Requiem for an Outlaw

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

But things perked up once the beer started spilling and the rock crowds from downstairs wandered up during breaks to check out the honky-tonk. Musil remembers sucker punches would fly when the wrong kinds of words were said to the wrong kinds of people. Jennings usually avoided the macho fallout -- except for the night a jealous husband came to the club with gun in hand. Musil remembers ducking behind the club's bar and phoning the police when the man busted in after the show.

"There's Waylon and the band, and this guy had them all lay down in the hallway," Musil says. "Waylon jumped into a dressing room and slammed the door. This guy's yelling, calling Waylon a son of a bitch. Waylon finally said, 'I'm gonna go out the side door,' and he slammed a couch in the dressing room against the wall to make it sound like he left. Of course there wasn't any door, but the guy ran outside to get him. When he left, I shut the door and locked him out. He's out there pounding on the door and then we hear all this shooting. The cops shot him. He was left a paraplegic."

Jennings' drug problems were almost as dangerous. He would later write that he spent 21 years of life on various substances and once had a $1,500-a-day cocaine habit. Musil says he saw the early signs at JD's.

Waylon Jennings: A country rebel with punk credibility.
Waylon Jennings: A country rebel with punk credibility.

"He took Dexedrine like candy," Musil says of the pills Jennings dubbed "Waylon's Phoenix Flashes." "And he drank," Musil adds. "A lot. He was a pharmacy. I think that's why he looked so bad. Other people mainly saw him in the club with the lights low. But when I'd see him in the daytime, I'd think, 'Jesus, his color doesn't look good.'"

Musil would later have a falling out with Jennings over an album the two put together and sold at the nightclub. But he still remembers how Jennings was the real thing.

"Right from the start I knew this guy was gonna be famous," Musil says. "I met so many people who bragged that they were gonna make it. So many years of hearing that bullshit. But when Waylon talked about what he was gonna do when he got famous, I was sucked right in. I believed it."

Jennings had signed a contract with A&M just prior to starting up at JD's, and the record company's "A" (Herb Alpert) and "M" (Jerry Moss) both made regular stops at the club to see their investment. When the A&M relationship sputtered, Jennings signed with RCA, a deal prompted by singer Bobby Bare, who caught a show at JD's and later that night, on the way to Vegas, used a pay phone to talk Jennings up to RCA's Chet Atkins. The resulting contract led to a move to Nashville and the start of a sustained and celebrated shouting match between Jennings and the country music establishment.

"Every business has a system that works for 80 percent of the people in it," he told the Nashville Tennessean of his troubles in Music City. "But there's always that other 20 percent who just don't fit in. That's what happened to me."

Jennings roomed with Johnny Cash when he first hit Nashville, and RCA got him a feature role in the 1966 film Nashville Rebel, by most accounts a forgettable star vehicle made to showcase Jennings' music. Jennings detested making the film and adhering to the other machinations of the recording industry. His confrontations were legendary (he once threatened to shoot a particularly irritating producer), and it drained him to sing the boiler-room-written tunes he was forced to record. By 1971, Jennings reportedly came close to quitting music altogether. But he fought back, mostly at the urging of his fourth wife, singer and Phoenix native Jessi Colter, the two having first met in the Valley during the waning days of Colter's marriage to guitar king Duane Eddy. With Colter's support, Jennings revolted against Nashville tradition and insisted on creative control, a daring move on Music Row.

"It wasn't until I started producing my own records and using my own musicians and working with people who understood what I was about that I first started having any real success," he told the Nashville Tennessean.

It was easy for musicians to understand what Jennings was about. During one recording session, he reportedly threatened to shoot the fingers off anyone who looked at sheet music instead of playing by touch and feel. The resulting "outlaw" broke free of the strings and pap infecting Nashville at the time. Jennings' songs were propelled by what one producer called a "Navajo stomp," a thudding, insistent beat accented by Jennings' thumb plucking the bottom strings of his "chicken-picken'" Telecaster. The sound was stripped bare and potent, and together with Colter and cohorts Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, the "outlaw" movement, a term concocted by a publicist, made Jennings a star.

It also gave Jennings punk credentials years before rock would shuck its own excess noise for a more urgent approach. It's no surprise that Jennings' audiences included hippies, cowboys and punks. He headlined a 1973 show at New York's notorious rock club Max's Kansas City, and he toured with everyone from the Grateful Dead to Metallica and Soundgarden. Bob Dylan was said to be a fan, and John Lennon reportedly loved Jennings' take on "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)."

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