Waylon Arnold Jennings (June 15, 1937, Littlefield, Texas – February 13, 2002, Chandler, Arizona) was one of the most respected and influential American country music singers and guitarists. Although he became a professional musician in the late 1950s, it wasn't until the 1970s that he became a superstar. Jennings' baritone voice and his honky tonk style made his sound stand out in a genre increasingly influenced by pop music. He personified the "outlaw country" music movement, so named because of their ragged, maverick image and their opposition to the traditions of Nashville. Jennings lead many of his contemporary artists to reject the controls of the Nashville producers, in favor of the freedom of expression enjoyed by pop and rock and roll. He also was the first country artist to have a record album sell more than one million copies.
Waylon Jennings taught himself to play guitar at age eight, and formed his first band two years later. He worked as a disc jockey (DJ) throughout his teen years, dropping out of high school to pursue a career in music. During his time as a DJ, he met and befriended Buddy Holly. When he was 21, Jennings was tapped by Holly to play bass in Holly's new band, The Crickets, on a tour through the Midwest in early 1959. Holly also hired guitarist Tommy Allsup* and drummer Carl "Goose" Bunch for the "Winter Dance Party" tour.
On the night of February 3, 1959 (The Day the Music Died) the airplane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson (aka The Big Bopper) crashed outside of Mason City, Iowa, killing all passengers. Jennings, by virtue of a coin toss, luckily had given his seat to Valens, who had the flu and desperately needed rest. In his 1996 autobiography, Jennings admitted for the first time that in the years afterward, he felt severe guilt and responsibility for the crash. After Jennings gave up his seat, Holly had jokingly told him "I hope your ole bus freezes up!" Jennings replied, with equal jocularity, "I hope your damn plane crashes!"; these words would haunt him for years. The disaster stunned Jennings, and it took him several years to regain his momentum. But his time with Holly had been pivotal: "Mainly what I learned from Buddy," Jennings recalled, "was an attitude. He loved music, and he taught me that it shouldn't have any barriers to it."
After several years of inactivity, during which time he moved from Texas to Arizona and continued working in radio, Jennings began performing and recording in Phoenix, Arizona at a newly-opened nightspot called JD's. During these years of performing two and three shows a night, sometimes six nights a week singing a variety of folk, rock, pop, country R&B and blues material, he developed a unique sound, a devoted following, and made a decent living. He signed a contract with Herb Alpert's newly formed A&M Records, and he had a few hit singles on local radio in Phoenix, including "Four Strong Winds" (by Ian Tyson) and "Just To Satisfy You" (co-written with Don Bowman). Bobby Bare did his own cover of "Four Strong Winds" after hearing Waylon's version. Bare later recommended Waylon to legendary country music guitarist and producer Chet Atkins, who signed Waylon to the RCA Victor label. Still under contract to A&M, Alpert released Jennings, allowing him to sign with RCA. Waylon packed up and moved to Nashville, Tennessee in 1965.
The Nashville Sound
Jennings was accustomed to performing and recording with his own band, a practice that was not encouraged by Nashville producers who controlled nearly every aspect of recording. Working with Atkins, however, Waylon developed a rapport with the legendary producer and had a number of moderately successful hits. Nonetheless, over time, he was limited by the "Nashville Sound," and the lack of "artistic freedom" in the 1960s country music industry that forced him to submit to the label's wishes without following his own ideas.
This time, Jennings began using amphetamines while touring. He quickly became addicted, like many other country artists of the period, including his one-time roommate Johnny Cash. His second marriage, to Lynn Jones, ended in a 1967 divorce suit that left the already broke singer economically crippled. He got married for a third time to Barbara Rood, who tried to get his finances under control. Her efforts created great resentment within Jennings' band, and the marriage ended in divorce shortly thereafter. He married for the fourth and final time to country singer Jessi Colter in 1969. Colter (then known as Miriam Eddy) had previously been married to guitar legend, Duane Eddy.
Jennings had been growing more frustrated with the Nashville recording scene and a 1972 bout with hepatitis almost killed him. With his recording contract nearing an end, RCA had already lost another creative force that year: Waylon had met Willie Nelson, who had likewise been frustrated by the lack of freedom in the studio and by the entire Nashville ethos, which led him to relocate his base to Texas two years earlier. Jennings was seriously considering leaving Nashville and returning to a broadcasting career in Phoenix in 1972.
Two concurent events turned Jennings' hard times around; the first was a business manager from New York named Neil Reshen coming into his life, and the second was his friend Willie Nelson. Reshen approached Jennings, still recovering from hepatitis, and offered to renegotiate his recording and touring contracts. Jennings agreed, and the contract renegotiation began in earnest. At a 1972 meeting in a Nashville airport, Jennings introduced Reshen to Nelson; by the end of the meeting, Reshen was manager to both singers. By that time, Jennings was aware of the fact that rock bands had almost unprecedented creative freedom to record what they wanted to record, with or without a producer and even to design their album covers. He wanted similar freedom for himself—an unprecedented move in Nashville in 1972. Also in 1972, RCA issued Ladies Love Outlaws, an album that Jennings never wanted released. Nevertheless, the title track is often considered the first song of the outlaw country movement.
Reshen drove a hard bargain, but RCA finally agreed to his terms: a $75,000 advance and near-complete artistic control. Renegotiations of his touring contracts yielded similar positive results, and began turning a profit from his touring (almost unheard-of in Nashville at that time). Waylon finally had a rock star recording contract, and he looked the part; Reshen had advised him to keep the beard he had grown in the hospital, in order to cultivate a more rock and roll image.
By 1973, he had returned to the music industry under the auspices of Atlantic Records, and was on his way to music superstardom. Now based in Austin, Texas, Nelson had made inroads into the rock and roll press by attracting a diverse fan base that included the young rock music audience. Atlantic Records had signed Nelson when the time was right, and they were looking to sign Jennings as well. Nelson's rise to popularity made RCA nervous about losing another hot artist, which gave Jennings the leverage he needed in his contract renegotiations.
He followed with Lonesome, On'ry and Mean and Honky Tonk Heroes in 1973, the first albums recorded and released under his own creative control. The albums were huge commercial and critical successes. More hit albums followed, with The Ramblin' Man and This Time in 1974 and Dreaming My Dreams in 1975. The pace of recording and performing was lucrative but grueling. At some point in the 1970s, Jennings switched from amphetamines to cocaine, consuming thousands of dollars worth every day.
In 1976, Jennings began his career-defining collaborations with Nelson on the compilation album Wanted: The Outlaws!, country's first RIAA certified platinum record. The following year, RCA issued Ol' Waylon, an album that produced another huge hit duet with Nelson, Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love). Waylon and Willie followed in 1978, producing their biggest hit with Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys. He released I've Always Been Crazy in 1978, followed with a greatest hits album in 1979.
By the early 1980s, Jennings was completely addicted to cocaine. His personal finances had again unraveled, leaving him bankrupt though he insisted on repaying every penny and did additional tours to satisfy the debt. His work became less focused, and his tours had progressed into full rock and roll excesses. In a widely publicized case, he was arrested in 1977 for cocaine possession by federal agents, though due to almost comedic errors by the Drug Enforcement Agency, the charges were later dropped. The episode was recounted in Jennings' song Don't Y'all Think This Outlaw Bit's Done Got Out Of Hand?
Addiction and Recovery
Jennings decided that it was finally time to clean up, at least for a little while. He underwent the detox process, intending to start using cocaine again in a more controlled fashion afterward. By Jennings' own admission in interviews, his son Shooter Jennings was the main inspiration to stay off cocaine permanently. In 1984 he went "cold turkey" to end his cocaine addiction for good. His later life was plagued with health problems including a heart attack and diabetes brought on by a voracious appetite that developed after he beat his cocaine habit. Despite these problems, Jennings remained free from cocaine and continued recording and touring throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
Outside of the music industry, Jennings was also known as the voice of the narrator on the popular television series The Dukes of Hazzard and its predecessor Moonrunners. The theme song Good Ol' Boys, an original Jennings composition, is one of the most well-known television theme songs in American television history. He also made an appearance on Married... with Children and had a cameo role in the 1985 film Sesame Street presents Follow That Bird. Jennings was also a member of USA for Africa for the recording of We Are the World but, temperamental as ever, he reportedly left the studio due to a dispute over the song's lyrics.
In the mid-1980s, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Jennings formed a successful group called The Highwaymen. Aside from his work with The Highwaymen, highlights from his own career include the recordings WWII with Willie Nelson in 1982, Will The Wolf Survive in 1985, The Eagle in 1990 and Too Dumb For New York City, Too Ugly For L.A. in 1992.
During the early 1990s, Jennings became great friends with the band members of Metallica. He had also become very close to Metallica frontman James Hetfield and influenced some material for their 1996 album Load. In 2003, James Hetfield was featured on the tribute album I've Always Been Crazy: A Tribute To Waylon Jennings covering Jennings' 1978 song, Don't You Think This Outlaw Bit's Done Got Out Of Hand?
In 1998, he joined another country supergroup, Old Dogs, with Bobby Bare, Jerry Reed, Mel Tillis, and songwriter Shel Silverstei. They released one album, Old Dogs, recorded live in the studio.
Sometime during 2001, Jennings provided his voice in an episode of Family Guy during a Dukes of Hazzard parody. The episode was entitled To Live and Die in Dixie. The episode originally aired in November of that year. He also narrated a watch fight in an earlier episode, Chitty Chitty Death Bang.
Jennings suffered from worsening diabetes that had ended all but abbreviated touring. On December 19, 2001, his left foot was amputated in a Phoenix, Arizona, hospital due to infection arising from his diabetes. Then, on February 13, 2002, Jennings died in his sleep of diabetic complications at age 64 in Chandler, Arizona. He is interred in the Mesa City Cemetery, Mesa, Arizona.
In the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk The Line, Waylon was portrayed by his son, Shooter Jennings, as a tribute to him, though the younger man's shoulder-length hair and beard made him look nothing like his father had appeared at the time (circa 1966) when Cash and Jennings shared an apartment outside Nashville. Shooter also plays his father in a scene set several years previously, for this scene he did cut his hair and shave, heightening the resemblance to Waylon.
On March 22, 2006, Jennings' mother Lorene Jennings died in Littlefield, TX.
On July 6, 2006, Jennings, along with Kris Kristofferson were inducted to Hollywood's Rock Wall in [[Hollywood, California.
- 2006 — Inducted to Hollywood's Rock Wall
- 2001 — Elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame
- 1985 — Academy of Country Music – Single of the Year
- 1978 — Grammy – Best Country Performance by Duo/Group W/Vocals
- 1976 — Country Music Awards – Album of the Year
- 1976 — Country Music Awards – Single of the Year
- 1976 — Country Music Awards – Vocal Duo of the Year
- 1975 — Country Music Awards – Male Vocalist of the Year
- 1969 — Grammy – Best Country Performance by Duo/Group W/Vocals
- Denisoff, R. Serge. Waylon: A Biography. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1983. ISBN 0870493876.
- Jennings, Waylon, and Lenny Kaye. Waylon: An Autobiography. Warner Books, 1996. ISBN 0446605123.
All links retrieved June 11, 2020.
- at the Country Music Hall of Fame
- at Hollywood's RockWall
- USA Today Obituary
- Waylon Jennings' Gravesite
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