Wednesday 11 January 2012

Cultural analysis: Waylon Jennings on The Johnny Cash Show

Today I am looking at my absolute all-time favourite country music performance, Waylon Jennings's magnificently louche rendition of the classic Chuck Berry song, Brown-Eyed Handsome Man on the Johnny Cash show, probably from c.1969. The whole thing appeals to me: the colour, the outfits, the music and the song. All put together it's 110 seconds of your life very well spent. But why only spend 110 seconds on it? Using my helpful in-depth guide, you can waste away even more of your precious time!

Let's delve deeper.

0:01 - 0:09 Here's Waylon, playing us in. One thing that will immediately strike you as somewhat incongruous (and, therefore, brilliant) about this whole performance is that it has rather more velvet and ruffled shirts than you might expect from country music as a genre. To the left of Waylon's set was probably Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys warming up to play next, surrounded by hay bales, bull horns, milk urns and live goats. Waylon Jennings is doing it differently. Lounge style!
Waylon Jennings: handsome man

0:10 Our first wider shot of the action shows the full extent of the set. It's quite magnificent. The band are all stood on plinths which are like the caricatured country and western buildings in Yosemite Sam cartoons. Behind them, though, is anyone's guess. Brasso tin? Snowflake version of the Union Flag? Vengeful wife ruins set man's plywood cupboard with jigsaw? We'll probably never know.

0:22 Waylon is ably assisted in his strumming by his group. Perhaps the most striking member of this happy band is GuitarBot 2000, the world's first guitar-playing cyborg. Any human guitarist is normally fully occupied just handling a six-string or a twelve-string guitar, so GuitarBot was created to be unintimidated by the cacophonous all-wood eighteen string behemoth MULTI-AXE. GuitarBot is favouring the 12-string for this performance, but rest assured that should he have needed to, he could have played Purple Haze with his feet alone on the six.

0:26 Here we see the full band. Every band, when supporting an artist billed as a solo act, should always be dressed the same. That's just the rules of rock 'n' roll. So here they are, bedecked in a colour best described as "nuclear teal" and keeping it funky farm fresh. In the immediate foreground is an organist keeping a beat chugging along in dashing Ray Manzarek style. The drummer is keeping himself to himself, maybe anticipating his big moment is yet to come. The three guitarists, in the meantime, are exhibiting three different axe-wielding techniques. The bassist favours keeping it low slung, perhaps to disguise any unfortunately timed erections. Or perhaps to encourage them, who knows. GuitarBot continues to wrestle with his 18-string leviathan in the standard (or "Western") stance. Waylon Jennings, meanwhile, handles his guitar as if it is a shotgun primed and ready to get rid of a troublesomely persistent mole in his front lawn.

GuitarBot2000 - brown eye
0:42 Waylon Jennings is only flesh and blood like all of us (well, apart from his guitarist) so it's only natural he'd have a Paul McCartney and Wings moment. Appearing now in dazzling red velvet and frankly enormous hair is his new wife, Jessi Colter, on electric keyboard.

0:54 Waylon Jennings - as you may remember - is only flesh and blood like all of us (well, apart from his guitarist) so it's only natural that, with his new bride just off to his left dressed as a Regency page, he'd allow his eyes to wander. He's singing a song about Brown-eyed Handsome Men. He's a brown-eyed handsome man himself. It'd be easy as Britain's most single man to resent such things but Waylon pulls it off with such aplomb and cool. It's hard to begrudge a man for doing things that you yourself would do if you had their talent, looks and timeslot on American network television.

1:01 The drummer's big moment! As the song moves towards its climax, it is heralded by a spirited drum fill. It's one of my favourite parts of the whole song so it's a wonder that the director didn't see fit to show us the drummer in close-up, even just briefly. Then again, when the whole studio looks like Kula Shaker's debut album cover and Vishnu liable to be summoned at any moment, such distraction is perhaps understandable.
Jessi Colter - sponsored by static electricity

1:14 As any fool know, cyborgs are liable to attain sentience if they are good cyborgs like Robocop. Could it be happening here before our very eyes? It's possible, as GuitarBot 2000 is beginning to show signs suggestive that he has indeed managed to gain some degree of self-awareness. Specifically the awareness that he needs to go and urinate.

1:25 Jessi Colter's keyboard stylings are on display here, gently prodding the keys like a nervous medical student palpating a tender abdomen on her first day in the paediatric appendicitis ward. Waylon Jennings likes what he sees, unaware of the ongoing rise of GuitarBot 2000. Specifically the ongoing rise of his need for a widdle.

1:47 As the song winds to a close with a final flourish and a deserved round of applause, we get to have a final look at the shininess of Waylon's hair, which is truly remarkable. In keeping with country music traditions, this was greased up earlier using the over-run from the rear axle on a John Deere tractor. Meanwhile, GuitarBot is being hurried back to the workshop to be catheterised.

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