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Waylon Jennings: Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?

Posted by mcorcoran on June 15, 2019

(This is one of the 42 profiles contained in “All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music” by Michael Corcoran)

Waylon Jennings had it all. Rugged, movie-star looks. A warm, forceful voice. A gift for writing frill-less songs that roused the soul. But one quality rose above all the others. When he announced his arrival as a country music superstar with 1968’s “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line,” he sounded like no one who had come before him. That’s only happened three or four times in the history of country music. 

In an era when label bosses kept their acts in the middle of the road, Jennings swerved from side to side and told them to eat his dust. That black hat wasn’t just for decoration, hoss.

Waylon was one of the first country hitmakers to use his touring band in the studio and the first to record an album of ten songs by an unknown writer. In accomplishing these feats with a pair of 1973 LPs—Lonesome, On’ry and Mean and the Billy Joe Shaver-penned Honky Tonk Heroes—Jennings was a true “Nashville Rebel,” the raging soul of outlaw country music. He was Elvis Presley as a hardhead, able to bring vocal grace to any style of music, but always keeping it Southern.

Give credit to Chet Atkins and RCA for sticking with Jennings for seven LPs before his first big hit. It wasn’t easy. But the music was so damn good, they just knew the folks would eventually catch up.

Though most often aligned with Willie Nelson, Waylon’s true kindred spirits were Buddy Holly, his Lubbock mentor, and Hank Williams, whose headbutts against the Nashville establishment were recalled in Jennings’s own experience on 1975’s “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way.” Although Jennings had co-written some of his previous hits, including “Just to Satisfy You” (with fellow ex-DJ Don Bowman) and “Good Hearted Woman” (with Willie Nelson), Waylon needed no help at all with the defiant “Hank,” whose B-side “Bob Wills Is Still the King” was a light-hearted jab at Willie.  

Eventually, Jennings became as important to the country field as Holly was to rock. Two smalltown Texas kids who shook up conventions and made the music business bend their way. Elvis Presley played Lubbock five times in 1955, while a member of the Louisiana Hayride, which impacted the town’s young musicians profoundly.

Those born in Texas were instilled with the belief that they were a little bit bigger, smarter, and a whole lot stronger than non-Texans. “But the really tough part,” Jennings said in his 1996 autobiography, “is when you go out in the world and find out that you ain’t.”

His swagger, made musical by his trademark pulsing bass lines, could not mask the air of vulnerability he brought to his recordings like “Storms Never Last,” written by his beloved wife Jessi Colter, and the 1986 cover of “Will the Wolf Survive” by Los Lobos.  

The sense of loss was deep when Jennings succumbed to diabetes-related health problems in Feb. 2002 at age 64. Long before social media, the wake was wide-ranging, because his music always knew what we needed.

A high school dropout, Jennings met Holly, a year older, in 1956, when an 18-year-old Waylon was a DJ/ performer on Pappy Dave Stone’s KDAV country radio station in Lubbock and Holly had released his first singles (produced in Nashville by Owen Bradley) to an audience of crickets.  

Buddy Holly and his band of Crickets became a sensation the next year, having huge hits the last half of 1957 with “That’ll Be the Day,” “Peggy Sue,” “Oh, Boy” and “Not Fade Away.” When Holly became increasingly more adept in the studio and wanted to work with other artists, Waylon was the first he tapped, producing a single never released (“Jolie Blon”) in Sept. 10, 1958. Later that year, Holly split from the Crickets and hired Waylon as his touring bassist. In an oft-told footnote, Jennings gave up his seat on the light plane that crashed and killed Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson in an Iowa field on Feb. 3, 1959.

Though his career’s opening teaming was sobered by tragedy, then soaked in survivor’s guilt, Jennings played well with others. The subsequent triumphs with Willie Nelson on “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love),” and others created an “outlaw country” scene that was really as much about brotherhood and respect as it was about defiance and weed. Waylon’s early ‘70s heyday evoked a restless spirit embraced later by Travis Tritt, Steve Earle, and any rockers who let the radio linger on a country station when an old classic came on. Or the other way around.

What other country act could tour with Lollapalooza, as Jennings did in 1996, and survive playing before a crowd that came to see Metallica, Soundgarden, Rancid, and Rage Against the Machine?

Jennings has always been cool country, playing Max’s Kansas City in 1973 during the heyday of the New York Dolls. His autobiography was co-written with Patti Smith’s guitarist Lenny Kaye, though Waylon’s music had nothing to do with the punk scene except that he created from the gut and was beholding to no one. “There’s always one more way to do things,” he said in Waylon. “That’s your own way. Everybody deserves the chance to do things their way at least once.”

Jennings made the most of that chance and never went back to the way things used to be. Thanks to the bulldog negotiations of manager Neil Reshen, who restructured the deal with RCA Victor in 1973, Waylon was the first Nashville artist to be granted complete creative control. Music Row chiefs couldn’t argue with the results, as 1974’s This Time and 1975’s Dreaming My Dreams are wall-to-wall masterpieces that sold well.

Always surrounded by bikers as bodyguards, Jennings cut an imposing presence. He played up his brash persona with such album titles as Ladies Love Outlaws and The Ramblin’ Man, but later scoffed at the maverick image as a marketing tool — one that inadvertently led to the 1977 cocaine bust described in “Don’t Y’All Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand.” But Jennings had to admit the renegade tag fit in one regard. “You start messing with my music, I get mean,” he told one interviewer.

His resonant, authoritative voice was used to narrate the popular TV show The Dukes of Hazzard, inspired by the 1975 film Moonrunners, which also featured Waylon’s voiceover. The radio version of Waylon’s self-penned theme song “Good Ol’ Boys,” his biggest hit in 1980, included a line aimed at The Dukes opening montage, which didn’t show Jennings’s face, just his hands on a guitar: “I’m a good ol’ boy, you know my mama loves me, but she don’t understand why they keep showing my hands and not my face on TV.”

Offered face time on televised award shows, however, Jennings said “no thanks,” on the grounds that performers should not compete against each other. He skipped his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001 and during the ’60s he declined to appear on the Grand Ole Opry because a full set of drums was forbidden. That rule was eventually dropped.

“He knew exactly what he wanted,” said Austinite Floyd Domino, who played piano in Jennings’s band from 1982 to 1986. “Whatever you played, he’d tell you to play it an octave lower. He always wanted the emphasis on the down beat.” Like most great musicians, Jennings heard a sound in his head and he wasn’t going to let anyone change it.

“I’ve always felt that blues, rock ’n’ roll and country were just a beat apart,” Jennings said in interviews. And it was Jennings who brought them all together with a distinctive West Texas stomp.

Born in Littlefield, 40 miles northwest of Lubbock,  and raised in a household where Bill Monroe was still the king, Jennings started playing on the radio at age 12. “Some people have their music,” he said in 1984. “My music has me.”  And with Holly, the first successful rock and roller to write, produce, and play on his own records, he found a mentor for the ages. 

Holly’s death at age 22 left Jennings shattered and alone. Contractually obligated to continue on the tragic Winter Dance Party Tour, Waylon couldn’t even attend Buddy’s funeral. When the father of Waylon’s first wife Maxine fell ill in Scottsdale, Arizona, and she wanted to move there, he welcomed the change of scenery. It didn’t take long for Waylon to become the hottest thing in the Greater Phoenix area, as his Waylors packed the 1,200-capacity J.D.’s nightclub in Tempe five nights a week. Drums were a neccessity, so Jennings hired Richie Albright, an Oklahoma native living in Arizona, who would be his most trusted sidekick for the next 20 years. The band’s repertoire was almost all covers, mixing country with rockabilly and blues. They even did Bob Dylan songs.

Willie Nelson met Jennings at around that time and, finding out he was making about $1,500 a week at JD’s, advised him to stay in Arizona. But the allure of national stardom drew Jennings to Nashville in 1965, the year he starred in the low-budget film Nashville Rebel, which came with a soundtrack LP on RCA.

Jenning had signed a deal with Herb Alpert’s A&M Records in ‘63, but after creative misunderstandings (“They were thinking Al Martino,” Jennings explained, “and I was thinking Flatt & Scruggs”), Jennings asked out of his contract so he could sign with Chet Atkins at RCA. Atkins found out about Waylon through Nashville songsmith Bobby Bare, who heard “Just to Satisfy You” on the radio in Phoenix, checked out the Waylors at J.D.’s and called Chet to tell him he’d found the country Elvis. Alpert and Atkins were friends, so Herb stepped aside, a greedless act for which Jennings was forever grateful.

New to Nashville, Waylon became fast friends and eventually moved in with Johnny Cash, who was deep in his pill-popping daze. The Men in Black shared a studio apartment before Cash married June Carter.

“Stop the World (And Let Me Off),” from his RCA debut Folk-Country, was not only his first Top 20 hit, but a personal reflection on that crazy time, when Jennings sometimes played pinball for 36 hours straight. During his 1970s glory years, Jennings switched to powdered fuel and amassed an addiction to cocaine that cost him about $1,500 a day and redefined his old nickname “Waymore,” which he got from an obscure cartoon character. But with such No. 1 smashes as “I’m a Ramblin’ Man,” “I’ve Always Been Crazy,” “Ain’t Livin’ Long Like This,” and “Amanda,” Jennings could afford the endless bumps. 

After finally getting drug free, Jennings found success in the mid-’80s with the Highwaymen, country’s version of the Traveling Wilburys,  a supergroup consisting of Jennings, Nelson, Cash, and Kris Kristofferson. During a solo club tour of 1993, when Jennings told as many stories as he sang, he recalled being impressed with Willie’s ability to memorize new songs on a Highwaymen tour.

“I’d say, ‘I just can’t learn any more songs,’ but Willie would say, ‘I’ll do one more.’ Willie had ten more songs in the show than the rest of us,” Jennings recalled. “Then the first night of the tour I look over and Willie’s got all the lyrics right in front of him on a music stand. I coulda strangled him.”

The pair didn’t always get along. Where Willie is a trusting soul, Waylon was always suspicious, always worried that someone was going to take advantage of him. It didn’t help when Willie enlisted Waylon for the disastrous Dripping Springs Reunion festival outside Austin in 1972.

If not for music, Waylon and Willie probably would’ve never had anything to do with each other. But there’s no denying the magic, the mystique, those two created together with their new language of big sky freedom. The music they made alone, they made together.

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