“To live outside the law you must be honest,” sings Bob Dylan in Absolutely Sweet Marie, a tune that has always struck me as kind of comic rejoinder to Leadbelly’s great prison song Midnight Special. But those lines could also be an epitaph for the life and career of Waylon Jennings.
Jennings was an outlaw in all the right respects, not least as an outlaw to a corrupt industry that was exploiting him and his cohorts. At great professional risk, Jennings defied the pious and rigid lords of Nashville, the country purists of the Opry, who sneared at pop sounding songs and banned full drum sets from their stage. He fought as fiercely as Chuck D or Pearl Jam against the bosses of the record biz, who rip off songwriters, defile the sound and content of recordings, and treat performers as chattle.
When you look back on Jennings’ life and music you’re struck by his honesty, his courage and, as Dave Marsh points out his “humor.”
Jennings was born in Littlefield, Texas in 1937 and moved to Lubbock in 1954, where he worked as DJ and played in rocakbilly bands. He was to develop an inimitable rough-edged and rumbling sound, a voice as arid and tough as a west Texas wind. But he got his start working for one of the smoothest voices in rock history, Buddy Holly. From 1958 to 1959, Jennings toured as Holly’s bassplayer in Holly’s band, the Crickets.
In his book Country, Nick Tosches writes that of all the great rockabilly artists Holly was the only one never to top the Country charts. It’s a savage indictment of Nashville and it was message that certainly wasn’t lost on Jennings. “[Buddy] had a dose of Nashville where they wouldn’t let him sing it the way he heard it and wouldn’t let him play his own guitar parts,” Jennings wrote in his autobiography. “Can’t do this, can’t do that. ‘Don’t ever let people tell you you can’t do something,’ he’d say, ‘and never put limits on yourself.’
There is of course a star-crossed aspect to Jenning’s life, that lends to his career the hint of myth, as if he were as close as country would ever come to a kind of Robert Johnson legend. Jennings didn’t sell his soul to the devil at the crossroads in return for blazing guitar licks, but he did at the last possible moment offer his seat on a plane on frigid night in Clear Lake, Iowa to J.P. Richardson, the Big Bopper.
Shortly after midnight on February 3, 1959 that small plane took a nosedive into the frozen badlands outside Mason City, Iowa. Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper were gone and Jennings was left behind to pick up the pieces and roll on.
“I remember the last time I saw Buddy,” Jennings said last year. “He had me go get us some hot dogs. He was leaning back against the wall in a cane-bottom chair and he was laughing at me. He said, ‘So you’re not going with us tonight on the plane, huh? Well, I hope your ol’ bus freezes up. It’s 40-below out there and you’re gonna get awful cold. So I said, ‘Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes.’
“I was so afraid for many years that somebody was going to find out I said that. Somehow I blamed myself. Compounding that was the guilty feeling that I was still alive. I hadn’t contributed anything to the world at that time compared to Buddy. Why would he die and not me? It took a long time to figure that out, and it brought about some big changes in my life — the way I thought about things.”
In the 70s Jennings came into his own with songs like Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love), I’ve Always Been Crazy, I Don’t Want to Get Over You and Waymore’s Blues. His music (and his collaborations with Willie Nelson, who was also breaking loose from the shackles of Nashville) gave grit and substance to American music at a time when rock had flatlined into the likes of Journey and REO Speedwagon. The elemental spirit of rocknroll thrived in Jennings’ country music, the sound was at once old and new. The Outlaws (which included featured Jennings, Nelson, Tompall Glaser and Jennings’ fourth and last wife, Jessi Colter) made the so-called country-rock being offered up by groups such as The Eagles sound processed and purile by comparison. Next to Waylon Jennings the perfectionist posings of Don Henley seem like Donny Osmond.
Jennings embodied that strange alchemy of American music, a music that was both popular and uncompromising. A sound that paid allegiance to Hank Williams, Son House and Buddy Holly and yet was unmistakeably original. “I’ve always felt that blues, rock ‘n’ roll and country are just about a beat apart,” Jennings said. In his music, at times, they blended into one.
I had the undeserved fortune to meet Waylon Jennings in the summer of 1978, when he came to Indianapolis to play at a fundraiser for Senator Birch Bayh, the perennially embattled Democrat. I was working as gopher for the Bayh campaign, shuttling bigwigs around in a rented big black Lincoln. God knows how he got hooked into doing a gig for Bayh, one of the more unappetizing politicians of his time. Most likely it was as a favor to Bayh’s charismatic and brilliant wife, Marvella, who was to die of breast cancer a few years later.
I was supposed to drive Jennings from the concert to his hotel, about a mile away. But he wasn’t quite ready to endure an entire night in a downtown Indianapolis. He wanted to drive around. After a while, he turned to me, grinned and said, “Man, what are you doing working for these assholes?”
“Huh? We don’t want the Republicans to take over the country again, do we?”
“Not a dime’s worth of dime’s worth of difference between them.” He was right of course. But I’m a slow learner and it took me another decade to figure that out on my own.
Jennings pulled a cassette from the pocket of his black vest. “Stick this in that machine,” he said.
It was a country blues, featuring a guitar as clear as a bell and a voice as ragged as a crosscut saw. “Oh the Rocky Mountains, they’s a mean and terrible place.”
At that time, it was my misfortune to know less about music than I did about politics. “Who is that?”
He shook his head in amazement, convinced he was talking with an imbecile. “That’s Sam Hopkins, son. Now just kick this damn Lincoln into to gear and drive.”
As we rolled through the night, Jennings sat next to me, tapping his booted foot to the beat, working his way through a fifth of George Dickle, Tennessee’s finest sipping bourbon.
We drove 30 miles west of the city on Route 40, the old National Road, into the heart of the heartland. “This’ll be fine,” he said. “Pull down that gravel road there.”
I stopped the car in what was little more than a tractor lane, hemmed in by 12-foot-tall walls of sweet corn.
“What are we doing?”
“Come on out here and join me, Hoss,” Jennings growled. “Let’s take a piss in this cornfield and watch those damn meteors. Now don’t they look just like the rebel angels falling down from the heavens.”
Overhead the Perseied meteor shower was in full bloom–one meteor after another slashed across the August night.
To this day I’ve rarely missed a chance to escape from the city lights in August and watch those rebel angels fall from the sky, with my favorite bluesman, Lightnin’ Hopkins, providing the soundtrack. Thanks for that Waylon and for everything else.