Waylon knew. He wasn’t getting any younger and his body was starting to let him down. He’d been on and off the road over the past few years, even sold the bus, and now the doctor had told him that he better take a break from a life he’d always traveled. He was feeling restless. One night in 1999, he went over to his pedal steel guitar player’s house and told Robby Turner to press record. “I’m going to put a few things down,” he said. And so he did, leaving us with Goin’ Down Rockin’, his last will and a fine testament.
Like Jennings himself, the album is stylistically diverse and spiritually unified. The original tracks consisted of just Waylon’s guitar and voice, with Turner accompanying on bass, but these bare bones have since been accessorized by sympathetic musicians who shared many good times with Waylon in his career, among them drummer Richie Albright (the four-on-the-floor timekeeper of the Waylors), Reggie Young and Tony Joe White. Finished by his friends, as he would’ve wanted.
Waylon himself picked the songs, infused with his belief in music’s emotional deliverance, and the hard-fought battles he waged standing up for the right to play his songs his own way. It might have made him an “outlaw” in the eyes of the Nashville establishment, but the uncompromising stance gives his body of work a resonance that has not dimmed with his passing 10 years ago. If anything, as a moral compass and honky-tonk high-water mark, his legacy shines ever brighter.
It’s hard to listen to his lyrics without a sense of hindsight, eavesdropping on a man who’s ruminating on where he’s been, and whether he’s lived up to his own ideals. “Spent a little time in trouble/ But I do have my ways,” he confesses in the title cut, and delivers a paean to the love of his life, Jessi Colter, in the achingly beautiful “Belle of the Ball.” The Cajun stylings of “Wrong Road to Nashville” take one back to Waylon’s first recording, a version of “Jole Blon” produced by Buddy Holly. And then, of course, there’s “Never Say Die.”
The album’s centerpiece is “I Do Believe,” where the Jennings credo is set forth honestly and directly. When I had the honorable privilege of helping him write his autobiography, Jennings chose its words to bring his legendary tale to epiphany. This wellspring of inner faith – “In my own way I’m a believer” – beyond the strictures of organized religion or mythology tells more than anything of why he was able to illuminate “that inner spirit that keeps us strong.”
I miss you, Hoss, but hearing your voice, first or Last, is to have you by my side, in the room with me, letting me know that things’ll be all right as long as we keep singing your song.