Waylon Jennings: 1937 to 2002
“I’m just me, really. I don’t put anybody on in no way. Because I’m a man, you know. I’m very human…as far as an image is concerned, it’s in the minds of the people. There’s none in my mind, except there goes a psychedelic cowboy singer.”
— Waylon Jennings, 1970
The obits were predictable: The Outlaw, Willie Nelson’s alter ego, the Dukes of Hazzard narrator. He probably summed himself up best in the above quote from Rolling Stone writer John Grissim’s now-classic 1971 paperback Country Music: White Men’s Blues, probably the first substantive Waylon profile ever written. Those sentiments suited the man who died February 13 at age 64, as well as the 33-year-old slick Grissim followed 32 years ago.
A quarter-century ago, many spoke his and Willie’s names as one. But to me, Waylon was first among equals in delineating the Outlaw ethos. His directness, honesty, contempt for Music Row bullshit and willingness to stomp on toes met the situation head-on. Willie achieved similar ends with a softer, beatific touch (one reason he got into the Hall of Fame before Waylon).
He was different from the start. Growing up poor in rural West Texas, he developed a musical eclecticism encompassing Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe, Carl Smith, Elvis and various cowboy singers. Oddly enough, the composer of “Bob Wills Is Still The King” never took to western swing.
A small-time Lubbock DJ, he became Buddy Holly’s friend before Holly hit it big. Holly didn’t forget. In 1958, he produced Waylon’s first single, and it remains a delicious paradox that the debut of an artist who later insisted he “couldn’t go pop with a mouthful of firecrackers” was pure, contemporary teen pop. While a last-minute change of mind kept Waylon off the doomed plane with Holly in 1959 (he was touring as a member of Holly’s band), guilt over innocent pre-flight joshing (“I hope your ol’ plane crashes”) haunted him for years.
Still working in radio, Jennings found redemption after a move to Phoenix in the early 1960s. Early singles reveal a work in progress, developing a pop singer’s sense of drama and space. JD’s, a high-end Phoenix club, became the lab where the rudiments of his later sound came to fruition. The famous Waylon At JD’s album, studio-recorded but an actual JD’s performance, released by Bear Family in 2000, is revelatory. The band anticipates the later Waylors; the repertoire reflects the broad palette of the Outlaw years, blending “The Last Letter” and other honky-tonk standards like with songs by, among others, Buck Owens, Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan.
Herb Alpert saw Waylon as pop when he signed him to A&M Records in 1964. The records were duds, slipping between the cracks dividing folk, rock, country and pop. A Waylon original, the dark, brooding ballad “Just To Satisfy You”, was his ticket to Nashville after Bobby Bare’s 1965 hit version for RCA led Chet Atkins to offer Waylon a contract.
The lure of stardom gave Waylon a powerful incentive to trust a producer with Chet’s reputation. They respected one another. But after Chet handed him to another RCA producer, the execrable Danny Davis, things went downhill, though he won a 1969 Grammy (with the vocal group the Kimberlys) for a Nashvillized version of the pompous pop ballad “MacArthur Park”. Privately, frustration with his modest success had him pondering a return to broadcasting in Phoenix. He despised Music Row’s cliques and back-room deals that barred singers from recording with their road musicians and forced them to cut songs that didn’t suit their style.
He also did the math. Rock stars with total creative control sold millions of records. Neo-conservatism colored his thinking: If Hank, Lefty and other legends made hits their way, why let corporate producers interfere? Writer Dave Hickey aptly delineated these diverging priorities in 1973 when he described Waylon, Willie and other Nashville misfits like Tompall Glaser as “the only folks in Nashville who will walk into a room where there’s a guitar and a Wall Street Journal, and pick up the guitar.”
In the Waylon hagiography, his transition to Outlaw (a term he never liked much) assumes epic and often oversimplified proportions. While some saw only longer hair and blue jeans, others viewed him as a Patrick Henry, leading a mass revolt against forced musical conformity. A better analogy is The Fountainhead, starring Waylon as a bearded, leather-vested Howard Roark battling RCA’s slick, conformity-conscious Gail Wynand. A paradigm shift was never his main goal as much as controlling his own artistic destiny (though if it helped others do the same, great). If he wanted to produce himself, fine. If he wanted a producer, let it be one he chose.