Make the Pilgrimage to Waylon Jennings' Mesa Grave with the Annual Waylon Run

The drive isn't long or difficult -- in fact, it's a dull stretch of freeway all the way. It's a straight shot on the Valley's 202 East from Gypsy's Roadhouse, off McDowell and 52nd Street, to the final resting place of country legend Waylon Jennings, deep within tree-lined Mesa Cemetery.

But this weekend's participants aren't there for the drive. They're in this for the ride.

This Saturday and Sunday, April 4 and 5, marks the sixth annual Waylon Run, a passion project courtesy of a motorcycle club and country music promoter.

See also: Jessi Colter: Waylon Jennings "Broke the Myth of Self-Destruction" in Country

Beginning in Phoenix before heading north into Black Canyon City, the two-day event features a bike rally and ride, an appearance by legendary cyclist and hell raiser Sonny Barger, overnight camping and an all-day country music show. Jeremy Manley's tribute act, The Outlaw, will play a two-hour set amidst shows from Kevin Daly's Chicken and Waffles, Tommy Ash, and Junction 10. The event is open to the public and non-riders alike. Admission is $10 per day per person, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting the Wounded Warrior Project.

What began as an excuse for members of the Los Santos Motorcycle Club to spend a day driving to a graveyard and drinking at a nearby lake has ballooned into a public tribute. Nearly 200 bikes crowded the cemetery last year, including riders from Coffin Chasers MC, Peacemakers MC and solo bikers, while organizers Ryan Saint and Eric Nation of Los Santos estimate anywhere from 400 to 500 people attended the weekend-long festival, the first to be held in Black Canyon City and Chilleen's on 17. Riders, enthusiasts, and curious friends came out to celebrate country's famous outlaw.

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One of the kings of country and a longtime Valley resident, Jennings topped charts and made waves. The Texas-born baritone moved West in the 1960s after the death of Buddy Holly, who arguably kick-started his career. Jennings worked as a DJ in Coolidge and Phoenix before forming a rockabilly band, The Waylors, and dominating the Scottsdale club circuit. Along with Willie Nelson and David Allan Coe, he toured and redefined the country music scene of the 1970s, bringing gritty "outlaw country" to airwaves and stages across the country, bucking Nashville standards.

Jennings returned to Arizona in the 1980s, where he lived until his death. He made the decision to stop touring in 1997 and died in Chandler of diabetes complications in 2002 at age 64.

Saint, who asked that his real last name not be used, a 34-year-old co-founder of both Los Santos and the Waylon Run, says the idea for the event came to him six years ago. Originally from the East Coast, the Black Canyon City resident said he was surprised how many people didn't realize Jennings was buried locally ("a lot of people think he'd be in Nashville or Texas") and created the ride as an excuse to make the trip.

"When I moved to Arizona in 2003 I got into county music more. It touched my soul and state of mind," he says. "I was listening to Hank Williams and the old outlaw stuff, but I felt a bond with Waylon more out here because he died and was buried here.

"The first run had six of us on it. [We said] 'let's do a run to Waylon Jennings' gravesite. We'll drink whiskey and get loaded and go to some bar and play Waylon and go out the lake and swim around.' It's grown every year since then."

"Last year was our first year in Black Canyon City [and] doing the all-day country music fest deal," Nation, a 29-year-old Tempe resident, says. "It went off really well and we've been hearing all year, 'Oh we can't wait to do that again; it was so much fun!'"

"We want it to turn into a three-day festival, really hit the camping home and make it an overnight," Saint says. "One thing I'd like to see is after the bar closes and the stage closes, turning it over to the campfire and have jam sessions there. Also, it's gonna be a lunar eclipse and the stars up there are . . . it's like one of the best views you can ever get in Arizona."

"This thing is getting so popular," says Chris, 28, an aircraft mechanic from Phoenix who asks his last name not be used. Though not a member of Los Santos, this will be his second time at Waylon Run. "I've got buddies from Utah coming out for this run; I've got buddies from California. And they don't get fliers -- it's just a word-of-mouth thing. If you ride and want to have a good time and like good music and good people, come and hang out. It's gonna be a great time."

Bikers from all over are invited to meet up at 9 a.m. Saturday morning, with kickstands up an hour later. The ride to Jennings' grave will take much of the morning, but the crew will make it to Chilleen's on 17, about an hour outside of the city, in time for sets to start at noon.

The event is one of Los Santos' biggest of the year -- the second being the members-only Restless Run every summer. It's a large undertaking.

"The best part is watching it grow from year to year, the momentum it has and carries and the more people getting interested," Saint says. "We're exposing people to Waylon who probably never knew who he was, like punk-rock kids and hardcore kids."

"Our [ultimate] goal is, I think, to turn it into a national event -- whether or not we have national acts," Saint says. "I love the fact that it's an Arizona showcase. Arizona country music is so underestimated in the giant picture of things, like, Tony Martinez is touring with Whitey Morgan right now. It's an awesome opportunity for all the best bands to come together and play and celebrate Waylon and motorcycles. There's no event like it, probably in the world."

This year's event will be similar to last year's, with the addition Barger's appearance and book signing, nearly a dozen bands and a handful of local vendors.

"We're really excited that Sonny's coming Saturday, because Sonny and Waylon were really good friends and Sonny was with Waylon the day before he died, which not a lot of people know," Saint says. "I think it's cool to have someone who is such an icon acknowledge the event. It's an honor in itself."

While the all-day music aspect features a mix of covers and original music from local groups, Jennings tribute act and semi-impersonator Jeremy Manley is tasked with bringing the legend back to life. Though born and raised in Tacoma, Wash., Manley is a country boy through and through, raised on the sounds of Johnny Cash, Kenny Rogers and Jennings' "The Dukes of Hazzard" theme.

Manley began his full-time tribute to Jennings nearly a decade ago after deciding to give up on the grunge Seattle scene. The 39-year-old moved to the Valley last February and played his first Waylon Run two months later.

"The thing that I really appreciated the most about it was the people. There was a camaraderie, and that's another thing I love about Waylon so much," Manley says. "People who are Waylon fans have that in common, and that just seems to be enough. I think this Waylon Run thing not only keeps Waylon's music alive and this whole attitude about life alive but brings new people into it."

5th Annual Waylon Run from Gary Powell on Vimeo.

The weekend's marriage of chopper and country is thanks, in large part, to Dana Armstrong and her promotional booking company, Valley Fever. The group began in 2006 with a goal of spinning old-school country and booking current local and touring acts. Jennings' records were on heavy rotation, and creating an event like this was almost inevitable. This year, Valley Fever is bringing almost a dozen bands to the stage, including Armstrong as DJ.

"Waylon's having his Johnny Cash moment right now," Armstrong, 39, says. "[He is] the perfect representation of Arizona and Arizona country. His music reflects the landscape.

"The reason I started the Waylon thing is because I was born here and my dad was super into Waylon. He used to see him in the '60s at JD's and Wild Bill's and Frankie's. I grew up with him as part of my childhood."

Around the time Los Santos was riding out to Mesa to see Waylon, Armstrong was hosting her own Waylon Day at Tempe's Yucca Tap Room. Shortly thereafter, the Phoenix-based Translational Genomics Research Institute, or TGen, reached out to Armstrong. It had partnered with Jennings' late wife, local resident and country singer Jessi Colter, to sponsor a benefit for diabetes research. That turned into a worldwide Waylon Bash night, which Valley Fever hosted locally for two years, Armstrong says.

The East Valley's subculture groups tend to be fairly incestuous, so Armstrong and Saint knew what the other was up to. About four years ago, Los Santos started ending its run at Yucca, which allowed for a bigger space and more bands. Waylon Day had already become Waylon Bash, and soon both would be absorbed into what is now Waylon Run.

"I'm just happy that something like this is happening in Arizona and that people want to come out and hear good, real country music," she says. "It's not the pop country you hear on the radio. It's close enough that you can go for that day but far enough that you can camp and it makes sense. It's definitely for anyone. You don't need to have a bike."

Though the event operates independently of both Colter and Jennings' estate, the run has her blessing, Saint says.

"I ran into her at the Cave Creek Rodeo last year," he says of Colter. "We had a brief conversation and she asked what it was all about. Well, riding motorcycles, playing country music, drinking and celebrating [her] husband's life because that's how much he means to us. We want her to be a part of it, really. We're going to continue doing it."

New Times reached out to Colter through Jennings' estate and her record company, Black Country Rock. Requests for comment were not returned.

Waylon weekend starts at 7 p.m. on Friday, April 3, with a pre-party at Chilleen's on 17, 33150 South Cold Water Road in Black Canyon City. Live show includes sets from David Allen & Old School Logic, James Parks band, and Danny Romero & Arizona Territory. Admission is $10.

Waylon Run starts at 10 a.m. Saturday, April 4, at Gypsy's Roadhouse, 5122 East McDowell Road and ends at Mesa Cemetery, 1212 North Center Street. Ride continues to Chilleen's on 17 for an all-day country music show, featuring Jeremy Manley et al. Admission to the all-ages event is $10; part of the profits benefit Wounded Warrior Project. Visit www.waylonrun.com or www.valleyfeveraz.com for details.

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