It’s Father’s Day. It’s also the birthday of the man who had a hit in 1968 with a song called “The Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line.” I thought of posting about that song as a tribute to Waylon Jennings, one of the original outlaw rebels of Country music, but it’s not really a song about being a father. It’s about being a “daddy” in the sense of the guy who makes it all happen for a certain girl. She seems to be straying from the position of sufficient adulation and he’s trying to bring her back in line. It’s probably a deliberate recollection of Johnny Cash’s “because you’re mine, I walk the line.” Walking the line, I assume, has something to do with not straying, not doing hound dog and wild cat things. Keeping it real, we say now, sometimes.
I chose instead the second track from an album from 1973, when Waylon was well launched on his maverick course, and was one of the albums that established him as an ornery cuss, supposedly. All the songs are by Billy Joe Shaver, who was unknown at the time, mostly. And the band on the record is Waylon’s performing band rather than Nashville studio studs. Unheard of! So it’s a real record, in the rock artist manner of putting together a band and striving for a sound. And though these aren’t songs penned by Waylon, he goes about making them his own in a big way.
Today’s song is one of those songs that seems to sum up an entire life and an entire approach to life. It’s not morose or bluesy, so much as it’s clear about its attitude toward its subject. And its subject is what the singer has to say about himself, characterizing himself as “an old five and dimer”—which means, in essence “two-bit,” or “small potatoes,” or no big deal. He’s not the be-all and end-all, he’s just a guy getting by, barely. And it’s not just in economic terms, we understand. It’s in terms of everything he’s expected life to be—in terms of love and fame and recognition and remuneration and even his sense of his own status and accomplishment. “Good times and fast bucks are too few and too far between.” It’s just a level statement.
But there’s rueful wisdom here right from the start: “I’ve spent a lifetime of making up my mind to be / More than the measure of what I thought others could see.” There you have it. A suggestion of “that within which passeth show,” as Hamlet says. To be more than what others judge you to be—for that you must have some inner resources. And Waylon’s vocal walks the line, alright. He’s got an immense gravitas and a mournful quality too, letting us know that “a lifetime” is right enough, and a lifetime of not being measured fairly—well, it’s enough to make someone stick with the five-and-dime and buying from catalogs (a slur in the era of Sears and Roebuck, when it was largely hayseeds who bought from catalogs because they didn’t live near any towns that actually stocked desirable goods).
Then too, Waylon delivers a wink when it suits, as in “Fenced yards ain’t hole cards and like as not never will be.” This comes after a few lines reflecting on a “she” who was expected to be (or hoped to be) there when things ran thin, but that little glimpse at a home and a “spread”—the prereq for the happy domestic life, of course—sees that it ain’t something you can keep in reserve. It’s not going to pay off like a hole card might. A five and dimer is playing a weak hand in that regard.
And the playing on the steel guitar is so tasteful on this song, just hinting at the kind of comfort one might find with the right woman or the right bottle, but this dude is not likely to trust in either for long.
“It’s taking me so long and now that I know I believe / All that I do or say is all that I ever will be”—there’s a statement of clear-eyed assessment. Kinda like Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, right, from an album that came out the same year as Honky Tonk Heroes: “For all you touch and all you see / Is all your live will ever be.” We are what we do and say; our lives are based on what we see and touch. It’s all experiential, in the end. Then the lines about “too far and too high and too deep”—with Waylon, who was not above growing long hair and a beard and smoking pot like his Country rebel buddy, Willie Nelson, letting us catch the innuendo where “a nickel” and “a dime” are weights of bags of grass or coke or what have you. “Too much ain’t enough” for a hell-raising hard-liver like Waylon Jennings, who despite all that managed to last to 64, dying in 2002.
This entire album is a classic and I’m glad to have a reissued vinyl copy. And on a father’s day spent with my daughter—some of it in Delaware at my brother Jerry’s house (the old family homestead), much of it in New Jersey on the Turnpike and the Garden State, and some of it in Connecticut at Christopher Durang’s skewering of America and “father knows best” assertions, among other things, Why Torture is Wrong and the People Who Love Them—I’m glad to pay tribute to the place where Country meets rock in the music and attitude of Waylon Jennings, the only daddy that’ll walk that line.
An old five and dimer is all I intended to be.