Requiem for an Outlaw

Waylon Jennings bucked the Nashville system, and became a legend in the process

Waylon Jennings loved to be in control. He rarely allowed others to make decisions for him, and even then he'd famously say, "There's always another way to do things -- my way." Jennings, who died last week at his home in Chandler at the age of 64 after a long fight with diabetes, was among country music's most notable renegades and stubborn individualists. But something about Arizona made the big man feel small. You can see it in the words he used when remembering the first time he saw the state.

"You look at the mountains, and you don't know if they're Indian or Cowboy," he wrote in his self-titled autobiography. "The desert is still and strong. You ain't got a chance. You can't push it back. You just surrender to the surroundings."

The book, published in 1996 and co-written by Lenny Kaye of Patti Smith Band fame, details how Jennings pulled a gun on the country music establishment with his "outlaw" movement back in the 1970s. It chronicles how his rebelliousness led to 16 No. 1 country singles over the course of more than 60 albums, with 11 of those LPs topping the country charts. Jennings was involved with The Highwaymen, a gruff 'n' tumble supergroup with Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, who recorded Nashville's first million-selling album. He was the voice of the TV show The Dukes of Hazzard, and last fall he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, a ceremony he predictably declined to attend. ("It would have broke my heart if he'd have showed up," said singer Marty Stuart, who announced Jennings' name at the Hall.)

But before he poured a beer over Nashville's glitter and rhinestone, Jennings was downing drinks and drawing crowds in the Valley. This is where he first hit the big time. And it makes a sideways kind of sense that this is where he died.

By the time Jennings got to Phoenix, in the early 1960s, he was already a curiosity. He'd been playing music since the age of 12, debuting at the Muleshoe Rodeo Parade in west Texas. He later dropped out of the 10th grade and moved to Lubbock, where he worked as a DJ at various radio stations. He met Buddy Holly at a station-sponsored show and the two hit it off. Holly produced Jennings' first single, the old Cajun standard "Jole Blon," and gave Jennings a job playing bass in Holly's road band.

Months later, in February 1959, after a packaged-tour show in Clear Lake, Iowa, Jennings was supposed to fly with Holly on a chartered plane to the tour's next stop in Minnesota. One of the acts, J.P. Richardson, known as "The Big Bopper," was sick, so Jennings gave up his seat on the plane and decided to take a bus.

"Uh, you're not going with me tonight, huh?" Holly asked Jennings as a snowstorm kicked up. "Well," Holly joked, "I hope your damn bus freezes up."

Jennings remembers responding, with a grin, "Well, I hope your ol' plane crashes."

It did. The plane slammed into the snow and ice not long after takeoff. Holly, Richardson and Ritchie Valens were killed. Jennings said he never really got over his last words to Holly and how he survived the day the music died.

Jennings returned to radio work in Texas, but moved to Arizona in 1961 to be closer to his new wife's family. They stayed in Coolidge, where Jennings got a gig at radio station KCKY. A subsequent move to the Valley found Jennings working a variety of jobs, including busing tables at John's Green Gables Restaurant on 24th Street and Thomas. The local club scene at the time included the Riverside Ballroom, a major venue on South Central Avenue, and Magoo's near 19th Avenue and Van Buren. But Jennings resurrected his singing career in smaller venues. He was a fast favorite at Frankie's Cocktail Lounge, near 52nd Street and Thomas, an intimate nightclub that had to expand after Jennings became a regular. He also performed at a couple of Scottsdale spots -- Wild Bill's, a cowboy steak house now known as Handlebar J's, and the Cross Keys, a former jazz club turned country near a far more humble Scottsdale Fashion Square.

But the showcase venue for Jennings was JD's, a massive, two-level nightclub north of the river bottom on Scottsdale Road in Tempe. JD's was designed to feature rock bands in the basement -- the "Riverbottom Room" -- with country music on the main level, which could pack in more than a thousand people. Jennings christened JD's in the summer of 1964 after construction workers convinced the club's owner, Jim Musil, that Jennings was the top country act in town. Musil went to see Jennings and was so impressed he drew up a contract that allowed, among other things, for Jennings to help design the club's stage and sound system. The owner's son, Jim Musil Jr., managed JD's and remembers that Jennings earned his paycheck, playing seven nights a week from 8:40 to closing time.

"When we first opened, it would be all of his most faithful people from the other places," Musil says from his home in Santa Monica. "The first couple of hours nobody would dance. Everybody would sit and stare and it was all very quiet. I never saw anything like it. He was their guy."

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