YOU CAN'T KEEP A BAD MAN DOWNWITH A DRUG-FREE HEAD AND A HIGH SCHOOL DIPLOMA, WAYLON JENNINGS FIGHTS THE GOOD FIGHT AGAINST NASHVILLE
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 rsum 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."
By the early 80s, however, country music was experiencing radical changes. The traditional raw, plain-spoken, honky-tonk roots were being yanked and tossed in favor of gooey, poppish stuff forwarded by the likes of Barbara Mandrell. The term "crossover" became standard in country-music boardrooms, and edgy, hard-country outlaw sounds fell from fashion.
"It happened so fast, I didn't really see it coming," confesses Jennings. "It was unreal. And I didn't handle it as well as I could've."
Along the path of his successes, outlaw Jennings developed a taste for drugs, favoring cocaine especially. Then, as his career waned, his usage increased. Save for the occasional album--1982's morose Black on Black, for example--Jennings spent the remainder of his tenure at RCA unsuccessfully battling drug demons. In 1984, he'd decided he'd had enough and repaired to his "favorite place in the world."
"I went back to Phoenix," he says. "It was past time to quit the drugs--you know, I had a $1,500-per-day coke habit--and I felt I could get it done there. It's always been a place I could go to clear my head from the nonsense in Nashville, so that's where I went. And I quit. By myself--no clinic or anything else. And I've been clean now for a decade."
While Jennings had conquered one foe, another, however, continued on. His records weren't selling and RCA, citing such, dropped him in 1985 after a 20-year relationship. Except for moderate sales success (though much critical acclaim) with the Highwaymen (Jennings, Nelson, Cash and Kris Kristofferson), Jennings' work was passed over in favor of the growing movement, those young, tight-jeaned "hat acts" whose looks were--and are, by Nashville standards--more important than talent.
"I was disgusted and discouraged," admits Jennings, who, after RCA, hopped through a few labels with little success. "I decided I just wouldn't record anymore."
As if that weren't enough, and despite his liberation from cocaine, Jennings found himself in constant poor health. In 1989, he had triple-bypass heart surgery. A dedicated multipack-a-day cigarette smoker, Jennings quit while in recovery and embarked on a series of personal and professional changes.
"While I was recuperating from the heart thing," Jennings recalls, "I had time to think. I'd been preaching to Shooter [his and Jessi's now-14-year-old son] about the importance of education. But here I was, a high school dropout. Even though I told Shooter it was the worst mistake I'd ever made, quitting school, I felt it was just words. I never did like folks who didn't practice what they preached. So, in 1989, I got my GED. Shooter helped me with fractions and algebra." Jennings considers this among his most major accomplishments.
"I did it for me and I did it for my son," he states proudly.
While freed from his drug and heart woes, and now packing his equivalency diploma, Jennings remained--and stubbornly remains--a Music City outlaw. When RCA decided to produce a boxed set honoring the score of years he was with the label, Jennings determined, well, hell, it ought to be done right. He helped select the 40 cuts and he taped commercial voice-overs to promote the project. At the same time, industry veteran Thom Schuyler was brought in to run RCA's Nashville branch. Schuyler was a friend and fan of Jennings' and approached him about re-signing with his old label. Jennings was wary. He didn't want to return to any Nashville that would dictate how--and if--his work was to be used.
When Schuyler assured him that his would be an equal voice, Jennings re-upped with his old label, concluding a decadelong trip away.
"I just decided I wasn't goin' to let them write off Ol' Waylon," Jennings says. "I'd been writing songs all along, and it was time to give this thing another shot. They weren't just gonna push me out, by damn. I was worried about it, though, until Thom did two things: He suggested I get out of town [his new album, due out in the fall, was recorded in Los Angeles] and he got Don Was to produce. What a great guy, Thom Schuyler."
Was might seem like an odd choice at first blush, what with decidedly noncountry artists like Bonnie Raitt, Elton John, Ringo Starr and the B-52's among Was' past clients.
"Not strange at all," Jennings counters. "I'd actually known him for about six years, and a while back he invited me to play in a band with him and Bob Dylan. Well, I gave him a bag full of uncredited songs to look at, and of the 20 he picked out, all but one was mine. Had to like that, right? Not only that, but Don Was is very artist-oriented. That might not sound like much, but, nowadays, the vast majority of producers in Nashville don't care about the vocalist. They don't give a damn. They think it's their own record. They use all the same musicians and all the same back-up singers--that's why everything sounds the same.
"I feel real sorry for the artists these days. Most will be gone before they know what hit em."
He counts Travis Tritt, Bobbie Cryner and Suzy Bogguss among those young artists with real talent, but is rather reticent about naming pretenders to the country throne. He says, however, a clue can be found in how they hold the guitar.
"Most hold it like a weapon rather than an extension of themselves," Jennings notes. "It's easy to spot those who don't quite have it and those who don't have a clue. I guess I never really understood the Garth [Brooks] thing, but I suppose it's working for him. Still, most of these young folks are going to have to face the music one of these days. And it'll be ugly."
Jennings also is forthright about his prospects of getting his new music played on modern country radio, which is notorious for its move-'em-in, move-'em-out, don't-play-anybody-over-40 system.
"You know," says Jennings, a slight edge in his voice, "just before he died, Roger Miller and I were talking about making a record together. He said, 'Let's do something so good they can't ignore us.' That might not be good enough these days--a great record.
"But I do know one thing: When they say that shit about not playing 'old' music, not playing anything by anyone over 40--if it could be proved, they're opening themselves up to a helluva class-action lawsuit. Hell, I might own one of those stations one day. Hell," he adds, laughing, "ol' Willie's talking about starting a class-action suit. It might be fun."
And speaking of fun, Waylon, now that your nose is empty and your lungs are clear, just what do you do for fun?
"Hell, I'm recording my own songs the way I want them done, I'm chasin' Jessi all over the house, and I'm on my way to Phoenix, Arizona, real soon," Jennings says. "Don't get much better than that."
Waylon Jennings will perform on Friday, March 25, at the Sundome. Showtime is 8 p.m.
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