His fourteenth studio release finds Mark Chesnutt joining the ranks of many other artists who have released a covers album in the past two years or so. As the title suggests, Mark’s offering is a tribute to the Outlaw movement, paying tribute to the likes of Hank Williams Jr., David Allan Coe, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and borrowing heavily from the catalog of Waylon Jennings, in particular. Covering classic songs is an endeavor fraught with peril; comparisons with the original versions is inevitable. Deviating from the original version too much can alienate longtime fans, while sticking too close to the original leads to charges of not making the song one’s own. Though there are a few missteps along the way, Chesnutt largely succeeds in bringing these vintage songs back to life.
Hank Williams Jr. is a difficult artist to cover, since much of his material is autobiographical in nature. Two Bocephus songs — “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound” and “Country State of Mind” — appear here, and Chesnutt sings both of them with gusto, sounding as though he is thoroughly enjoying himself. He tackles David Allan Coe’s “A Little Time Off For Good Behavior” with equal relish, and Willie Nelson’s “Bloody Mary Morning” is also an enjoyable listen.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment is Mark’s take on the Kris Kristofferson classic “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”. Johnny Cash’s definitive recording of one of the very best country songs ever written, simply cannot be topped. Chesnutt seems to realize this and unfortunately at times this seems like a phoned-in performance. His delivery lacks emotion and does not convincingly convey the feeling of loneliness and angst that the lyrics are trying to express. In additon, Pete Anderson’s production tends to get in the way. The accordian, presumably played by Flaco Jiminez, seems a bit out of place as does the organ that is meant to underscore the lyrics in the third verse about the hymns coming from a Sunday school. The overall result is a song that just plods along for nearly five minutes and made me wish I’d just listened to Cash’s version instead.
Also disappointing is Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting For A Train.” A minor hit for The Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings) in 1985, it was also recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker and David Allan Coe. It tells the story of a relationship between a relatively young man and a much older one. It starts out well enough, but about halfway through the production begins to drown out the vocals.
Half of the songs on the album are remakes of Waylon Jennings hits, so at times, Outlaw seems more of a Jennings tribute album than a salute to the Outlaw movement in general. Since Chesnutt is a huge Jennings fan, and even named his eldest son Waylon, this is not entirely unexpected. At times it’s hard to take Mark seriously as an outlaw, unlike Waylon who actually lived through much of what he sang about, but for the most part the Jennings covers work well. He wisely avoids some of Waylon’s better known material such as “Luchenbach, Texas” and “Just To Satisfy You” opting instead to cover some lesser-known gems such as “Black Rose” and “Freedom To Stay”.
“A Couple More Years”, written by Dennis Locorriere and Shel Silverstein, and previously recorded by both Jennings and Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show, is by far the best song on the album. Chesnutt is joined by Amber Digby on this one, and though lyrically it makes for a somewhat awkward duet — they each sing to each other, “I’ve got a couple more years on you babe, and that’s all” — the vocal peformances by Chesnutt and Digby more than compensate for this lack of logic. Another highlight of the album is “Lovin’ Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again)”. This seems like the type of song that might have been a hit if it had been released during Mark’s MCA years, though the chances that radio will play this song now are slim. It is however, an example of Mark Chesnutt at his best; on this track he truly shines.
I’m not sure that there’s much on Outlaw to appeal to casual fans, but longtime Mark Chesnutt fans will want to seek it out. It will be released on June 22 on the Saguaro Road label. It is currently available for pre-order at Amazon.