In 1966, country superstar — and out-of-control drug addict — Johnny Cash was separated from his first wife and still a few years from getting clean and marrying his second wife, June Carter. The Man in Black was living in a relentlessly messy apartment north of Nashville in the suburb of Madison, where his roommate was an up-and-coming singer-songwriter who was also struggling with a drug problem: Waylon Jennings. A Texas native, Jennings was born 79 years ago today, on June 15th, 1937. A performer from an early age, Jennings was also a disc jockey and would play bass in Buddy Holly’s band leading up to the ill-fated Winter Dance Party Tour in early 1959. Signed to RCA once he moved to Nashville, Jennings’ debut LP, Folk-Country, was released in 1966 and yielded Jennings’ first Top Twenty hit, “Stop the World (and Let Me Off).”
While it would be another several years before the rebellious entertainer would fully embrace his outlaw persona, in 1968, he reached a career peak to that point with the Number Two country hit “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line,” a tune written by musician Jimmy Bryant, whose playing had earned him the nickname “The Fastest Guitar in the Country.”
On March 25th, 1970, Johnny Cash invited his former roommate — and future fellow member of the Highwaymen (with Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson) to be a musical guest on his ABC series. The Johnny Cash Show was nearing the end of its first season and had already gained a reputation for featuring an eclectic roster of artists, including Bob Dylan, Derek and the Dominos (featuring Eric Clapton), Joni Mitchell and Ray Charles, in addition to numerous country acts. Jennings’ slick, short haircut and clean-shaven physical appearance on the show would be markedly different from the bearded, long-haired, cowboy-hat-wearing renegade who has inspired a generation of new “outlaw” performers.
The above clip of “Only Daddy,” which begins with Jennings and Cash reminiscing about their days as roommates, has Jennings telling his longtime friend and the audience, “I knew that if you didn’t make it, one thing you couldn’t be was a cook. He was my cook. Can you imagine Johnny Cash in a black suit with baking powder all the way down and gravy in the hair?” “That’s alright,” Cash counters. “I’m a good cook. You didn’t do nothin’.”
“I called June and told her to clean up the room,” Waylon says before walking over to join his band, which includes his wife of five months, Jessi Colter, on keyboard. With a backdrop that’s psychedelic art-deco, it’s not surprising to hear the group’s groovier (in every sense of the word) take on the tune that would become one of Jennings’ most-loved hits, in spite of stalling out just below the chart pinnacle (thanks to another groovy late Sixties country hit, “Harper Valley P.T.A.”).
This wasn’t the first time the song had been featured, but its earlier appearance, during the show’s third episode in June 1969, was subject to a gender change, thanks to Linda Ronstadt, who performed it as “Only Mama That’ll Walk the Line” and had included her version on her solo debut LP, Hand Sown … Home Grown, released two months earlier.