 1983 had been dubbed “Country Day” at the event, organized by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and held in the Glen Helen Regional Park in San Bernadino, Calif. Jennings and Nelson were the highlight of a group that also include Alabama, Hank Williams Jr. and Emmylou Harris.

Each performed a slew of his own hits — Nelson’s “Whiskey River,” “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and “Funny How Time Slips Away”; Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” “Only Daddy That’s Walk The Line” and “Theme from ‘The Dukes of Hazzard.” It’s perhaps no surprise, though, that the highlights come when they shared the stage. Jennings guests with Nelson on “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” and “Good Hearted Woman.” Jennings also includes a series of collaborations with Nelson, notably “Luckenbach, Texas,” “I Can Get Off On You.”

These tracks — set for release on February 28 from Shout! Factory on CD and DVD — serve as a reminder both of the memorably productive partnership between Jennings and Nelson, but also of a time when country music played by its own rules — sounding not like its glossy commercial pop-music neighbors further down the FM dial, but instead like a thing unto itself: As raw and dangerous as a late-night honky-tonk parking lot, then as tender and true as the last dance inside.

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