Waylon Jennings, RCA Country Legends: Waylon Jennings

Lenny Kaye

By Lenny Kaye

on 06.15.11 in Reviews

In 1993 I traveled to Nashville to meet Waylon Jennings. I was burnt out on too much time in the small enclosed room of the recording studio; he had burned through two writers of a potential "autobiography" and was not looking to meet another. But I told him, without getting specific, that I was a player, and though there was a lot of sex and drugs in his story, and we all like those sex and drug stories, I was more interested in finding out what made him get on that stage over two hundred times a year, and raise his voice in song.

There is the legend, and there is the man.

A few days later I was on a tour bus heading for Kansas City. We had dinner with Johnny Western, who sang the Have Gun, Will Travel theme, and I watched him entertain a full house at a local country roadhouse, a 1,000-strong audience of jus' folks ranging in age from six to 60, an enviable and loyal demographic. We scheduled an interview for the next day, and thirty seconds before the appointed moment, my hotel door knocked and there he was, on the dot. I might have been expecting the Legend, a wild man Outlaw; and instead I got the Man, who understood how he could be the best he could be, who had taken control of his life as he had his music. The Flying W. Waylon.

Over the next couple of years, as his story took shape, I got to see where he'd come from, the hardscrabble life he had overcome, the crossings of time and space that had brought him face-to-face with his Legend. The growing up in Littlefield, Texas, where he faced a life of cotton chopping and hamburgers burnt to a crisp; the disc jockeying in Lubbock where he started hearing the strains of country and R&B melding into rock and roll, and where he met one of the teenage musicians who would help that coupling (or couple-three'ing, as I learned to drawl, listening to his voice converse in my transcripts), Buddy Holly. His voyage on the Winter Dance Party in 1959 where, as a bass player, he watched Buddy eat a hot dog by the side of the wall of the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, and then get on a plane to Moorehead, Minnesota. His slow, painful recovery from that tragedy, building a following in Phoenix, Arizona, before moving to Nashville in 1965; his life with Chet Atkins as producer, Johnny Cash as friend, the Nashville Sound as maddening soundtrack; and the road, always the road, fueled by pills and constant in-motion and the presence of his Waylors. The burn-out and the resurrection, the taking-charge and the taking-over that would be the Outlaw movement in mid-seventies country, Willie and Waylon and "The Dukes of Hazzard" theme and "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?," along with the human pinball that he would become, until once again, in the phrase that seemed to define his life, he would "stop and start over," like you do a song, until you get it right.

RCA Country Legends: Waylon Jennings

Waylon Jennings

He wasn't feeling that good when we finished our journey on the bus, not yet sixty but taking measure of himself, except for those moments when he would walk out on stage and strum that Waylon-caster with the tooled leather cover. He often talked of throwing me the guitar, but never did, until one night when the book had just come out. I said, "What song?" just before he left the dressing room. He said, "You're in from the get-go." Thanks, Hoss.

This album tells in somewhat chronological order how he became the Legend, from his first singles through (beginning about two-thirds into disc one) when he began changing the shape of the music to suit his and not Nashville's "way" of doing things, captured in the four-on-the-floor foot-stomp of "This Time." There are so many notable tracks here — the waltz-across-the-Lone-Star that is "Bob Wills Is Still The King," and a travel invite to "Luckenbach, Texas;" the headstrong and headlong first-personals of "Don't You Think This Outlaw Bit's Done Got Out of Hand," and "I Ain't Living Long Like This" — that it's easy to overlook what's left out (please search his take on "MacArthur Park," where the Waylon debt to Roy Orbison is made manifest) and how prolific he was. And how tender he could be: "Amanda," in its awareness of time passing, is a reflection of the Man's capacity to love. "Storms Never Last," do they, Jessi?

A privilege to know and honor him, man and legend, one and the same.