Waylon Jennings/ Sex, Drugs & Rockabilly (Part 3)
“THE OUTLAW THING HAS PROBABLY CAUSED ME A PROBLEM OR TWO”
When 1976 rolled around, Waylon Jennings was on a roll and a roar. His share of country music’s first platinum album, Wanted: The Outlaws, catapulted him into a new world of crossover superstardom. His recent discovery of cocaine as a stay-awake-for-days stimulant took him on a trip that would end in part when he was arrested in ‘77 for possession. After the bust, he watched his step but didn’t stop using until ‘84. There were still more hits and high times–he sold over fifteen million albums between 1975 and 1985.
Other than his illegal habit, Waylon was anything but an outlaw. He never cared for the title which was credited to Nashville publicist Hazel Smith, but he did not mind the rock-star commercial success it brought him for the remainder of his days in music. His counterpart and close friend, Willie Nelson, was the music king of Texas, and raked in royalties for writing such country standards as “Crazy,” “Hello Walls,” and “Funny How Time Slips Away.” Willie didn’t need the Outlaw tag, but didn’t mind it and except for the occasional pot bust, was able to avoid the white powder. He had seen so many coke catastrophes that he issued an edict to his employees: “If you’re wired, you’re fired.”
Together, Waylon and Willie were the odd couple of country music. Waylon dressed in black, chain-smoked Marlboro Lights and snorted his way to a seven-gram-a-day addiction. Willie, with his ponytail, bandana, and jogging shoes was usually grinning his illegal smile and smoking the best weed money could buy. Waylon quipped, “Down in Texas, they think when they die, they go to Willie’s house.” A popular Texas bumper sticker read: “Matthew, Mark, Luke and Willie.”
They recorded several hits together. Best known were “Good-Hearted Woman” and “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow up to be Cowboys.” Their off-stage relationship always had the edge of competitive brothers. Waylon’s song “Bob Wills Is Still the King” was meant to bring Willie down a notch with the line, “It don’t matter who’s in Austin/Bob Wills is still the king.” Waylon loved Willie and probably envied his ability to function without uppers. Willie was always performing for presidents and other dignitaries. On one occasion, when he and Waylon were invited for lunch with President Jimmy Carter, Waylon was too wired to show up. Carter asked young Buddy Jennings, “Where’s Waylon? All Buddy could think to say was, “He’s just not here.”
Waylon and Willie were awarded more industry prizes than either cared to build shelves for. Waylon avoided annual award events and advised the Country Music Association, “I’m not into competing with other singers.” He asked anyone who would listen, “Why don’t they forget about charts and awards and just play their music?” In 1977, the CMA nominated both Waylon and Willie for Entertainer of the Year, and both boycotted the show. Waylon commented, “There was no way I was going to sit back down beside him if I had won, so I didn’t go.” Mel Tillis took home the trophy.
THE FALL OF ’76 “ARE YOU READY” TOUR
Musicians and crew gathered in Nashville for the bus ride to Los Angeles. My first assignment as Waylon’s publicist/biographer was to get on the bus and observe. First stop on the fall of ’76 tour was Doug Westin’s Troubadour Club in Hollywood, CA. RCA Records/ L.A. had booked the famous night club as a showcase venue for the debut of Are You Ready for the Country. This was the same club where Lenny Bruce was arrested for uttering obscenities in 1957. Two years before Waylon arrived to rock the house, John Lennon and Harry Nilsson, drunk and disorderly, were kicked out for heckling the Smothers Brothers. The joint had history.
Waylon’s shows and royalties were now paying enough to rent Lear jets. At roughly a thousand bucks per flight, it was an extravagant way to ease one’s fear of flying. His time was already worth too much for him to spend it on bus rides longer than five or six hours. As much as he hated flying, constant air travel had become a necessity. Waylon knew he had dodged death in 1959. If he was going down in a plane, the final ride would be in a private jet with a few close friends by his side.
With the cross-country vibrations still in our bones, we bus riders arrived at the Troubadour in time for sound check. Waylon and Jessi were delivered by limo.
Tina in the Troubadour box office was amazed that desperate fans were offering twenty dollars for standing room admission. A roadie scoffed, “I’ve seen’m pay a hundred in Jackson Hole.” The club only seated a few hundred patrons and four shows were sold out. Friends, media, and industry insiders were RCA’s guests for the opener.
During the brief run-through, someone informed Waylon that Linda Ronstadt was out back and asking to see him. She was already a rock superstar and enjoyed the attention of rich and famous men. Waylon preferred a lower profile version of feminine and with Jessi in the wings, he sent Linda a rain check.
Sold out of Coors and space, the aging Troubadour managed to provide a solid roof and enough electricity for all four shows. Opening night, Clint Eastwood and Emmylou Harris were among the stars seated up front.
After completely satisfying the cocaine cowboys of Hollywood and other local fans, the tour rolled north, all the way to the University of Oregon in Eugene. Eleven weeks on the country charts at Number 1, Are You Ready… was energizing ticket sales. Six thousand students and Waylon faithful from the region packed the campus arena. From there, it was the same in Portland, Seattle, and on campuses in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Waylon’s fan base had crossed the generational divide. College kids crowded up front; fans from the early years blended in from the middle to the back of the house. The same folks who loved his records with Chet Atkins producing were now embracing his independence and his ability to rock a Neil Young song.
One evening in Idaho, before the university gig in Moscow, I found Waylon standing alone near the motel. He was watching a local cop arrest an elderly town drunk. Waylon motioned to me, “Hey Bill, come here a minute.” As I approached, the arresting officer and his suspect drove away, unaware that a celebrated musician had witnessed the incident. Waylon told me he was making sure the old man wasn’t mistreated. Months passed before I thought about that moment, Waylon’s concern, and his apparent mistrust of lawmen. He was a self-described good old boy and even when wired, that goodness was always apparent.
During the next twelve months, leading up to the release of Waylon’s Number 1 Country crossover hit, “Luckenbach, Texas,” attendance at his concerts doubled. The ten-thousand-seaters sold out to newer and younger country and rock fans.
THE SHOW ITSELF
Waylon’s shows were brief, rarely longer than an hour with one encore–two if the crowd insisted. He didn’t use a set list, just sang whatever popped into his head. He had so many hits and personal favorites, the band stayed ready to follow his lead. Before second encores, he sometimes shouted over the crowd, “That’s all we know. We’ll have to do the first one over again.” The fans were grateful for anything he gave them.
Opening acts often included Jessi, followed by a second solo artist. Steve Young and Guy Clark were two young and extremely gifted singer-songwriters he presented on those ’76-’77 tours. His very tight back-up band, The Waylors, would open Waylon’s performance with a few tunes that usually featured female vocalist, Carter Robertson. When the band began to play, the crowd’s energy always became electric. They knew Waylon was not far behind. Richie Albright would kick a steady heart beat on his bass drum. The electric bass would then double that rhythm. Thousands of fans would clap hands, cheer, and generally go nuts. It was a musical drug dispensed to ten thousand eager addicts. It was a universal beat called “four on the floor,” and was common throughout country and rock music. It was also polka and disco, but nobody owned it like Waylon. Under a panning spotlight, he would stride to center stage, strap on his trademark ’53 Telecaster with its tooled-leather body cover, and then launch a few chords into the cheap seats. His Fender sound ignited the same raucous cheers in every venue from the Armadillo in Austin, to the largest arenas across America.
His songs were basic three-minute, verse-chorus-verse compositions with universal themes about “good-hearted” women and “two-timing” men. His rugged face with its road-weary creases and beard, framed by a full head of shoulder-length black hair, presented a powerful, macho image in denim and leather. Both sexes were drawn into the aura surrounding the man and his music. Waylon embodied the dark side of Country, the side that left its country home in Nashville and started chasing rock-and-roll city women.
“I COULDN’T GO POP WITH A MOUTH FULL OF FIRECRACKERS”
Waylon didn’t like the business of music, dividing songs into categories: folk, rock, pop, country… He wanted to perform whatever he liked and have fans think of it as “Waylon’s Music.” He wrote songs about his life: “This Time,” “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” “Don’t Y’all Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand,” and “I’ve Always Been Crazy (But It’s Kept Me from Going Insane).” Most of his songs were composed by other writers. He said, “I’m an interpreter. I like to take another man’s song and make it sound like I wrote it.” His recorded music included Ian Tyson’s “Four Strong Winds,” Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now,” The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” and Waylon’s only Grammy winner, “MacArthur Park,” written by Jim Webb. The record labels and radio stations didn’t know what to make of his repertoire. He started in rock with Holly, then went folk and country at the same time. They labeled him a country singer, but he said Buddy Holly gave him “an attitude” which became his career path: “Buddy loved music, and he taught me that it shouldn’t have any barriers to it.”
In ‘1967,Bob Dylan went to Nashville to record the John Wesley Hardin album. He continued the folk-country crossover movement with his 1969 release, Nashville Skyline. Waylon’s best friend and former roommate, Johnny Cash, embraced Dylan’s move by singing with him on, “Girl from the North Country”.
Folk-rock superstars, The Byrds, added country to their catalog in 1968 with the Gram Parsons-inspired Sweetheart of the Rodeo album. When Parsons met Waylon at North Hollywood’s Palomino Club, he credited Waylon with part of the inspiration that led to Sweetheart. Waylon later said Parson’s “joined country and rock at the hip” and added, “He may be the only guy that did more drugs than I could.” Parsons overdosed and died in 1973 at age twenty-six.
The Folk-Country-Rock amalgam rapidly evolved, and a path appeared for Waylon and Willie and their posse. As Buddy Holly’s bass player in 1959, Waylon had established his country-rockabilly roots long before all the newcomers.