Waylon Arnold Jennings
Born Jun 15, 1937 in Littlefield, TX
Died Feb 13, 2002 in Chandler, AZ
by Stephen Thomas Erlewine
If any one performer personified the outlaw country movement of the
'70s, it was Waylon Jennings. Though he had been a professional musician
since the late '50s, it wasn't until the '70s that Waylon, with his
imposing baritone and stripped-down, updated honky
tonk, became a superstar. Jennings rejected the conventions of
Nashville, refusing to record with the industry's legions of studio
musicians and insisting that his music never resemble the string-laden,
pop-inflected sounds that were coming out of Nashville in the '60s and
'70s. Many artists, including Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson,
followed Waylon's anti-Nashville stance and eventually the whole
"outlaw" movement — so-named because of the artists' ragged, maverick
image and their independence from Nashville — became one of the most
significant country forces of the '70s, helping the genre adhere to its
hardcore honky tonk roots. Jennings didn't
write many songs, but his music — which combined the grittiest aspects
of honky tonk with a rock & roll rhythm and
attitude, making the music spare, direct, and edgy — defined hardcore
country, and it influenced countless musicians, including members of the
new traditionalist and alternative country subgenres of the '80s.
Jennings was born and raised in Littlefield, TX, where he learned how to
play guitar by the time he was eight. When he was 12 years old, he was a
DJ for a local radio station and, shortly afterward, formed his first
band. Two years later he left school and spent the next few years
picking cotton, eventually moving to Lubbock, TX, in 1954. Once he was
in Lubbock, he got a job at the radio station KLLL, where he befriended
Buddy Holly during one of the station's shows. Holly
became Waylon's mentor, teaching him guitar licks, collaborating on
songs, and producing Jennings' first single, "Jole
Blon," which was released on
Brunswick in 1958.
Later that year, Waylon became the temporary bass player for Holly's
band the Crickets, playing with the rock & roller on his final tour.
Jennings was also scheduled to fly on the plane ride that ended in
Holly's tragic death in early 1959, but he gave up his seat at the last
minute to the Big Bopper, who was suffering from a cold.
Following Holly's death, Jennings returned to Lubbock, where he spent
two years mourning the loss of his friend and working as a DJ. In late
1960, he moved to Phoenix, AZ, where he founded a rockabilly band called
the Waylors. Jennings and the
Waylors began to earn a local following
through their performances at the local club JD's, eventually signing to
the independent label Trend in 1961. None of the group's singles made
any impact, and Jennings began working for Audio Recorders as a record
producer. In 1963, Waylon moved to Los Angeles, where he landed a
contract with Herb Alpert's A&M Records. By this point, Waylon's music
was pure country, and Alpert wanted to move him toward the pop market;
Jennings didn't cave in to the demands and his sole single, "Sing the
Girl a Song, Bill," and album for A&M flopped.
Following the A&M debacle, Jennings landed a contract with RCA with help
from Chet Atkins and Bobby Bare, and he moved to Nashville in 1965.
After arriving in Nashville, he moved in with Johnny Cash, and the two
musicians began a long-lasting friendship, which eventually resulted in
a collaboration in the form of the Highwaymen
in the '80s. Waylon released his first single for RCA, "That's the
Chance I'll Have to Take," late in the summer of 1965, and it became a
minor hit. With his second single, "Stop the World (And Let Me Off)," he
had his first Top 40 country hit, and it began a string of moderate hits
that eventually developed into several Top Ten singles — "Walk on out of
My Mind," "I Got You," "Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line," "Yours Love"
— in 1968. At this point, he was working with Nashville session men and
developing a sound that was halfway between honky
tonk and folk. As the next decade began, he started to move his
music toward hardcore country.
In 1970, Jennings recorded several songs by a struggling but promising
songwriter called Kris Kristofferson, which led to a pair of ambitious
albums — Singer of Sad Songs and Ladies Love Outlaws — the following
year. On these two records, he developed the roots of outlaw country,
creating a harder, tougher muscular sound with a selection of songs by
writers like Alex Harvey and Hoyt Axton. During the following year,
Waylon began collaborating with Willie Nelson, recording and writing
several songs with the songwriter. Just as importantly, he also
renegotiated his contract with RCA in 1972, demanding that he assume the
production and artistic control of his records. Honky
Tonk Heroes, released in 1973, was the first
album released under this new contract. Comprised almost entirely of
songs by the then-unknown songwriter Billy Joe Shaver and recorded with
Jennings' road band, the album was an edgy, bass-driven, and surly
variation on stripped-down honky tonk.
Jennings and his new sound slowly began to gain more fans, and in 1974
he had his first number one, "This Time," followed by yet another number
one single, "I'm a Ramblin' Man," and the
number two "Rainy Day Woman."
Waylon's success continued throughout 1975, as Dreaming My Dreams —
featuring one of his signature songs, the number one "Are You Sure Hank
Done It This Way" — reached number 49 on the pop charts; he was also
voted the Country Music Association's Male Vocalist of the Year.
Jennings truly crossed over into the mainstream in 1976, when
Wanted! The Outlaws — a various-artists
compilation of previously released material that concentrated on Waylon
but also featured songs from his wife Jessi
Colter, Willie Nelson, and
Tompall Glaser — peaked at number one on the
pop charts. Following the success of Wanted!,
Waylon became a superstar, as well known to the mainstream pop audience
as he was to the country audience. For the next six years, Jennings'
albums consistently charted in the pop Top 50 and went gold. During this
time, he recorded a number of duets with Nelson, including the
multi-platinum Waylon & Willie (1978), which featured the number one
single "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys." Over the
course of the late '70s and early '80s, Jennings scored ten number one
hits, including "Luckenbach, Texas (Back to
the Basics of Love)" (which hit number 25 on the pop charts and spent
six weeks at the top of the country charts), "The Wurlitzer Prize (I
Don't Want to Get Over You)," "I've Always Been Crazy," "Amanda," "Theme
from 'The Dukes of Hazzard' (Good
Ol' Boys)," and three duets with Nelson.
By the mid-'80s, the momentum of Waylon's career began to slow somewhat,
due to his drug abuse and the decline of the entire outlaw country
movement. Jennings kicked his substance habits cold turkey in the
mid-'80s and formed the supergroup the
Highwaymen with Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash in
1985; over the next decade, the band released three albums, yet none of
them were more successful than their debut, which spawned the number one
single, "Highwayman." Also in 1985, Jennings parted ways with RCA,
signing with MCA Records the following year. At first, he had several
hit singles for the label, including the number one "Rose in Paradise,"
but by the end of the '80s, he was no longer able to crack the Top 40.
In 1990, Waylon switched labels again, signing with Epic. "Wrong," his
first single for the label, reached the Top Ten in 1990, and "The Eagle"
reached the Top 40 the following year, but after that minor hit, none of
his singles were charting.
Despite his decreased sales — which were largely due to the shifting
tastes in country music — Waylon remained a superstar throughout the
'90s and was able to draw large crowds whenever he performed a concert,
while many of his records continued to receive positive reviews. In
1996, he signed to Justice Records, where he released the acclaimed
Right for the Time. Closing In on the Fire followed in 1998. His work
was slowed by his health in the years following that album, as
complications from diabetes made it difficult for him to walk. His foot
was amputated in December 2001 because of his illness, and he died on
February 13, 2002, at his home in Arizona.
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