Song of the Day: Waylon Jennings’ “Are You Ready for the Country?”

by M.C. Antil on October 8, 2010

M.C. Antil’s Song of the Day — October 8, 2010
A daily snapshot of songs you might not know…but should.

Pre-Outlaw Waylon

On his classic 1972 album, Harvest, Neil Young included what some thought to be a throwaway song at the end of Side B.  Given the overall theme, sound and feel of Harvest, many believed Are You Ready for the Country? was about Young’s foray into traditional country.   

Unlike Young’s earlier efforts (both as a solo artist and band member), Harvest brought to the fore old-school country instruments like the fiddle and pedal steel guitar.  Taking the song at face value, therefore, made a lot of sense and clearly worked. 

But in Young’s original, the word “country” was not being used in a musical sense, but in a geo-political one.  Are You Ready for the Country? was about the Viet Nam War, and asked a posed a direct question to every red blooded American male faced with the specter of traveling to that far off land for a war which, by 1972, had proven to be highly unpopular.

Leftin’ and a-Rightin’;
It’s not a crime you know.
You gotta tell your story boy,
Before it’s time to go.

 Are you ready for the country,
Because it’s time to go?

However, four years later in the hands of Waylon Jennings, the song became something else altogether and its use of the word “country” was, indeed, a reference to a musical genre — albeit an ironic one. 

By 1976, Jennings had emerged as a leader of the Outlaw movement in country music; talented and fiercely independent singers, songwriters and musicians frustrated by the rigid rules of the traditional country scene, who wanted to make their own kind of country their own kind of way; guys like Willie Nelson, David Allan Coe and Kris Kristofferson.  

When it was first released, Are You Ready for the Country? was not broadly embraced, nor did it make much of an impact on either the country or pop charts. It did, however, serve a purpose.  It was a clear warning shot across the bow of those atop the Nashville food chain, many of whom had been keeping a tight leash on would-be rebels like Nelson and Jennings. 

By the mid-70’s the Outlaws had really started to ruffle feathers in Nashville because they had dared to do something which, frankly, their rock ‘n roll brethren had been doing for quite a while; namely, marrying the yin of one type of music to the yang of its kissin’ cousin. 

Bands like the Byrds, Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers had been using traditional country elements in rock for years.  But now Jennings was doing just the opposite, and it drove the Nashville elite crazy. He was importing many overtly rock elements and attitudes into country, and doing it not by a pinch or the dollup, but by the pound. 

Plus he was doing it outside the traditional studio system; no longer was he content to play Nashville’s game and fight for whatever scraps that might be thrown his way. And this song was just one more way of letting people know that.  That’s why he tweaked Young’s original lyrics to something personal to the point of being confrontational, and ironic to the point of being toxically so:

Are you ready for the country?
Are you ready for me?
Are you ready for the country?
Ain’t I a sight to see?

But irony aside, what really established Jennings’ cover as something more than just another of your father’s country jukebox tunes was its brawny arrangement. And central to that arrangement was a driving lead guitar which repeated a powerful, throbbing hook over and over again until, much like some gospel chorus, it slowly wrapped itself around the listener and refused to let go.

And nearly 35 years later, that’s still the case.

So please, sit back, turn up the volume, and enjoy M.C. Antil’s Song of the Day for Friday, October 8, 2010:  Waylon Jennings’ 1976 wake-up call to the lords of Nashville, Are You Ready for the Country?    

Title:  Are You Ready for the Country?
Artist:  Waylon Jennings
Composer:  Neil Young
Year Released:  1976

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