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 Texas music’s Sundance Kid possessed one quality which rose above all the others. When he announced his arrival as a country music star 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 10 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 or Buddy Holly, Waylon’s true kindred spirit was Hank Williams, whose headbutts against the Nashville establishment were recalled in Jennings’ 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 Don Bowman) and “Good Hearted Woman” (with Willie Nelson), Waylon needed no help at all with the defiant “Hank.”
Those born in Texas are instilled with the belief that they are a little bit bigger, smarter and a whole lot tougher than non-Texans. “But the really tough part,” Jennings said in a TV interview, “is when you go out in the world and find out that you ain’t.”
His swagger, underlined by his trademark pulsing bass lines and accented by a devilish grin, could not mask the air of vulnerability he brought to his songs like “Storms Never Last,” written by his beloved wife Jessi Colter, and “Dreaming My Dreams.”
Jennings died Feb. 13, 2002 at his home in Arizona, after a long battle with diabetes-related health problems. He was 64.
But Ol’ Waylon packed a whole lot of living and great musicmaking in those years. He recorded 60 albums and had 16 No. 1 country singles in a career that began when he played bass for Buddy Holly. In an oft-told footnote, Jennings had planned to fly on the light plane that crashed and killed Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson in an Iowa field in 1959. Jennings gave up his seat on the plane to Richardson, who was ill and wanted to fly rather than travel by bus.
Though his career’s opening chapter was marked by tragedy, it was the subsequent triumphs with Willie on “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)” and others that 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.
When heavy metal gods Metallica headlined the 1996 Lollapalooza tour, they picked Jennings to also be on the bill. What other country act could play — and survive — before a crowd that came to see Metallica, Soundgarden, Rancid and Rage Against the Machine?
A one-name superstar, Waylon was a creation all his own. “There’s always one more way to do things,” he’d say, after several early frustrating years of listening to producers. “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, 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 drug 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’ 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.”
Yet Jennings shunned televised award shows 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’ 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 once said. And it was Jennings who brought them all together with a distinctive stomp. “Some people have their music,” he said in 1984. “My music has me.” The former Buddy Holly protege eventually became as important to the country field as Holly was to rock.
Born in Littlefield and raised in a household where Bill Monroe was still the king, Jennings became a radio disc jockey at KLLL in Lubbock as a teenager and formed his own band. He and Holly were teenage friends and when Buddy decided to start his own label with proceeds from such hits as “That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue,” Jennings was his first signee. Though Waylon’s version of “Jole Blon” (featuring great sax work from King Curtis) didn’t bust out of West Texas, he was hooked on making records. 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.
“Mainly what I learned from Buddy was an attitude,” Jennings said. “He taught me that music shouldn’t have any barriers to it.”
By the early 1960s Jennings had moved to Arizona with his first wife, who had family there, and was packing J.D.’s nightclub in Phoenix six nights a week, mixing country with rockabilly and blues. In 1963, he was signed by Herb Alpert’s A&M Records, but after creative misunderstandings (“They were thinking Al Martino,” Jennings explained, “and I was thinking Flatt & Scruggs”), Jennings looked for a way out of his contract. He got it when Nashville songsmith Bobby Bare heard “Just To Satisfy You” on the radio in Phoenix and alerted Chet Atkins of RCA Nashville. Atkins convinced his friend Alpert to let Jennings go. Willie Nelson met Jennings at around that time and, finding out how much money he was making at JD’s, advised him to stay in Phoenix. 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.
New to Nashville, Waylon became fast friends and eventually moved in with Johnny Cash, who was deep in his pill-popping daze. “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 earned the nickname “Waymore.” 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 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 10 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 two Texas icons didn’t always get along. In fact, Jennings said his song “Bob Wills Is Still the King” was written as a dig at Nelson, in retaliation for booking Waylon into a couple of disastrous gigs. “No matter who’s in Austin/Bob Wills is still the king,” the song goes.
Where Willie is a trusting soul, Waylon was always suspicious, always worried that someone was going to take advantage of him. If not for an affinity 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.
This is one of 42 profiles from “All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music (UNT Press 2017) by Michael Corcoran