The American singer-songwriter Waylon Jennings (1937–2002) was an iconic figure in the so-called outlaw movement in 1970s country music. Jennings's influence loomed large among the artists who fused country, rock, and blues influences.
In the words of Andrew Dansby of Rolling Stone, “It's simply impossible to imagine Southern rock, from Allman to Van Zant, and fringe country from Steve Earle to Uncle Tupelo without Waylon Jennings.” The artistic independence that allowed Jennings to accomplish his innovations was hard-won, however. Possessing a melodious baritone voice and a relaxed, pleasantly raffish image, he spent the first part of his career within Nashville's established studio system, achieving significant chart success under the direction of the RCA label's legendary producer Chet Atkins. When Jennings became dissatisfied with music he found to lack the edge of real life, he challenged the structure of Nashville's music-making machinery. By insisting on using his own band in the studio and recording original songs as well as those penned by other renegade songwriters, Jennings achieved lasting commercial success. His 1976 album Wanted: The Outlaws, recorded with kindred spirit Willie Nelson, Jennings's wife Jessi Colter, and songwriter Tompall Glaser, became the first millionselling LP recorded in Nashville. Jennings became one of the superstars of country music during the last quarter of the 20th century, and his fan base extended well beyond the country-music world.
Claiming both Cherokee and Comanche ancestry, Wayland Arnold Jennings was born in tiny Littlefield, Texas, amid cotton fields northwest of Lubbock, on June 15, 1937. After a friend asked whether he was named after nearby Wayland Baptist University, his mother changed the spelling of his name to Waylon. Both of Jennings's parents were musicians who played local gigs, and his mother taught him to play the guitar. He worked as a cotton-picker during his early teens, and like other young men in his position, Jennings viewed music as a way out of a life of agricultural labor. Meanwhile, the job brought him into contact with local African Americans and their music. “I worked in the fields with black people and never paid much attention to it,” he recalled to Dansby. “They had the flats back then and I was probably the only white boy they'd let go down there when they had somebody in town playing music, because I delivered ice.”
Jennings dropped out of high school and got a job as a disc jockey at Lubbock radio station KVOW, hosting a twohour country-music show. From the beginning, he was enthusiastic about the music of Ernest Tubb, Bob Wills, and other classic figures of the genre, as well of the work of country-blues fusion pioneer, Jimmie Rodgers. Jennings formed a band, the Texas Longhorns, and met Elvis Presley during Presley's second visit to Lubbock. “I loved that churning rhythm on the bottom,” he recalled of Presley's sound. By 1958, Jennings had moved down the street to station KDAV, and while there he met Lubbock native Buddy Holly, who had just fired his band, the Crickets. Holly produced Jennings's debut single, a version of the Cajun standard “Jole Blon.” Jennings signed as Holly's bassist for a winter tour in 1958–59. When Holly's plane crashed in snowy weather on February 3, 1959, Jennings had been scheduled to be on board. According to Jennings's autobiography, Holly had joshed with Jennings, saying “I hope your damned bus freezes up again,” to which Jennings replied, “I hope your ol' plane crashes.”
With Atkins as producer, Jennings released his first majorlabel album, Folk-Country, in 1965, and he kept up a busy schedule at RCA, issuing several albums a year through the early 1970s. He was successful from the beginning and reached the top-five spot on the country music charts with the singles “Walk on out of My Mind” (1967), “Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line” (1967), “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” (1969; a cover of Chuck Berry's rock-and-roll hit), “The Taker” (1970), and “Good Hearted Woman” (1971).
By 1972, however, Jennings's upward chart trajectory had stalled, and he felt creatively restless. He wanted to record with his own band, something unheard of in the studio-dominated Nashville system of the time (and still not common). However, he had made connections with songwriters on the fringe of that system, such as fellow Texan Billy Joe Shaver. Shaver had barged in on a Jennings studio session and threatened violence if the singer did not listen to his songs. Jennings agreed to listen and the result was the 1973 album Honky Tonk Heroes. All but one song on the LP was a Shaver composition, and the lyrics dealt with such previously taboo subjects as an interracial sexual encounter and a drug arrest in Mexico. While Honky Tonk Heroes was only moderately successful, it inaugurated Jennings's outlaw period and went on to become a classic.
Although Nashville's promotional firms reacted coolly to the singer's new direction, Jennings countered by hiring New York City–based manager Neil Reshen, who booked Jennings into clubs—like Max's Kansas City in New York City—that had previously been off limits to country performers. Jennings's creative instincts were soon validated commercially. Both his 1974 single releases, “This Time” and “I'm a Ramblin' Man,” reached the top of the country charts, giving him the first two of his eventual 16 numberone singles.
Four successive Jennings albums—Dreaming My Dreams (1975), Are You Ready for the Country (1976), Ol' Waylon (1977), and I've Always Been Crazy (1978)—reached the number-one spot. Although 1979's What Goes around Comes Around stalled at number two, Jennings returned to the top with Music Man (1980). He wrote many of these hits, including the title track of I've Always Been Crazy, with its confession that “I've always been crazy—it's kept me from going insane.” Jennings also recorded several chart-topping singles with Nelson, including the ubiquitous “Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to Be Cowboys.”
Not only in their hard-living themes but also in their sound, Jennings's songs were innovative, standing out from the country music airing on the radio at the time. His music was influenced by rock and roll, with strong electric bass lines that gave it a four-four beat rather than country music's traditional two-step rhythm. Jennings did not discard country music's traditions, however; he obviously revered them, and he paid tribute to Wills in his lyrics for “Bob Wills Is Still the King.” In his hit single “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?,” he questioned whether the Nashville mainstream was really carrying forward the traditions laid down by country legend Hank Williams.
Jennings's career got another boost through his association with the popular Southern-themed television series The Dukes of Hazzard, which premiered in 1979. Jennings sang the show's theme song; when it was released as a single, it brought him another number-one hit. A side collaboration with Nelson, Cash, and songwriter Kris Kristofferson, performed as the Highwaymen, spawned two albums: Highwayman and its title track both reached the number-one spot. Jennings moved to the MCA label in 1985; while he did not dominate the charts as he had in the 1970s, he continued to climb the charts.
In his behind-the-scenes life, Jennings abused amphetamines and cocaine during much of his career, admitting that health problems finally forced him to give them up. His cocaine habit reportedly cost him $1,500 a day by the early 1980s. Quitting drugs and a six-pack-a-day cigarette habit, Jennings also underwent heart surgery in 1988, marking the turnaround the following year by earning a high-school equivalency diploma. He remained a strong concert draw through the 1990s and released several more albums including the critically acclaimed Waymore's Blues: Part 2 (1994), with the influential pop producer Don Was at the controls. The last album released during his lifetime was 2000's Never Say Die: Live.
Although he never received honors commensurate with his influence and level of chart success, Jennings earned several major awards, including Male Vocalist of the Year from the Country Music Association in 1975. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001, shortly before his death. Jennings was married four times; his fourth wife, country singer-songwriter Colter, survived him. He had seven children; his only child by Colter, son Waylon Albright “Shooter” Jennings, became a successful alternative country and rock singer. Jennings died of complications from diabetes on February 13, 2002, in Chandler, Arizona.
Kaye, Lenny, Waylon: An Autobiography, Warner, 1991.
Guardian (London, England), February 15, 2002, Dave Laing, “Waylon Jennings: Rebel Who Revitalised Country Music and Recorded Nashville's First Million-Selling Album,” p. 24.
Guitar Player, June 2002, Matt Blackett, “Requiem for an Outlaw,” p. 39.
Independent (London, England), February 15, 2002, Paul Wadey, “Waylon Jennings,” p. 6.
New York Times, February 14, 2002, Jon Pareles, “Waylon Jennings, Singer, Songwriter and Outlaw of Country Music, Dies at 64,” p. C17.
Rolling Stone, February 14, 2002, Andrew Dansby “Waylon Jennings Dead at 64.”
Country Music Hall of Fame, http://countrymusichalloffame.org/artists/artist-detail/waylon-jennings (September 19, 2017), “Waylon Jennings.”□