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Waylon Jennings Gets Off the Grind-'Em-Out Circuit

Country is coming into its own, speeping into the ears of long-hairs and cowboys alike, and Waylon digs it

December 6, 1973
waylon jennings 1973
Waylon Jennings performs at the Palomino in Los Angeles.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO. — Waylon Jennings, country music's leatherclad "bad boy," awoke late at the snowbound Holiday Inn here, and at breakfast he was still trying to erase the memory of the previous night's distasteful work – a four-set performance at a red-velvet joint known as "Jack Jackson's Fantastic Cow Palace, Home of the Nashville Stars." It was one of Waylon's last shitkicker gigs as he graduates from the $1000-a-night kicker circuit to stadium concerts with the likes of the Grateful Dead.

When you're 36 years old (as he is) and you've recorded almost that many albums, and you're constantly being heralded the "next superstar," and Kris Kristofferson calls you the best country singer in the world, these grind-'em-out gigs become tedious. After all, this is a man who started out with Buddy Holly, and you would never have caught Buddy Holly looking forward to a night of jousting with drunken, would-be lumberjacks who would like to kick your ass to impress a cocktail waitress.

Jennings, wearing the same black leathers of last night, polished off a plate of tough bacon and limp eggs and laughed about the memory of the Cow Palace show. "There were some drunk cowboys there."

The show teetered on the brink of violence all night. Jennings' tightly reined, rock-based country music kept the audience of booted, mackinaw-clad drinkers at a ragged edge, and his leather-cowboy-stud stage presence and command invariably brought out the fightin' side in the drunks. But Jack Jackson's hulking bouncers kept them at a distance.

The women in the crowd, however, couldn't get close enough to Waylon. Rosie, a well-endowed waitress in scanty black skirt and snug red blouse, furnished drinks on the house to a reporter when she learned he was traveling with Jennings: "Could you get me a picture of Waylon? That voice – arrr-hhh!" She purred when the reporter said he might be able to arrange a personal introduction.

Jennings, intercepting a wink from a waitress in the motel coffee shop the next morning, laughed at the memory of Rosie: "That ol' gal, she was some thin' else . . . " he began. He was out off abruptly by the appearance of his airport ride, a crew-cut, foghorn-voiced DJ by the name of Pappy Dave Stone, the very spirit of KPIK, "Country Gold for Colorado Springs."

"Did you hear my program this morning, Waylon?" boomed Pappy Dave. "There's no one I'd rather plug than Waylon Jennings." Waylon nodded acknowledgment to Pappy Dave, who'd known both him and Buddy Holly in Lubbock in the Fifties.

"Yes, Waylon," Pappy said, "your songs never grab you, they just grow on you."

"Yeah," Waylon nodded, "I've never had a smash."

So much for breakfast conversation. On the way to the airport, Waylon and Pappy talked about the old days when Jennings was bassist for Buddy Holly and the Crickets.

"You know, Pappy," Jennings said, adjusting his chrome shades and sinking into the Chrysler's plush upholstery, "I just went into the studio with some of the old Crickets, Jerry Allison and Sonny Curtis with Duane Eddy producin' . . . At the time I was with Buddy, it was Tommy Allsup and me and Carl Bunch was on drums. On that last tour, me and Allsup and Buddy were supposed to fly. We were in Clear Lake, Iowa, and Jape Richardson had been sick with the flu and asked me for my place on the plane and Richie Valens had done the same with Allsup. And that was that.

"The only reason Buddy went on that tour was because he was broke, Flat broke. He didn't want to go, but he had to make some money. I ain't sayin' the person's name that was the reason he was broke."

With that, Waylon hurried to catch a plane for Austin, Texas, and a show at Armadillo World Headquarters with Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen. He strode impatiently through the airport lobby, his leathers and swept-back hair drawing considerable attention from onlookers. He was paged just before boarding the plane and looked around in amazement: "Nobody knew what plane I was takin'." He came back from the phone shaking his head: "Some third cousin who wanted to sell me a song. These people."

The stewardess in first class couldn't do enough for Waylon. "Get you a pillow, Mr. Jennings? Get you a drink? Two drinks? Let me help you with that seat belt."

Well, asked the reporter seated beside Jennings, these women seem to like you, eh?

Jennings laughed: "I dig women, I really do. But to get with a woman, I have to feel that she sees me as a man, not as part of the mystique. They don't love me, really, they love the mystery. But I'm not anything like what they think. I do enjoy hearin' all the stories, though. Somebody told me the other day, 'Waylon, all you must do is run around and roar and screw women.' I said, 'Hoss, you keep up that name for me, keep it goin' 'cause I damn sure can't keep that game up.'

"Basically, I'm very happily married, to Jessie [Colter, the former Mrs. Duane Eddy; she is also under contract to RCA]. I been married four times, the first time when I was 17. When I met Jessie, I was pretty well at my lowest point. I weighed 138 pounds and I was bent on self-destruction. Wallerin' in self-pity was the biggest part of it, stayin' depressed all the time and stoned. Jess was the best thing that ever happened to me."

What about his growing rock audience? Was that affecting him or his music?

"That show with the Grateful Dead," Jennings said, "I didn't get at all nervous about it because it was just like the shows I've done in Austin. The reaction was the same, the people were the same. The long-haired kids – they like country music too; they just don't feel welcome in some of these redneck joints. I did the same show in Kezar [in San Francisco] as I do in Gallup, New Mexico, or in El Paso, Texas, and it all works. Even though it's three different things: In Kezar it was the rock crowd, the Dead following; in Gallup, it's the Indians, and in El Paso it's for some pretty wild old cowboys. One of them 'let's whup him' joints. You walk in there, like last night, and they say, 'He's a cowboy singer, let's whup his ass.' That right there is why long-haired kids have never felt welcome in country music clubs. The only exception I know of is in Austin, but there's not many places like that."

He ordered another straight tomato juice (no drinking since a bout of hepatitis last year) and thought for a spell.

"I think it's gonna be a good thing, though," Jennings resumed. "I think country music's just now comin' in, really, for the first time, although they've hollered it for 15 years, every time a country singer'd have a pop hit.

"What's happenin' now is that they're mixin' it, these rock-country groups and they really are bringin' rock and country together. Some of these groups can play country because that's what they learned on, what they cut their teeth on. They're from farther back in the hills than I am, some of 'em. But as far as sellin' to a country market, a lot of things they cut would be bought by the country audience but they'll never get a chance to hear it.

"Why? Because we have people guardin' us in the control rooms and backstage. And they do talk about it. Chris Lane, a good friend of mine, he made a statement you know like about the cover of an album – he wouldn't play the album because of the cover. He said, well, I just think my people shouldn't be exposed to that. I said, well just who in the goddamn hell do you think you are, man? I don't want some disk jockey tellin' me what album covers I should and should not see.

"That's one of the big problems of country music. They don't want the country folks to know very much and they don't give 'em credit for knowin' very much. Country fans are as smart as anybody and it's an insult to 'em when a program director says, well, that song's too deep for our audience. Bullshit."

So what does that mean for the immediate future of what's called progressive country?

"Right out there in San Francisco," said Jennings, "was a perfect example. Those kids, man, they got off on what we did and they dug country. That Kezar show showed the influence that rock's had on me and the influence that country's had on the rock groups. It was a complete circle and we didn't sound out of place and they didn't.

"Rock is inspired by country and vice versa. Nashville, now, the big thing there – and I ain't sayin' I started it or anything – but like I did 'Brown Eyed Handsome Man,' remember when I cut that? Goddamn, after that, everybody got to hoofin' it, cuttin' old rock 'n' roll songs, but doin' country versions. They clean 'em up, you know, clean up the lyrics like they done with 'Drift Away' to make it try to sound country. It's hard to cover a song like that because it's so done already, it's done man, you stick a fork in it and it's done.

"I just love to listen to the way they clean up them lyrics; you can just hear 'em sittin' down and sayin', you can just see them old boys all gettin' together and sayin', 'Look, they'll shoot way over our country folks' heads, we got to figure out some way to get it down; you cain't say rock 'n' roll on a country record.'

"Well, why the hell not? That came from Alan Freed. Rock 'n' roll meant fuckin', originally. That's what it originally meant, which I don't think is a bad idea. Let's bring it back again."

The stewardess, bright-eyed and flushed of brow by now, nodded silent assent to that sentiment.

This story is from the December 6th, 1973 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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