Waylon Jennings: 1937 to 2002
Waylon’s 1972 contract negotiations centered on creative control and song publishing; he was aided by a new manager and the business-savvy Glaser. The label gave him what he wanted, then sat back with most of Music Row, expecting he’d soon fall on his ass. To their shock, the arrangement unleashed a tapestry of artistic and commercial triumphs. They not only vindicated Waylon’s vision, they succeeded in the marketplace so totally that even the hardest skeptics became believers.
From the primordial, pulsating roar of “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” to the scorching performances on Waylon Live and masterpiece albums such as the exquisite Dreaming My Dreams, his strengths left listeners mesmerized. Older country fans and many newbie rock fans alike bought everything he (and Willie) did. In 1976, RCA exec Jerry Bradley, one of the early skeptics, suggested an anthology that he titled Wanted! The Outlaws, a sampler of old Waylon and Willie solo tracks newly enhanced by both men, with new tracks by Tompall and Waylon’s wife Jessi Colter. It eventually became country’s first platinum album.
Waylon’s impact on Nashville’s recording scene was more profound than many realize. In 1973, he defied RCA’s longstanding edict that their artists record only in company facilities. Using Tompall’s studio, the now-legendary Hillbilly Central, to record This Time shattered those rules. Company studios gradually closed, replaced by independent facilities. He was also among the first country performers to use rock-like stage shows complete with elaborate, first-rate sound and stage lighting systems.
While his (and Willie’s) triumphs allowed them to rise to their true potential on their terms, surprisingly few artists followed them. Aside from Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Paycheck and like-minded vets such as Johnny Cash, few possessed Waylon’s courage. Many saw no reason to distrust or battle producers who gave them hits, so the revolution never spread.
His public image by decade’s end was of the consummate hell-raiser, skating the edge of oblivion, enhanced by a 1977 coke bust and bankruptcy. The truth differed somewhat. Jerry Lee Lewis and a few others were wilder by far. Waylon’s rough exterior concealed a sensitive, thoughtful and complex individual, secure enough to spoof himself on “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out Of Hand”, gentle enough to make “Dreaming My Dreams (With You)” one of country’s greatest love ballads, tough enough to beat his near-lethal coke habit cold turkey.
Many artists decline artistically at their popular zenith. Some of Waylon’s most inspired work, including his Music Man album, came in the early ’80s, at a time his singing the theme song for (and narrating) TV’s cartoony rube fest “The Dukes Of Hazzard” made him a household name. After reverting to a conventional producer-artist arrangement at MCA in 1985 with Jimmy Bowen, he still made respectable albums.
The hits finally tapered off by the late 1980s. Bypass surgery in 1989 heralded the first signs of failing health, yet didn’t dull his edge. In the darkest days of the ’90s, with manufactured hat acts and butt-shakers oozing from Music Row’s every pore, Waylon publicly scorned the artistic fraud of that decade, often zeroing in on one egomaniacal, white-hatted, tear-prone icon of the time.
Watching his physical decline was painful. At a 1997 Pennsylvania concert I attended, he fronted a first-rate band (the glory-days Waylors had scattered long ago) and sang everything the crowd wanted. Jessi joined him for a few numbers. He needed the help. Worsening emphysema did a number on his breath control. By the show’s end, he was clearly wrung out. Within minutes after the last note, his private black bus hauled ass out of town.
Nonetheless, this was Waylon. He refused to yield. He relocated to Arizona and did fewer dates but gamely rolled through airports in a wheelchair, en route to the next show. On Never Say Die, recorded live at the Ryman in early 2000, he pulled it together one last magnificent time. That acerbic side didn’t falter even in his final months. Long resentful that the CMA bypassed his hero Carl Smith for the Hall of Fame, Waylon bypassed his own 2001 induction ceremony and instead viewed his plaque privately.
At the end as at the start, Waylon and his flinty Southwestern integrity remained proudly outside country’s mainstream. It didn’t matter. He fought the good fight, stood the blows, left a powerful legacy and won far more battles than he lost, a Psychedelic Cowboy Singer to the end.