Chuck Prophet covers outlaw Waylon Jennings, and it works beautifully
Chuck Prophet is a Californian born and bred, so it's only natural he takes a few liberties with the lyrics to "Waymore's Blues," one of the songs he covers on his latest full-length-a weird, loving re-creation of Waylon Jennings' classic 1975 country album Dreaming My Dreams. "Well, I gotta leave San Francisco / I gotta spread the news," Prophet sings. "Women up in this piece / They don't wear no shoes." On Dreaming Waylon's Dreams, the singer and songwriter respects the running order of the original work as well as its emotional core, but Prophet is in the line of subversive American pop artists whose afﬁnities are shifty by design.
From Whittier, Calif., Prophet ﬁrst gained notice as guitarist for Green on Red, a band whose whacked-out Americana updated the time-honored trash aesthetic in the '80s. After their breakup, he released a series of well-received solo records, worked with Dan Penn and Jim Dickinson and produced country-pop singer Kelly Willis. Last year he released the ﬁne Soap and Water, on which he came across like the chameleonic Alex Chilton with fewer misgivings about pop's elusive soul.
Cut in San Francisco and in Nashville with producer Brad Jones at Alex the Great studio, Soap and Water took Chilton's insouciant, good-boy-itching-to-be-bad charm as its template. "I met Alex at the 688 Club in Atlanta," Prophet remembers. "He pulled out of that Buick Skylark that he had, with a Super Reverb amp and his clothes in the back, and that was it, you know? Alex sang the blues the way Mose Allison sang it-he had a great, cool way of doin' it."
Dreaming Waylon's Dreams came about as a result of Prophet's longtime admiration of Jennings' masterpiece, and turned on a bit of self-aggrandizement. "We cut it in California over a weekend, and it was really kind of done on a dare," Prophet says. "I think I started braggin', and said, `I could do that whole record from memory, right now.' Three or four songs in, we were starting to get punchy, you know, and we were bringing the words down off the Internet."
The result is a loose, lively document that sounds neither country nor pop. Prophet's humorous baritone holds notes and inﬂects lines with a sort of pathos that never gets out of hand. "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way" stomps along in hard, concentrated fashion, with atmospheric guitars. "Waymore's Blues" (itself a reworking of Furry Lewis' 1928 "Kassie Jones") joins the list of inspired readings of the venerable tune by Memphis producer and pianist Jim Dickinson.
"We played it with Dickinson in 1991," Prophet says. "We did a brief tour with him and my band backed him up. Every time I would quote anything from the Waylon version, he would kinda snarl at me. He'd say, `Man, I don't even acknowledge that version.' "
However ﬁnely tuned one's historical sense might be, Dreaming Waylon's Dreams works beautifully. It turns a Nashville record (Jack Clement produced the original) into something close to the Bluff City in spirit. If Chilton's work triangulates Memphis, New Orleans and Brian Wilson's California, Prophet's vision includes Music City.
"In the late '90s, Nashville kind of saved me," Prophet says. He came to town to write with the likes of Kim Richey, with whom he penned a 2002 Top 40 country hit for Cyndi Thomson, "I'm Gone." A ﬁrst-rate songwriter with a ﬁne sense of pop classicism, Prophet might seem an unlikely cowboy standing in line to sing the blues. To paraphrase Jack Clement himself, Prophet might be a fake, but Dreaming Waylon's Dreams proves he's no phony.