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Waylon Jennings Dead at Sixty-four

Country legend launched Seventies Outlaw movement

February 14, 2002 12:00 AM ET

In October Waylon Jennings was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. His testy relationship with the Country Music Association went back years; and despite having mellowed some recently, he didn't disappoint. "Actually I think they've set it where it's not gonna be broadcast this year because they're afraid of what I was gonna say," he joked from his Arizona home last year. "Naw, my son's gonna pick it up. I decided to go ahead and not say anything, just shut up and mind my business."

It was still a last whisper of defiance from a music legend with a reputation for roaring, one who crafted a career of calling bluffs and being the last to swerve out of a game of chicken. Jennings died February 13th at his home in Arizona after battling diabetes for the past several years. He was sixty-four.

All apologies to Gram Parsons -- who played great, straight country wrapped in a dope-smoking hippie cloak -- but should one wish to find the embodiment of the always amorphous term that is country-rock, Waylon Jennings is it. He was weaned on Ernest Tubb and Elvis Presley, he was buddies with Buddy, and he became the face of Seventies country by skillfully folding rock & roll elements into a literate rootsy mix. It's simply impossible to imagine southern rock, from Allman to Van Zant, and fringe country from Steve Earle to Uncle Tupelo without Waylon Jennings.

Jennings' beginnings were humble enough. He was born Born Wayland Arnold Jennings in Littlefield, Texas, about twenty-five miles northwest of Lubbock, on June 15th, 1937. When a friend asked his mother if her son was named after a local college, she changed the spelling to Waylon. He was immersed in music from the start; both of his parents were accomplished pickers. "My dad played like Jimmie Rodgers," he said, "and we would sit around and sing some of his songs when I was a kid. He would also play dances with my mom. Mama used to gripe because she had to hold the harmonica in his mouth. He never wanted to go very far with it. He just wanted to have fun."

Early on, Jennings' interests were broad and color-blind, a fact that would affect the shape of country to come. "There was just no difference in a poor country boy and black people in my mind," he said. "I worked in the fields with black people and never paid much attention to it. They had the flats back then and I was probably the only white boy they'd let go down there when they had somebody in town playing music, because I delivered ice. They had a place called Jaybird's Dew Drop Inn and I had a lot of good friends who were black and still do. In fact, my hero in this world is Muhammad Ali and always will be, not because of boxing but because of the man and what he stood for."

His father would also pull his pickup truck to the side of their house and run booster cables to the family's radio to catch broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry and the Louisiana Hayride. Contrary to the lyrics of "Amanda," his hit cover of the Bob McDill song, he claims to have gotten his first guitar from his parents at age ten, rather than fourteen. As a teenager he was spinning platters at KVOW, a local radio station, which specialized in two-hour genre-based blocks of music. Jennings dropped out of high school and immersed himself in the sounds of Texas titans like Bob Wills, Floyd Tillman and Tubb. He recalled hearing Elvis Presley for the first time in 1954 and wrote in his biography, "That sound went straight up your spine."

Jennings met Elvis on the King's second visit to Lubbock, but another rock & roller would have a more prevalent impact on his career. He and Buddy Holly were childhood friends, and when Holly dismissed the Crickets, Jennings became his bass player, from 1958 to 1959. Holly produced Jennings' first sessions, that resulted in an EP, during this time.

Jennings was to be onboard Holly's ill-fated airplane on the day the music died. Fellow Texan J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson was sick with the flu, and asked Jennings for his seat on the flight, to save himself a lengthy winter bus ride to their next gig. Jennings agreed, to Holly's dismay. According to Jennings' biography, Holly said, "I hope your bus gets stuck in the ice." Jennings replied, in jest, "I hope your plane crashes." Holly's death derailed Jennings' musical ambitions. He retreated to Arizona, where he did sporadic work as a disc jockey and eventually worked up the nerve to start performing again.

Jennings moved to Nashville in the mid-Sixties and was signed by Herb Alpert to A&M, which tried to market him, unsuccessfully, as a folk/pop singer. After breaking with the label, he was recruited by Chet Atkins for RCA, who subbed country for pop, and slapped it onto his debut album as a title, 1966's Folk Country. The album was the beginning of a freakishly productive spell for Jennings, who was releasing multiple albums each year. His pace was perhaps stimulated by his discovery of amphetamines, which he and then-roommate Johnny Cash, popped by the handful. "Pills were the artificial energy on which Nashville ran around the clock and then some," he wrote.

The early Seventies cast Jennings into the status of superstar. He and Willie Nelson, who had also run on RCA for a spell, became figureheads for country music's most mythical movement. The introverted Nelson's personal and professional troubles sent him retreating from Nashville back to Austin. He bent, bent and then relocated his tree, giving birth to a new musical culture. Jennings was never one to sidestep a challenge and dared Nashville to break him; Nashville backed down. He insisted on recording with his own band, rather than the usual Music City session cats. He refused to attend the Country Music Awards and spoke ill of the Country Music Association when given the opportunity. And Jennings, a first-rate songwriter himself, became a champion for other, lesser-known writers. One of his most distinctive qualities was his ability to interpret great songs, not only by great songwriters, but by great performers, yet incorporate them into his own larger than life lore. "Lonesome, On'ry and Mean" (written by Steve Young), "Honky Tonk Heroes" (Billy Joe Shaver), "Luckenbach, Texas" (Chips Moman) and "Amanda" (McDill) became Jennings songs as much as some of his own, "I've Always Been Crazy," "Good Hearted Woman" and "Bob Wills Is Still the King."

A young Shaver desperately tried to get his songs heard by Jennings. After being ignored one too many times, he cornered Jennings in a studio and declared, "I got these songs and if you don't listen to them, I'm going to kick your ass right here in front of everybody." Jennings took the brash songwriter aside, and admonished Shaver that another verbal slip and it was his posse would be doing the ass-kicking. He asked Shaver to play a song, with the promise that if he liked it, he wanted to hear another. The first one he didn't like was Shaver's invitation to the door. Shaver played "Old Five and Dimers (Like Me)" and another and another.

The meeting birthed Jennings' Honky Tonk Heroes, not immediately one of his biggest selling records, but to this day his finest. Of the ten songs, nine are Shaver originals, and most became part of the Jennings lexicon: the title track, "Old Five and Dimers," "Ain't No God in Mexico," "Black Rose," "Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me." The album cover featured Jennings and his crew, long-haired, bearded, smoking and drinking and established the look, feel and sound that would grow into the Outlaw movement (which in part took its name from Jennings' 1972 track "Ladies Love Outlaws") he would eventually despise.

And there was that look; in a genre of clean shaven jaws, pomade-crafted coifs and outlandish Nudie suits, Jennings' style was pure and perfect. He recalled having worn a single Nudie in the mid-Sixties, a white, shimmering number that a friend shredded with scissors. By the early Seventies, it was about a black wide-brimmed hat, leather vest, his Telecaster dressed on a custom sheath and shoulder length hair and a bushy beard. The rich voice was paired with a persona that didn't change through the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties; the look and sound of Waylon Jennings was something that can't be said of so many peers through those three decades: recognizable. Like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, no one looked or sounded like him. And more so than those two august names, Jennings' own handle had an iconic weight unto itself.

It was a marriage of image and music and name that fit like a boot. And while memories of Jennings will be vividly visual, the image shouldn't get in the way of the songs. Over his sixty-plus albums, he changed country music in ways other than contractual dealings, and production etiquette. He wrote of hearing Elvis, "I loved that churning rhythm on the bottom." Jennings' music never lost that rock & roll rhythm, pushing away the doghouse bass and replacing it with a propulsive electric rhythm guitar, an engine that sounded like nothing else at the time. It was the sound of a country music freight train, with a cabin full of rock and blues history. "Country music and blues was about a beat apart," he said last fall. "Purely from the soul. Most of it, if you listen to it, has the same chord structure. Verse chorus verse chorus and that. It was about the good and bad times and trying to get rid of a woman and get the one you want, that's about it and that's what the blues are about." Notable was Jennings reverence for country music's pioneers, but there was never anything retro about what he did. He knew the vernacular of Hank and Lefty and Tubb and Wills, but he merely incorporated it into something of his own.

Three years after Honky Tonk Heroes, Jennings, wife Jessi Colter, his friend Tompall Glaser and Nelson pulled together previously released tracks for Wanted! The Outlaws. Loaded with songs like "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys," "Honky Tonk Heroes" and "A Good Hearted Woman," the album was an immediate smash and became country music's first platinum seller.

A year later, Jennings and Nelson collaborated again on "Luckenbach, Texas," a Chips Moman-penned song that hit Number One on the country charts for six weeks, and reached as high as Number Twenty-five on the pop charts, where it resided for seven weeks. The song was part of a self-referential trinity for Jennings, who was always first to call bullshit when a scene had gotten out of hand. The song condemns "this successful life we're living" that had Willie, Waylon and the boys living like "the Hatfields and McCoys." The spoils of success frequently made Jennings uncomfortable. "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?" and "Don't You Think This Outlaw Bit's Done Got Out of Hand" found him as something of an unofficial conscience for country music, taking aim at himself and his peers for their excesses. It was a logical line of song from a man whose sole Nudie was left in tatters. Still, Jennings was never quite comfortable being the subject of his own songs. "Right off I never liked that song," he said of "Luckenbach." "It's not the type of song I'd do. But I learned a lesson from that, I turned around and told Richie, the drummer, I said, 'Next time when I record a song, you remind me I have to sing that sumbitch the rest of my life.'"

In 1980, another generation discovered Jennings, albeit only a third of him. He took a gig as the balladeer for The Dukes of Hazard, performing the theme song, "Theme From the Dukes of Hazard (Good Ol' Boys)," and adding bits of narration, with his face off-camera. But Jennings black vest and Telecaster, and particularly that voice, were unmistakable.

By the mid-Eighties, he encountered financial problems and a cocaine habit that he said ran over $1,000 a day. He kicked cold turkey in 1984 and continued to record, though the flow of hits had slowed. There were further collaborations with Nelson, with whom Jennings had a trying relationship. The clean and sober Jennings focused on business, with his Waylon G.D. Jennings Productions company (the "G.D." as one might expect stood for "God Damn"), and Nelson's taking-it-as-it-comes life philosophy never sat well with his fellow Outlaw buddy. "I would not get anywhere near a town Willie was running," he said laughing. "He once wanted me to go in with him to buy this bank. I said, first of all and foremost, are you gonna have access to the bank vault? If you're gonna have access to the bank vault, I ain't going nowhere near it. Willie is a gypsy . . . and he's a crook. And that's it [laughs]."

Jennings bounced around a few different labels in the Nineties, his best effort being the Don Was-produced Waymore's Blues: Part 2 in 1994. His most recent release was a live album, Never Say Die in 2000. It was a year later that the CMA celebrated the opening of the new Country Music Hall of Fame by inducting a handful of performers into their 2001 class, rather than the usual one or two. Jennings, who had bickered endlessly with the CMA, was among those included.

He had surgery in 2000 to improve the circulation in his legs, a complication from his diabetes. Last December, his condition worsened and his left foot was amputated. Statements from Jennings suggested he was down, but not out, and that a 2002 comeback was in the works, a project that won't be realized. But the majority of his Sixties and Seventies output for RCA has recently been remastered and reissued offering people the opportunity to discover his work thirty years after his breakthrough.

"I think music is the only hope this world has of bringing people together," he said last fall. "It's the only thing that can bring 'em together under one roof. We go over to Ireland and play and there they are, there's three different factions: the British, the Irish and the Irish Republican Army in this big coliseum and they're getting along. When we start to leave they go back to fighting. It's been going that way for all those years. But music definitely has healing powers. I was sick for a long time, and I went back to playing music and I started getting better as soon as I did."

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