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By Lauren Wise
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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."
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.
"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 Tennesseanof 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)."
None of which would've surprised the regulars at JD's. Indeed, covers of Dylan's "Girl From the North Country" and "It Ain't Me, Babe" are among the highlights of The Restless Kid -- Live at JD's(Bear Family Records), an austere but fascinating CD of Jennings wowing the locals circa 1964.
There's a lot of Arizona in Waylon Jennings. He writes in his autobiography of getting his first record company check, from A&M, while living in an apartment on 36th Street north of McDowell. He remembers making enough money to move into his first nice home, a house on Amelia off Indian School Road in Scottsdale. Jennings first met Willie Nelson not in Luckenbach, Texas, but at the Adams Hotel in downtown Phoenix, when Nelson came through town for a mid-'60s show at the Riverside Ballroom. And in 1984, Jennings finally kicked drugs, cold, after an extended stay at a friend's desert home near Tatum Boulevard in Paradise Valley.
"You had better respect the desert," Jennings wrote in his autobiography, "because the desert leaves it up to you. It's not going to help. It's going to leave you totally alone, to see if you can find the strength within yourself to survive. There are no distractions. You can't outfox the desert. You'll die trying."
Jennings and Colter moved back to the Valley for good two years ago, to a home in Chandler. But in some ways Jennings never allowed himself to leave. It's clear that while he lived much of his life in Nashville, he lived his better memories in Arizona.