Phoenix musician August Manley brings Waylon Jennings to life | Phoenix New Times

Phoenix musician August Manley brings Waylon Jennings to life

August Manley is a good ol' boy singing Waylon Jennings' hits at The Dirty Drummer this weekend.
August Manley fronts a popular Waylon Jennings tribute band.
August Manley fronts a popular Waylon Jennings tribute band. The Outlaw
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It was all thanks to a couple of television cousins running moonshine through the state of Georgia in an orange '69 Dodge Charger that local country artist August Manley became interested in Waylon Jennings, the music legend with deep ties to Arizona.

Jennings sang the theme song to the aforementioned TV show, “The Dukes of Hazzard,” which begins with those now-famous three guitar chords before leading into the lyrics, “Just a good ol’ boys, never meanin’ no harm...”

It might be considered a problematic series now, but back then, kids waited in front of their television sets every Friday night to hear those first lines. It meant car chases, explosions and the muscle car General Lee was soon to follow. It was that kind of outlaw aesthetic Jennings would become famous for.

Manley found inspiration in that song, and today, he fronts a popular Waylon Jennings tribute act. The band will perform on Saturday night at The Dirty Drummer.

But how does a man raised in the Pacific Northwest become the emulator of one of the greatest country singers of all time?

“I was born and raised in Tacoma, Washington, but I was about as far southeast as you could go and was raised on my grandfather's farm,” says Manley with the slightest twang. “So I went and picked eggs before school and all that kind of crap. We had a shit-ton of corn and some cattle and a bunch of things. It was truly not what people expect when I say Tacoma, Washington, you know.”

His parents bought him a classical guitar and guitar lessons before promising him an electric one.

“I wanted to be Eddie Van Halen and all that kind of stuff, you know,” Manley recalls. He got the guitar as promised and began studying all kinds of music.

About 20 years ago, he was playing in a band playing jazz, rock 'n' roll and funk. But he was still listening to Jennings' music.

“I had a birthday coming up and I asked some friends if they wanted to just do a show of Waylon tunes, and they were all about it,” he recalls. “We were just gonna do it the one time, but then we kept getting phone calls to keep doing it. So after about a year, I said, 'Well, you know, maybe I should just keep doing this and try to keep the music in front of people and so on and so forth. Quite frankly, Waylon’s been paying my bills since.”

click to enlarge A country singer in a bar.
Manley posts up at The Dirty Drummer.
Courtesy of The Dirty Drummer

Manley was traveling around the country doing Jennings tribute fundraisers that benefited the Waylon Fund, an initiative begun by Jennings' widow, singer Jesse Colter. In conjunction with TGen Phoenix, the fund helps in the research and treatment of diabetes. (Jennings died in 2002 from complications from diabetes.) 

The tribute shows led him to Phoenix and to a close friendship with Dana Armstrong, current owner of renowned watering hole The Dirty Drummer.

Armstrong's late father, Frank, was one of the founders of The Dirty Drummer. Through him, Armstrong has a sentimental connection to Jennings, who played regularly in Phoenix in the 1960s.

“My dad used to go see him at J.D.’s five nights a week in the '60s,” Armstrong says. “I love hearing those old stories about Phoenix establishments and musicians because there is so much that people don't know, especially if they are transplants here. So that's another reason I wanted to continue The Dirty Drummer to keep a place that has history here and keep the tradition going as far as bringing people together through music.”

It’s that sentiment that brought Manley and Armstrong together on a professional level, then helped develop their friendship. Listening to them on the phone during an interview, joking about Miller Lite and Whitesnake, they sound like friends who just happen to do business together.

“We’re the same age,” says Armstrong of their friendship. “We have a lot of the same references, inspiration. It was kind of an instant bond and he's a very good human being." To Manley, she says, "I'm happy that you moved here, you made Phoenix a better place."

Manley, moved by the comment, adds, “You meet certain people in your life and you become friends with them and they're friends for life regardless of what goes on and where you go and all that kind of stuff; Dana is definitely one of those people.”

It’s been almost two decades since Manley has been doing his Waylon Jennings tributes. But other genres are important to him, too. His admiration for Pink Floyd is evident in his 2020 EP, “The Dream.” That and Manley's other albums, 
"All or Nothing," "Arizona Nights" and "Sad Songs, Cigarettes, & Booze" are available on all major streaming services.

He didn’t seem offended when we asked if he would ever retire his Jennings tribute act.

“You know, it's funny you ask that because over the last few years, I've really been like, man, I've been doing this for a long time and really contemplating not doing it,” he says. “But then I put on a Waylon record and think differently of it. And I'm really excited about this show, too. We've added a good amount of new tunes that we haven't done since I've been in the Valley. Some of them I used to do in Seattle. But some other ones we've just never done.”

Manley isn't hanging up his cowboy hat just yet. He has about four or five records he could release at any time after just a bit of polish. And he's constantly writing. He may not be the real Waylon Jennings, but his creativity follows some of the legendary singer's habits of musical abundance. Jennings himself had works that never saw the light of day, but his son Shooter is changing that for fans.

"He's the curator of all the tapes and archives and stuff of Waylon," says Manley, "and he found a bunch of tunes that were finished, but never released. He's gonna release a record of new Waylon music next year." That might mean more material for Manley.

As for Armstrong and The Dirty Drummer, she will continue producing the Waylon Jennings tribute show but also use the venue as a place where people can come together to discover new artists. The Phoenix music scene celebrates its local acts, but Armstrong also wants to reach out to those from other cities.

"I think there's been an explosion in this genre of country in all parts of it, men, women, LGBTQ, everything," she says.  "There's just so many good musicians and the diversity is really exciting,"

To see August Manley's Waylon Jennings Tribute and Armstrong's commitment to bringing people together through her historic music venue, get out to The Dirty Drummer this weekend and experience the magic for yourself.

August Manley's Waylon Jennings Tribute, 8 p.m., Saturday, June 29.The Dirty Drummer, 2303 N. 44th St. This is a free show, tickets are for table reservations only.

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