Throughout a series of health challenges in the last years of his life, Waylon Jennings retained the same outlaw spirit that he first brought to Nashville in the early Sixties, when RCA producer Chet Atkins signed him to the label. Although Atkins wanted Jennings to be himself, the veteran producer-guitarist was also used to functioning within the Music Row studio system that was, as Jennings noted in his autobiography, “working more for efficiency than emotion.” What Jennings wanted, and eventually achieved, was creative control over doing his music his way.
At the dawn of the new millennium, it seemed the only thing that had changed for Jennings was that he performed far fewer live shows and did so primarily from a seated position. In spite of this, Jennings would scoff at the notion that his decision to cut back his tour schedule was a sign of anything more serious. “I don’t need a wheelchair,” he said in a 1998 statement to the press. “I don’t use makeup, Viagra, Geritol or Hadacol. I just don’t want to be on the road as much as I was. I don’t have Chronic Fatigue – I can’t even spell it. The only thing I’ve retired from, and am tired of, is the road and the bullshit. Get it right.” Sure enough, within a year, Jennings would be back to live performing, playing a show at the Ryman in August 1999.
Although he and wife Jessi Colter were in the process of relocating to Arizona at the time, Jennings took up residence at the Ryman Auditorium in early January 2000 to record a live album and concert DVD with the typically defiant title, Never Say Die: The Final Concert Film. His last-ever Nashville performance, the shows with his Waymore Blues Band represented only the fifth time in his entire career that he would play a live show in Music City.
Highlights abound from the concert, which included guest appearances from Colter, as well as Montgomery Gentry, Travis Tritt and John Anderson. But after introducing the LP and DVD’s defiant title cut, Jennings tears into a medley of two songs that made him a superstar: “Good Hearted Woman” and “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.” Although both were massive late Seventies duet hits featuring Willie Nelson, here, Jennings’ accompaniment is a group of legendary musicians including steel guitarist Robby Turner and drummer Richie Albright. In spite of stumbling over the lyrics of the latter tune (“That’s Willie’s part,” he jokes as he sings, “Cowboys don’t let your mammas grow up to be babies… or something like that”) it’s a deeply poignant performance. He would succumb to complications from diabetes in February 2002, but seated on his stool at the Ryman in 2000, strumming his guitar and singing in that same powerful baritone, Waylon Jennings was nothing less than a towering giant.