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Halfway through a party thrown by Waylon Jennings' family at the Rhythm Room in Phoenix last week, I swear the old man's honky-tonk spirit appeared.
Jessi Colter, Jennings' widow, sat at a white piano. She played Elvis Presley's achy-breaky blues number "One Night." "One night with you/Is what I'm praying for/The things we two could plan/Would make my dreams come true," Colter growled. This was not a coincidental gesture.
"It's time to say goodbye to sorrow," Colter, eyes still wide and hair still coifed, had said earlier on that December 30.
About five minutes after Colter's performance, Jennings' 23-year-old son, Waylon Albright Jennings – "Shooter" to his friends and family – took the stage.
"We're just gonna say fuck it' and have a good time tonight," he shouted before chugging from a bottle of Beck's. Four songs into a groove-intense set by his Los Angeles metal band Stargunn, Shooter – with beard and demonic stage eyes, he's a smaller version of his father – sat at the same piano. He surveyed the room, then he and his bandmates blasted into "Survive," a ballad that collects the best parts of the Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Guns N' Roses. Almost instantaneously, the gathered crowd, mostly settled back by the bar, surged forward.
Tom Morello, former Rage Against the Machine guitarist and Shooter's producer, rushed to the front of the stage with four gorgeous women and danced. The usually super-composed Morello swayed drunkenly, like a hippie. Did I just see that? In Phoenix?
More people followed, though Metallica's James Hetfield, another huge name in the crowd, just stood and nodded. Finally, Colter joined the dancers. Through the verse, she linked arms with everyone she could, danced with everyone who'd let her.
"I will sur-vive!!" screamed Shooter. Soon, everyone chanted with him. "I will sur-vive!!" The charge was like lightning. And with that, a tumultuous 2002 became a prologue to brighter days.
"That's not what that song is about," the son said afterward, as Waylon's "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" played over the PA system. "Survive" predates 2002 and was written after a nasty breakup with a woman. But so what? "Now, in retrospect, every time I play that song, I feel invigorated. The lyrics are actually kind of enigmatic, so it can apply to any situation. It's really a strength to be able to hear people sing it back."
Waylon Jennings died last February 13 in Chandler. Colter, a Phoenix native, was married to the larger-than-life star for nearly 33 years. Together, they wrote and recorded and found superstardom with the 1976 album Wanted! The Outlaws, which also featured Willie Nelson and Tompall Glaser. Shooter was the couple's only son, though Jennings had several older children. The family followed Waylon on his tours across America, and the three often shuttled back and forth between Nashville and our area. Jennings developed his outlaw country style in Phoenix bars 40 years ago and returned for a time after commercial failure in the late '60s. Colter now lives full-time in the Valley.
"Waylon was my life," Colter said. "He was my whole world."
"He was my hero; what can I say? He was the coolest guy on earth," added Shooter.
Your dad never roomed with Johnny Cash or dueted with Willie Nelson or toured as part of Lollapalooza (as Waylon did with Soundgarden and Metallica in 1996), so the kid's not necessarily indulging in hyperbole.
Colter watched helplessly as diabetes ravaged her husband over his last several years. Jennings had a foot amputated in the months before his death.
"I went through a hard time of suffering," she said. "It almost killed me. I'm glad that I'm reviving."
And, boy, is she. Colter's writing new songs and planning to record a solo album with producer Don Was sometime this year. Country, she says, is in the past, as she's exploring pop and straight rock. Mom's also spent some quality partying time with Shooter and his buddies in Stargunn.
"Dude, she's so much fun to hang out with," said Shooter. At the Rhythm Room, she arrived decked out in fur, a white lace blouse and loud, glittering Dolly Parton belt. Now 59, she doesn't look a day over 40. She joined the band onstage for several numbers, belching the chorus to "Love's the Only Chain" and greeting her audience in true-grit fashion: "Rock 'n' roll, motherfuckers!"
"I'm coming into a time of regeneration, and my music is taking me there," she said. "I'm on the streets of L.A. with the 23-year-olds. I'm living my life. I'm following a passion, a passion I see more among the young people. I'm watching life from a new angle."
Shooter, too, has grieved heavily over the past year, but he says 2002 was the most serendipitous year of his life.
"Once he passed, I knew exactly what I had to do," Shooter said. "Now, it was my turn. There was nothing to protect me, so I had to go forward into it. Our band found itself in situations it had never been in. Our confidence is soaring. So this year's been really good.
"Look at everything that happened to us this year," he continued. "I did this gig with Guns N' Roses without Axl in L.A. We opened for Duff's band. They all came out, and we did three GN'R tunes. I played Axl. It was crazy!"