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October 19, 2010 / scherstuhl

The Day the Music Lived: How the Dusty Thump of Waylon Jennings Saved Nashville

Someone buy this for me.

The Waylon beat, steady and insistent as highway markers whipping past a pick-up. It’s also a heartbeat.

On February 3, 1959, the country music “Outlaw”-to be was serving as the self-taught bassman in Buddy Holly’s band. Although it meant a long haul in a cold bus, Jennings gave up his seat on Holly’s charter plane to J.P. Richardson, the “Big Bopper.”

The rest, they say, is history.  The crash that took the lives of Holly, Richardson, and Richie Valens has been dubbed “The Day the Music Died,” but music is heartier than we are. Music beats on.

Jennings did, too.  In a career spanning four decades, he held to tradition but disdained rules. He accumulated the kind of numbers that halls of fame love to post: more than 80 hit singles, including 16 number ones; five CMA awards; 13 BMI songwriting awards; one gig narrating absurdist car-chase TV show The Dukes of Hazzard; and four platinum albums, including Wanted: The Outlaws, the1976 compilation/branding exercise that came to define a new country music.

But Jennings’ true influence extends well beyond the numbers.

Steeped in tradition but hopped up with rock’s energy, Jennings pioneered a dusty, thumping sound on albums like Honky Tonk Heroes (1973) and Dreaming My Dreams (1976), his artistic if not commercial peak.  He stripped away the gloss of “the Nashville Sound,” with its placid rhythms and candied strings, in favor of a raw approach emphasizing high energy and principled minimalism, an aesthetic that anticipated punk rock by almost half a decade.

Propulsive hit “Are You Sure Hank Done it This Way?” castigated Nashville for prizing “rhinestone suits and new, shiny cars” over vital, original music.

Key single “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean,” a powerfully belted tale of drug-fueled wanderlust, marries hot-shot guitar flourishes to the stripped-down march beat that would become his signature: a sturdy one-two bass stomp simple enough to be blown on a jug but mixed loud enough for a reggae record.

This rhythm fueled the classic 1970s LPs that lifted Jennings into the country-music firmament – and forever opened Music Row to the rock ‘n roll spirit. “We’re entitled to a heavy rock beat if it complements our songs,” he once said. “Or if we want to use a kazoo played through a sewer pipe, that’s all right too. Why should we lock ourselves in?”

Still, unlike the country-rock of the Eagles or the Flying Burrito Brothers, or the rock ‘n roll country of many of today’s Nashville stars, Jennings’ music was always country first. Hillbilly, even, as he told Melvin Shestack. “I’m a country boy. I’m a hillbilly. I couldn’t go pop with a mouthful of firecrackers.” His band, the Waylors, specialized in country waltzes, surging marches, and a stew anything that signature stomp.

Even vigorous covers of The Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See?” or Neil Young’s “Are You Ready for the Country?” never quite crossed over to the pop audience. That’s because the music wasn’t pop, Jennings believed, and with a will as strong as his what he believed about his music became the truth about his music. In 1998 he explained a lesson he’d learned from Holly. “The difference in country music and pop and rock music is the feel,” he said, vaguely. “They depend on the singer to do all the feeling.”

Long before Dolly went disco, the arbitrary distinctions between country, pop, and rock had broken down.

What Jennings felt, and sang, was too country, too personal, too frank and simple and baldly stated for 1970’s rock ‘n roll. Pushing forty and feeling it at his popular peak, he sang of aging, rambling, cheating, and regrets, his hundred-proof baritone hot and thick in the songs like whiskey held in your mouth. His most tortured waltz, from 1974’s The Ramblin’ Man LP, goes:

“As the lines in my face grow deeper/

And the well of my soul runs dry/

I find that I drink more and more from the memory of you and I.”

“The Memory of You and I” he sang over the gorgeous churn of three guitars and Ralph Mooney’s pedal-steel, each musician playing full and alive, for four minutes, with no regard for Nashville smoothness. Each musician wails, but the star himself mopes, steeped in his middle-aged ennui. Instead of shouting to match the band’s pitch, as a rocker might, Jennings risks a sweaty bleat: sentiment plumps up in his voice like sausage against its casing. It’s the sound of a man trying to swallow back the enormous things he feels.

That makes it the sound of American men.

For many rock listeners this beefy/feely stuff was too much. Of 1973’s Ladies Love Outlaws LP, Robert Christgau wrote, “Waylon lets you know he has balls by singing as though someone is twisting them.” This was the entirety of the review. Bill C. Malone, author of the indispensible Country Music, U.S.A., disagrees. “Jennings’ voice was a richly textured and well-balanced mixture of masculinity, sensuality, and mournfulness – there has been no better singer in country music.”

Great singer or not, Jennings had to trash the rules for hit-making in order to make his great hits. It took a while.

Born in Littlefield, Texas, in 1937 to a devout Church of Christ family, Jennings from the start held to tradition yet bucked at its particulars. Inspired by his father, a guitar-picking farmer, he dropped out of high school and lit out for the big time with Holly.

In ’59, haunted by the plane crash, Jennings spent a couple years spinning records back in Lubbock, Texas. Then came a couple singing his guts out in Phoenix, another couple signed to RCA, boozing with roommate Johnny Cash, and indulging so heartily in pills and women he won the nickname “Waymore,” and then a couple more, still, racking up occasional hits and scoring a Grammy for a cover of “Macarthur Park” of all things, but telling the suits that maybe he’d score for real if they’d let him pick his songs, if they’d let him pick his sidemen, if they’d let him pick when he damn well needed a haircut.

“It was all formula,” Jennings told Terry Gross in 1996. “It was like cookie cutters, everything you did. Here are these guys playing four sessions a day, sometime — how creative can you be?”

Being creative was the breakthrough. In ’72 Jennings negotiated an unprecedented contract: in label-ruled Nashville, he became the first country singer with rock-star privileges. His new W.G.J productions (“Waylon Goddamn Jennings”) crafted the Lonesome, On’ry & Mean record with little involvement from RCA. The result yielded two top ten hits, and Jennings’ artistic obstinancy, openness about drug use, and new bearded, black-vested style all suggested a new image: outlaw.

More a marketing term than a movement, outlaw nevertheless upended country music. The label applied to Jennings, to Willie Nelson, and to any other country star who prized grit over glitz. Anti-authoritarian, self-involved, and deeply nostalgic, the outlaw figure updated the guitar-slinging cowboy for the uncertain age of Vietnam, balancing a love for America’s past with heartache for its present. (That heartache, of course, served as justification for outlaw hell-raising.)

Libertine but not liberal, outlaw music resonated. Hit followed hit for the rest of the decade. Jennings triumphed in duets with Nelson (“Good-Hearted Woman”; “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys”), tributes to the country past (“Bob Wills is Still the King”), biographical mission statements (“I’ve Always Been Crazy”), price-of-fame laments (“Luckenbach, Texas,” which combines Littlefield and Lubbock into one idealized American town.)

As the 80s dawned, and Nashville caught up to his sound, Jennings slumped. A late ‘70s hit like “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand,” about flushing his cocaine down the toilet as he cops bust into the studio, reveals a star grown distant from the earnest young man whose first album was titled “Love of the Common People.” His rousing theme song to the 1979 TV series The Dukes of Hazzard kept him in the public eye, but the hits soon dried up as Jennings fought the personal and financial troubles that come with a $1500 a day cocaine habit. He kicked, cold turkey, in 1984.

In later years, he scored occasional hits with friends Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash in the outlaw supergroup the Higwaymen. He toured regularly, and his occasional records received critical praise but unremarkable sales. Jennings settled into elder statesman role, accepting his lifetime achievement awards, offering dishy commentary on Nashville radio, and dedicating himself to family life. In 2001 he was inducted to the Country Music Hall of Fame; in 1990, to demonstrate to his son what matters in life, Jennings earned his G.E.D.

In recent years, Jennings suffered from diabetes. In 2001, following a victory-lap farewell tour, he lost his left foot to the disease. In 2002, he died in his Arizona home at age 64.

In 1976, Jennings wrote and recorded “Old Friend,” a song dedicated to the mentor he lost in that plane crash seventeen years before. He sang, “Ol buddy, we sure miss you, but you ain’t missed a thing.”

That’s a sharp line, but it’s too humble by half. Holly missed a lot of wonders, chief among them the music of Waylon Jennings. 

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