Even in a town as steeped in folklore as Nashville, how Waylon Jennings came to record “Honky Tonk Heroes”—and the album of the same name—has to be one of the best tales in country music. The story goes that Jennings had promised Billy Joe Shaver, then an unknown songwriter from Texas, that’d he’d do a full album of Shaver’s songs (according to Shaver’s memoir, Honky Tonk Hero) or just “Willie The Wandering Gypsy And Me” (according to Jennings’ autobiography, Waylon). But everyone agrees that, after Jennings forgot about the promise and blew Shaver off, Shaver showed up at the studio one night and threatened to beat him up. “Waylon, you said you were going to do a whole album of my songs,” Shaver writes in Honky Tonk Hero. “I’ve got those songs, and you’re going to listen to them—or I’m going to kick your ass right here in front of God and everybody.”
It was a bold move for a variety of reasons, not the least of which were Jennings’ biker friends, who could have made short work of Shaver. Jennings took the Texan to the back room and said, “Hoss, you don’t do things like that,” Jennings writes in Waylon. “I’m going to listen to one song, and if ain’t no good, I’m telling you goodbye. We ain’t never going to talk again.”
Jennings says Shaver played “Old Five And Dimers (Like Me),” though Shaver says it was “Ain’t No God In Mexico.” Either way, Shaver kept playing songs. “By the time he ran out of breath, I wanted to record all of them,” Jennings writes.
That became Honky Tonk Heroes, a seminal album in the world of country music and one few people believed would succeed at the time. Shaver didn’t make it easy for Jennings, either. When they recorded the title track, Shaver complained about the changes Jennings made until the singer had enough: “Let me tell you something,” Jennings said to him, according to Waylon. “You are going to get your ass out of here and stop bugging me. I love your songs, but I’m starting not to like you worth a damn. Stand outside the studio, go for a walk, watch some television. I don’t care what you do. When I get through, you can come back in. If you don’t like it, I’ll change it and do it another way, but now get the hell on the other side of that door.”
More than 40 years later, when Honky Tonk Heroes is considered some of Jennings’ finest work and a high-water mark of the outlaw-country movement, it’s difficult to imagine how risky that album was. “Honky Tonk Heroes,” the title and leadoff track, captures its spirit. It builds slowly, starting off with Jennings’ voice and a guitar, wistfully looking back at a lifetime of bad decisions. A fiddle joins in, then a bass guitar, then everything stops for a moment after he sings, “There weren’t another other way to be / For lovable losers, no account boozers / And honky tonk heroes like me.” The guitar kicks back in as he says, “Hey hey,” and “Honky Tonk Heroes” is wistful no more: Jennings repeats that last verse again, this time defiant. The tinge of sadness in “There weren’t another other way to be” is now a celebratory statement of purpose.
The sadness comes back quickly, and more intensely, on “Old Five And Dimers (Like Me),” the next song on Honky Tonk Heroes. But for a few minutes at least, being a honky-tonk hero sounds heroic.