The lost voice of the outlaw

Appreciation: Waylon Jennings had a tough image, a tender soul and an unmistakable gift.

February 15, 2002|By Michael Corcoran | Michael Corcoran,COX NEWS SERVICE

AUSTIN, Texas - He wore a black hat, flashed a don't-mess-with-me grin and rebelled against Nashville's glossy commercialism with such defiant songs as "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?"

Waylon Jennings, the raging soul of outlaw country music, recorded 60 albums and had 16 No. 1 country singles in a career that spanned five decades and began when he played bass for Buddy Holly. Known for such modern classics as "Good Hearted Woman," "I've Always Been Crazy" and a series of hit duets in the 1970s with Willie Nelson, Jennings died Wednesday after a long battle with diabetes-related health problems. He was 64.

"He was the Elvis Presley of country music," said songwriter Billy Joe Shaver, whose songs were covered by Jennings on Honky Tonk Heroes in 1973. "Everything he sang, he just nailed it."

Born in Littlefield, Texas, Waylon Arnold Jennings became a disc jockey at 14 and formed his own band not long afterward. He and Buddy Holly were teen-age friends in Lubbock. "Mainly what I learned from Buddy was an attitude," Jennings said. "He loved music, and he taught me that it shouldn't have any barriers to it."

It was his association with fellow Texas rebel Willie Nelson that turned Waylon into a superstar. Duets like "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," and "Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)" crossed over to rock fans and forged a restless spirit embraced later by Travis Tritt, Steve Earle and others.

Always surrounded by Hell's Angels as bodyguards, Jennings cast an imposing presence. He played up his brash persona with such album titles as "Lonesome, On'ry and Mean," "Nashville Rebel" and "Ladies Love Outlaws."

Of his outlaw image, he said: "It was a good marketing tool. In a way, I am that way. You start messing with my music, I get mean. As long as you are honest and up front with me, I will be the same with you. But I still do things my way." He was one of the first major-label country artists to go against studio wishes and use his touring band in the studio. The resulting albums, including the 1975 masterpiece Dreaming My Dreams, contain some of the most poignant and soulful music to ever hug a down and dirty 4/4 beat.

His resonant, authoritative, sandpaper-on-velvet voice also was used to narrate the popular TV show The Dukes of Hazzard. He sang its theme song, which was a million-seller.

But success could not soften the rebel spirit, and Jennings often refused to attend music awards shows on grounds performers should not compete against each other. He skipped his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame last year and for about 10 years, he declined to appear on the Grand Ole Opry because a full set of drums was forbidden. That rule eventually was dropped.

"He knew exactly what he wanted," said Austinite Floyd Domino, who played piano in Jennings' band from 1982-1986. "Whatever you played, he'd tell you to play it an octave lower. He always wanted the emphasis on the down beat." Like most great musicians, Jennings heard a sound in his head, and he wasn't going to let anyone change it.

Rodney Crowell, whose "Ain't Living Long Like This" was taken to No. 1 by Jennings, said, "For all of Waylon's tough stuff, he had such a tender heart. He was such a sweet soul."

His first No. 1 country hit was "Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line" in 1968, and he peaked in popularity with a string of smashes in the mid-to-late-'70s, including "This Time," "I'm a Ramblin' Man," "Good Hearted Woman" and "Amanda." His Greatest Hits album in 1979 sold 4 million - a rare accomplishment in country music for that era.

In the mid-1980s, his song "Highwayman" inspired the creation of the Highwaymen, a country supergroup consisting of Jennings, Nelson, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson.

Jennings and Nelson, so closely intertwined as "Waylon and Willie," long had a stormy relationship. More significant, however, was the music, the movement these two Texas giants created together.

"I've always felt that blues, rock 'n' roll and country were just a beat apart," Jennings once said. His talent was bringing them all together with a distinctive stomp. I'd like to be remembered for my music - not necessarily by what people see when they see us - but what they feel when they talk about you," he said in 1984.

"Some people have their music. My music has me."

For many years, cocaine also had him. Jennings has said he had a $1,500-a-day cocaine habit until he quit, cold turkey, in 1984.

Jennings, who lived in Chandler, Ariz., is survived by Jessi Colter, his wife of 33 years, and his son, Shooter.

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