A.V. Club head writer and hip-hop specialist Nathan Rabin recently decided to spend a year or two immersing himself in the canon of country music, a genre he knew little about, but was keen to explore. The result: “Nashville Or Bust,” a series of essays about seminal country artists. After 52 entries, Rabin plans to travel south and explore some of country music’s most hallowed landmarks and institutions.
As some of you have noted, it is unusual bordering on willfully perverse that I am 38 entries into a column about discovering country music, yet until now, I have not written about Waylon Goddamn Jennings. How fucked-up is that? Verily, the man towers like a colossus (one of the best ways to tower, if you ask me) over not just country, but pop culture as a whole. Yet I covered Ray Fucking Stevens before I covered Jennings.
I covered people who sang songs trying to associate themselves with Waylon Jennings before I covered Waylon Jennings. I covered a genius (Billy Joe Shaver) who made his name writing songs for Waylon Jennings before I covered Waylon Jennings. I covered people who’d sell their mother to communists to be Waylon Jennings (David Allan Coe, cough, cough) before I covered Waylon Jennings. I covered Ween, Rick Moranis, and a fictional comedian before I covered Waylon Jennings. I covered 1974 Country Music Association Female Vocalist Of The Year Olivia Newton-John before I covered Waylon Jennings. Okay, so that last part wasn’t true. But it’s undeniable that it’s taken me way too long to cover Waylon Jennings.
This oversight is all the more glaring considering Jennings’ reputation as
A. Part of the holy trinity (alongside Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson) of country artists it’s okay for people who profess to hate country to like
B. The narrator and theme-song singer of Dukes Of Hazzard
Yes, Jennings occupies a place high atop the pantheon of outlaw-country legends, alongside Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, Merle Haggard, and Jennings’ hero (and best friend, collaborator, and onetime roommate) Johnny Cash. In the quick-and-easy thumbnail history of country, Jennings is the man who brought rock ’n’ roll attitude to country music when country grew soft and safe, and the man who made being an outlaw big business.
Why has it taken me so long to get around to Jennings? For starters, I wanted to do right by him. I wanted to be as prepared as possible, so I read his autobiography, Waylon (co-written by Lenny Kaye of Nuggets and Patti Smith Group fame). Since a lot of his major albums are out of print I listened compulsively to his box set Nashville Rebel. And, to be honest, it took a while to get Jennings. I loved Billy Joe Shaver’s “Honky Tonk Heroes” and “Black Rose” so much that Jennings’ versions couldn’t help but pale in comparison. Jennings warred with the homogenous, one-size-fits-all countrypolitan sound, but he’s Eddy Arnold on Quaaludes compared to Shaver. But upon really listening to Jennings’ “Honky Tonk Heroes,” I discovered that the two versions are actually complementary; where Shaver sounds bemused and laconic, Jennings swaggers and rocks, thanks to the driving, insistent beat that would become as much a signature of Jennings’ sound as his sandpaper vocals.
According to Waylon, by the time Shaver showed up at one of Jennings’ recording sessions and growled, “I got these songs, and if you don’t listen to them, I’m going to kick your ass right here in front of everybody,” Jennings had already lived several lifetimes. He had the kind of upbringing that tends to breed either convicts or country legends. Jennings grew up in Texas, born to the kind of poor-but-proud parents ubiquitous in outlaw mythology. He gravitated toward the guitar as a means of escaping his hardscrabble upbringing. His gift for gab, personal magnetism, and raucous good humor earned him as a gig as a radio DJ, not unlike Willie Nelson, a fellow traveler whose legend is inextricably entwined with Jennings’ own.
Jennings was blessed and cursed with a pervasive melancholy rooted in a formative trauma. While working as a DJ, Jennings became friendly with Buddy Holly. For the length of their brief but powerful collaboration, Holly was everything to Jennings: a friend; a mentor; an older-brother figure, quick with a joke and a smile and good advice. He was a genie who opened exciting new worlds to a green kid from Texas. He was a bandleader and a star-maker who, Jennings claims, planned to make Jennings the first artist on the label he planned to set up. In Waylon, Jennings’ attitude toward Holly falls somewhere between love, friendship, and idol worship.
After Holly disbanded the original Crickets, he needed a bass player, and he figured Jennings was the man for the job. It didn’t seem to matter to Holly that Jennings didn’t know how to play the bass; he gave him several weeks to learn. Besides, Jennings’ music was never about virtuosity or professionalism; it was about energy, attitude, and enthusiasm, qualities he possessed in abundance.
Jennings and Holly’s bright future together disappeared one fateful night when The Big Bopper asked Jennings for his spot on a plane taking some of the event’s headliners to their next gig. Being young and flexible, Jennings happily gave The Big Bopper his seat, but his final exchange with Buddy Holly, as recounted in Waylon, haunted him for years:
“Ah,” [Buddy] said. “You’re not going with me tonight, huh? Did you chicken out?”
I said no, I wasn’t scared. The Big Bopper just wanted to go.
“Well,” he said, grinning, “I hope your damned bus freezes up again.”
I said, “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes.”
What must have felt like friendly guy-talk at the time became tragic when the plane carrying Holly, The Big Bopper, and Richie Valens became the inspiration for Don MacLean’s “American Pie,” and more importantly, killed many of Jennings’ most cherished dreams. Jennings became lost and inconsolable. One minute, he had the friendship and support of one of the hottest acts in popular music. The next, he more or less had to start from scratch. It took him years to recover and develop following in the honky-tonks of Arizona that was big enough to make Nashville come calling.
Reading Waylon, I was surprised to discover that Jennings and Johnny Cash were roommates in the mid-1960s. By that point, Cash had left an indelible mark on pop music with timeless standards like “Ring Of Fire,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” and “I Walk The Line,” yet he still wasn’t above sharing a tiny apartment with a relative newcomer. Country simply wasn’t big business at that point; a hit record might sell 30,000 copies, not unlike a successful independent release today, when the music industry has seemingly never been in worse shape.
The Nashville Rebel slicked up his hair into a gravity-defying pompadour and bent to the will of his legendary producer Chet Atkins, but major elements of the outlaw persona were already in place years before he and Willie Nelson launched a revolution in country. Shit, Jennings starred in a cheapie exploitation movie called Nashville Rebel back in 1966, almost a decade before the hastily thrown-together, mega-selling compilation Wanted: The Outlaws codified the language, attitude, and personnel of the outlaw movement.
The early Jennings’ single “Love Of The Common People,” for example, is a Merle Haggard-like anthem to the resilience and determination of the working class, while “Mental Revenge” is an agreeably nasty, down-and-dirty celebration of unkind thoughts and schadenfreude. The songs and attitude were there, but as Jennings conveys in his autobiography, a tragic gulf remained between how he thought his songs should sound, and the way they actually sounded.
Take “Anita, You’re Dreaming,” for example. It’s a lovely ballad warning a lovestruck young woman not to let her hopes and fantasies blind her to the realities of life, but Jennings’ sensitive vocal fights a losing war with fluffy female background crooning and a xylophone. Seriously, a fucking xylophone. At the risk of being controversial, I do not feel the music of Waylon Jennings is improved by the addition of a xylophone.
With 1972’s Good Hearted Woman and 1973’s Lonesome, On’ry And Mean, Jennings plugged into a spirit of rebellion, discontent, and nonconformity bubbling just under the surface in country music, and helped kick-start the outlaw movement. To borrow Shaver’s vivid turn of phrase from Waylon, it was as if Jennings and kindred spirits Nelson, Tompall Glaser, Kinky Friedman, and Shel Silverstein were “all melted into the same comet” hurtling into the stratosphere.
The title song on Good Hearted Woman, co-written by Willie Nelson, offers a pure distillation of Jennings’ well-wrought persona as a rebel with a heart of gold, a bad boy whom women want to tame and men want to emulate. Jennings became a foremost interpreter of the songs of future Highwaymen bandmate Kris Kristofferson. (Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson naturally rounded out the lineup.) He gave Kristofferson’s sometimes ethereal poetry an earthiness and grit that made it more palatable to mass audiences. Jennings made smart, savvy use of the Willie Nelson songbook, and in 1973, he broke defiantly with tradition by recording nearly an entire album (Honky Tonk Heroes) by an unknown singer-songwriter named Billy Joe Shaver. In a country industry where albums were assembled by committee, using pretty much the same cast of characters, session musicians, producers, and songwriters, Jennings established himself as an auteur who recorded his albums his way, using his band and the songs he wanted to sing.
The hits kept coming. The chasm between Hank Williams’ honky-tonk aesthetic and the soulless slickness of contemporary country at the time (and today, and forever, I imagine) informs “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” a moody, dirge-like, seemingly non-commercial single that went on to become an unlikely classic, and the definitive condemnation of a music industry that seems intent on taking the soul out of country.
Buddy Holly taught Jennings that good music knows no boundaries, that genres shouldn’t matter, and that “pop” doesn’t have to be a dirty word. Accordingly, Jennings had a smash hit with “MacArthur Park (Revisited),” though even his fabled grit couldn’t render it any less pompous, bloated, or ridiculous.
As his popularity and cocaine addiction skyrocketed, Jennings’ music increasingly turned inward. Single after single referenced his outlaw image: “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” “I’ve Always Been Crazy,” “Waymore’s Blues,” “I Ain’t Living Long Like This,” and “Luckenbach Texas (Back To The Basics Of Love),” a song whose chorus references “Waylon and Willie and the boys” while pining for an escape from the stressful, unsatisfying high life, back to the joys of a simple small-town existence. Jennings found it too smooth and laid-back, but it’s one of my favorite Jennings songs, especially when Willie Nelson makes a grand entrance to sing a verse.
By the late ’70s, Jennings was feeling burnt out. Over the course of a few years, his outlaw shtick went from being a vital, necessary break from country tradition to a gimmick, a marketing hook, a fad. Instead of investing in Brylcreem and Nudie suits, aspiring would-be outlaws grew scraggly beards, let their hair grow long, and labored under the delusion that not showering or sleeping would grant them membership to the outlaw club.
Jennings was always keen on eschewing obfuscation; the direct approach always seemed to work better, so he used the song “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit Done Got Out Of Hand” to convey his feeling that the outlaw bit done got out of hand. He also used it to lash out at “The Man” for trying to bust him for cocaine possession, just because he possessed and used Texas-sized amounts of cocaine.
Triumph and tragedy followed. Jennings landed a sweet gig as the voice of “The Balladeer” on The Dukes Of Hazzard, and he kicked cocaine, but then he suffered an extended dry spell while he tried to learn how to live and perform without the drug that had controlled his life for more than a decade. As he aged out of his bad-boy and sex-symbol years, he was forced to confront the dispiriting reality that for country radio, “legend” is a nice word for “old guy they don’t play on the radio anymore.”
He was a rebel to the end: The country establishment finally got around to putting Jennings in the Country Hall Of Fame in 2002, but he refused to show up to accept the honor. (Though he died of diabetes a few weeks later, so he might have been able to use the old “Sorry I can’t be there, I’m on my deathbed” excuse.)
The country world Jennings left behind in 2002 was vastly different from the one he encountered trying to work within the system in the mid-1960s. Jennings dramatically extended country’s reach, winning over the rock crowd and proving firsthand that it was possible to break all the rules and emerge victorious. And if country re-embraced homogeneity and safeness after Jennings’ glory days, he can’t be held responsible: simply by being himself and staying true to his vision, he elevated country to new heights of popularity and greatly expanded the genre’s boundaries.
Up Next on Nashville Or Bust:
Townes Van Zandt