“To live outside the law you must be honest,” sings Bob Dylan in “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” a tune that has always struck me as a comic rejoinder to Leadbelly’s great prison song “Midnight Special.” But those lines by Dylan 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 an atrophied and corrupt recording 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 sneered 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 defile the sound and content of recordings, and treat performers as cattle.
When you look back on Jennings’ life and music you’re struck by his honesty, his courage and as Dave Marsh pointed out to me his humor.
Jennings was born in Little Fields, Texas in 1937 and moved to Lubbock in 1954, where he worked as a DJ and played in rockabilly bands. He was soon to develop an inimitable rough-edged and rumbling sound, a voice as arid and tough as a west Texas wind. But Jennings got his start backing one of the smoothest voices in rock history, Buddy Holly. From 1958 to 1959, Jennings toured as the bass player 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 ferocious indictment of Nashville and it symbolized a biased 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 that you can’t do something,’ he’d say, ‘and never put limits on yourself.’”
There is of course a star-cross aspect to Jennings’ life, which lends to his career the hint of miraculous inevitability. At the last possible moment he offered his seat on a plane on a frigid night in Clear Lake, Iowa, to J.P. Richardson, the Big Bopper.
Shortly after midnight on February 3, 1959, that small plane to 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. “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 that 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 1970s, 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 unforgettable collaborations with Willie Nelson, who was also breaking loose from the creative 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 rock-and-roll thrived in Jennings’ hard-edged country music; the sound was at once familiar and startlingly new. His band The Outlaws (featuring 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 puerile by comparison.
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 unmistakably original. “I’ve always felt that blues, rock-and-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 a fundraiser for Senator Birch Bayh, the perennially embattled Democrat. I was working as a gofer for the Bayh campaign, shuttling bigwigs around in a rented black Lincoln. God know how Waylon got hooked into playing a gig for Bayh. 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.
My assignment was to drive Jennings from the concert to his hotel, about a mile away. But Waylon wasn’t quite ready to endure an entire night in downtown Indianapolis. He said he wanted to drive around a bit and “see the non sights.” As we headed west on I-70, Waylon 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?”
“Son, there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the lot of them.” Jennings was right, naturally. But I’m a slow learner and it took me another decade to figure that one out on my own.
Jennings pulled a cassette tape 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 saw. “Oh, the Rocky Mountains, they’s a mean and terrible place.”
At the time, it was my misfortune to know less about music than I did about politics. “Who is that, Waylon?”
He shook his head in disbelief, convinced he was talking to an imbecile. “That’s ol’ Sam Hopkins, Jeffrey. Now just kick this damn Lincoln into gear, shut up and drive.”
As we rolled through the night, Jennings sat next me, tapped his booted foot to the beat, working his way through a fifth of George Dickle, Tennessee’s finest sipping bourbon.
We drove 30 or so miles west of the city on Route 40, the old National Road, right into the heart of the heartland. “This will be fine,” Jennings said. “Pull down that gravel road there.”
I stopped the big car in what was little more than rutted 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 cornfields and watch those damn meteors. Now don’t they look just like the rebel angels falling down from the heavens?”
Overhead the Perseid 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.
Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Born Under a Bad Sky and the co-editor with Joshua Frank of Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. Hopeless is now available in Kindle format. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.