There isn’t much to see in the town of Luckenbach, Texas. It’s barely even a town. A sleepy, unincorporated settlement about an hour outside Austin, Luckenbach – with its lone mailbox – boasts a population of three people. Yet 40 years ago, it achieved immortality with “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love),” a song that became one of the biggest hits for the Outlaw country movement and a defining statement for Waylon Jennings.
Released on April 11th, 1977, “Luckenbach, Texas” was Jennings’ first crossover hit as a solo artist, rising to Number 25 on the Billboard 200 chart. But the song, written by Chips Moman and Bobby Emmons, was much more than that: It was Outlaw country’s greatest myth-making moment, ensuring that “Waylon and Willie and the boys” entered the mainstream lexicon as shorthand for a simple way of life, one that country music has pined for ever since.
“Waylon and Willie [Nelson] were keeping alive this freeform, hippie type of ideal. That’s why so many people were attracted to them,” says Michael Streissguth, author of the 2013 book Outlaws: Waylon, Willie, Kris and the Renegades of Nashville (Streissguth is also a Rolling Stone contributor). “It drove home this cool, off-the-grid Texas ideal that a lot of people were yearning for. But it wasn’t just for hippies or former hippies, it was also for older people — pre-Baby Boomers who had been born, like Waylon, in the 1930s or 1940s.”
Luckenbach was perfect as a would-be mecca for wanderers. Founded in 1849, it was a ghost town on the verge of oblivion when Hondo Crouch bought the property in 1971. Little more than two old wooden buildings nestled in the Texas Hill Country – an old general store and a dance hall – Crouch turned the bucolic outpost into a sort of art piece, plastering the walls with old metal signs and license plates and coining the cheeky motto “Everybody’s Somebody in Luckenbach.” Two years later, Jerry Jeff Walker recorded ¡Viva Terlingua! inside its dance hall.
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Jennings would visit only once, when he played Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic there in 1997, five years before his death. “He had never been [to Luckenbach] when he sang it, for sure,” says Waylon’s son, Shooter Jennings, who laughingly describes the town as “a place that sells Luckenbach shit.” “If Chips Moman and Bobby Emmons had never written that song, who knows what that town would be today, or if it would even be there.”
When “Luckenbach, Texas” came out, country music was approaching a watershed moment. RCA’s Wanted! The Outlaws compilation, conceived to boost Jennings’ record sales, had just become the first-ever Platinum-selling country LP. The album also spawned his first Top 40 single, “Good Hearted Woman,” a faux-live duet with Nelson. “The Outlaw movement by this point had really become a major marketing vehicle,” says Streissguth. “In a way, The Outlaws album paved the way for whatever Waylon decided to do [next].”
Though only peripherally related to the town it was named after, “Luckenbach, Texas” relied on its own clever bit of self-promotion, with a name-dropping chorus that positioned the outlaws alongside legends like Hank Williams. The song’s plainspoken reverence for the past, enhanced by its spare and impressionistic imagery, articulated a disaffected sense of adulthood and prosperity. “It’s a bit of a fantasy, ‘back to the basics,'” says Jennings’ longtime drummer Richie Albright, who still tours with Shooter and the band Waymore’s Outlaws. “Everybody has those thoughts at times.”
Just as important as what Jennings said was how he said it. Starting with the a cappella opening that showcased his rich baritone – “the only two things in life that make it worth living…” – Luckenbach, Texas” was an exercise in restraint, its easy, loping melody lending it adult contemporary appeal. (It also cracked the Top 20 of the adult contemporary charts.) In fact, the twang in Jennings’ voice was one of the few things rooted firmly in country music, as Ralph Mooney’s mournful pedal steel mingled with a wah-soaked electric guitar ripped straight out of the rock & roll playbook. Almost without trying, it was one of the most surreal songs to ever become a country hit.
That “Luckenbach, Texas” would be Jennings’ breakthrough wasn’t immediately clear to those involved at the time. “We cut the thing and everybody said, ‘Yeah, that’s a pretty good song,'” recalls Albright of the recording sessions, which were produced by Moman. “I don’t think it really sunk in with anybody in the band until after it had been mixed. Everybody goes into the studio, turns down the lights, and puts on the record. When it finished playing, everybody went, ‘Damn.'”
The song was so successful that it helped make the album on which it appeared, 1977’s Ol’ Waylon, Jennings’ highest-selling studio album and the first by a solo country artist to go Platinum. This despite the fact that he wasn’t particularly fond of the song, as he made clear to Albright during another recording session years later. “He said, ‘Just remind me when I’m picking singles from now on that I got to sing that motherfucker every night,'” says Albright.
“He didn’t like the fact that he was going to sing his own name in a song,” says Shooter, who considers Ol’ Waylon among his favorites of his father’s albums. “He had a lot of facets, but that song, lyrically and everything, the message there is pretty thin. It references a bunch of other country singers. It is what it is, but I dig it.” Yet the self-referential nature of “Luckenbach, Texas” was a key part of the song’s mythological quality, and Jennings was savvy enough to recognize that. The following year, he doubled down and scored another hit with “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand?”, at once criticizing and capitalizing on the commercialization of the genre.
Albright suspects there may have been a more straightforward reason for Jennings’ feelings toward “Luckenbach, Texas” – the recorded version featured Nelson singing the final refrain. “He and Willie used to get at each other every now and then,” he says. “Waylon was bitching about doing one of those Willie concerts and somebody took the money, nobody got paid and all that. It was another one of them fiascos. That’s how Chips and Bobby got the idea for the song.”
Whether Jennings liked it or not, the song’s three and a half minutes distilled the Outlaw attitude like no other single recording. “‘Luckenbach’ may be one of the most explicit songs Waylon ever recorded about rejecting conventional wisdom,” says Streissguth. “It’s an outlaw anthem. Not just because it was a big seller, but because of what it did to represent the rejection of the mainstream. That’s what the outlaws were all about, and nobody was louder about that than Waylon.”
Not only did the song transcend the Outlaw movement, but, as Shooter recalls, it made Jennings a household name. “He told me that one time when I was a baby there was wrestling on the TV in the hotel room we were in. Hulk Hogan was giving one of his monologues and he says, ‘The only two things in life that make it worth living are guitars that tune good and firm-feeling women,'” says Shooter. “He looked around the room like, ‘Am I the only one who heard that?’ I think that was definitely the moment when he knew that what he had done had saturated American culture.”
More than a dot on the map, “Luckenbach, Texas” became a country state of mind, where life was free from the corruption of fame, fortune or the snares of the big city. Since the song’s release 40 years ago, and certainly since its singer’s death in 2002, country music has continued to search for the next Waylon Jennings – which may be its own kind of fantasy.