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If there's one thing country-music emeritus Waylon Jennings can't abide, it's the money-grubbing phoniness of much of his industry. He didn't like it in 1966 when he made the movie soundtrack Nashville Rebel. He didn't like it in 1973 when Lonesome, Orn'ry and Mean hit the bins. And he essentially declared war on Music City--along with Willie Nelson, wife Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser--with the 1976 double-platinum landmark Wanted! The Outlaws.
He doesn't much cotton to the way things are now, either. He doesn't mind--never did--talking out loud about it.
"What we have out there now," he declares in that celebrated cool, smoky baritone from his office in Nashville, "is regurgitated country-and-western music. Really, it's bad rock n' roll is what it is. I can't tell who's singing what. It's so bad I can't believe it."
Waylon would know. There're but a few of the old guard still left in Nashville who are willing to do battle with the pretty-boy singers and bottom-line-only producers behind the Pine Curtain. And none--save, perhaps, Nelson and Johnny Cash--with the r‚sum‚ that qualifies him to question the Nashville authority.
Born in 1937 in Littlefield, Texas, Jennings cut his musical teeth listening to folk music--a fairly rebellious thing to do then--as well as country-blues pioneer Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman. A near insatiable curiosity about all things musical later found him sampling an eclectic--and certainly not typically Texan--range of sounds, from Webb Pierce to Bobby "Blue" Bland. He became a disc jockey at age 12 and formed his own band shortly thereafter, a rockabilly outfit that made occasional appearances on a local radio station's weekend "Dance Party." It was there he met fellow Texan Buddy Holly.
It's pretty much standard country/rock lore about their brief, rich relationship: Holly recruited Jennings as a bass-playing Cricket and later produced Jennings' first record. It was Waylon Jennings who one fateful day gave up his seat on a tiny aircraft to the Big Bopper, who, along with Holly and Ritchie Valens, would die that evening when the plane crashed in an Iowa storm.
"I still remember, and it's still a tough memory," Jennings admits. "But I learned a few things from him that have stuck. I learned about attitude--about breaking down musical barriers. And I learned about this thing called a 'pocket'--finding the right edge in my music and putting it in a groove; in the pocket. Thanks, Buddy."
Jennings' dedication to his own music and his individualism permitted him to endure this tragedy. He hit the honky-tonk road and, a few years and thousands of miles of asphalt later, he found himself in Phoenix, headlining at a popular nightspot called JD's. The joint drew a rich mixture of suit-and-ties, cowboys and musicians, and gained Jennings a measure of regional fame.
His fondness for the Valley of the Sun has remained constant.
"Phoenix is my favorite city in the world," he states flatly. "I function best there. Right now, it's winter in Nashville. I'm sick of winter. I'm pretty tired of Nashville, too."
He continued felling barriers at JD's, combining his self-described "chicken-pickin'" guitar style with high-hills vocals that were jagged-edged and full of Texas soul. His reputation spread west, and he soon began to garner contacts with labels. After a brief stint at Herb Alpert's A&M Records, Jennings enlisted with RCA, signed by none other than guitar god Chet Atkins. After some fits, starts and minor successes, in 1968 he scored a Top 5 hit with his enduring classic--and the title of his recently released boxed-set retrospective--Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line." The next year he'd win his first Grammy Award for, of all things, a take of "MacArthur Park," recorded with the Kimberleys. He'd also lay down tracks on the soundtrack of Ned Kelly, an otherwise forgettable flick starring Mick Jagger.
By then, however, his careerlong war with Nashville had begun.
"You know," he says, "there's always been a small percentage of folks who just don't fit in the system. That happened to me, and it happened to Johnny Cash and Willie, too. We just insisted on doing things our own way, and the powers didn't like it at all."
Jennings parlayed his record-selling clout--1972's "Good Hearted Woman," for instance, hit No. 1--to produce his own work while using the musicians and knob-turners of his own choosing.
"That's when it really started working for me," Jennings notes.
And how: The next couple of years spawned a passel of top-of-the-chart LPs, including Lonesome, Orn'ry and Mean, Honky Tonk Heroes and 1974's gold Dreaming My Dreams. In 1974, his achievements were honored with his Country Music Association award as Male Vocalist of the Year.
And yet, the best was still to come--and rapidly: 1976's Wanted! The Outlaws began a long string of hits, not the least of which were No. 1s: "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?," "Luchenbach, Texas (The Basics of Love)," with Willie Nelson, "I've Always Been Crazy," the beautiful ballad "Amanda," and "Ain't Living Long Like This." The 1977 recording Ol' Waylon earned him the distinction of becoming the first C&W solo artist to have an album go platinum. During this spell, Jennings had eight consecutive albums that found at least gold (1979's Greatest Hits went quadruple platinum), and he scored another Grammy for 1978's Willie duet "Mammas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys."