Waylon Jennings Biography
Last updated: 07/29/2012 12:11:25 PM
Waylon personified the outlaw country movement of the '70s. Though he had been a professional musician since the late '50s, it wasn't until the '70s that Waylon, with his imposing baritone and stripped-down, updated honky-tonk, became a superstar. Jennings rejected the conventions of Nashville, refusing to record with the industry's legions of studio musicians and insisting that his music never resemble the string-laden, pop-inflected sounds that were coming out of Nashville in the '60s and '70s. Many artists, including Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, followed Waylon's anti-Nashville stance and eventually the whole "outlaw" movement -- so-named because of the artists' ragged, maverick image and their independence from Nashville -- became one of the most significant country forces of the '70s, helping the genre adhere to its hardcore honky-tonk roots. Jennings combined the grittiest aspects of honky-tonk with a rock & roll rhythm and attitude, making the music spare, direct, and edgy.
Jennings was born and raised in Littlefield, TX, where he learned how to play guitar by the time he was eight. When he was 12 years old, he was a DJ for a local radio station and, shortly afterward, formed his first band. Two years later he left school and spent the next few years picking cotton, eventually moving to Lubbock, TX, in 1954. Once he was in Lubbock, he got a job at the radio station KLLL, where he befriended Buddy Holly during one of the station's shows. Holly became Waylon's mentor, teaching him guitar licks, collaborating on songs, and producing Jennings' first single, "Jole Blon," which was released on Brunswick in 1958. Later that year, Waylon became the temporary bass player for Holly's band the Crickets, playing with the rock & roller on his final tour. Jennings was also scheduled to fly on the plane ride that ended in Holly's tragic death in early 1959, but he gave up his seat at the last minute to the Big Bopper, who was suffering from a cold.
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 working West Texas radio again, Jennings began performing at a bar called J. D.'s in Phoenix, Ariz. There he began to craft a sound that combined his aggressive Telecaster electric guitar style, his rough-edged vocals, and an eclectic repertoire that often borrowed from rockabilly, rock and folk.
In late 1960, he moved to Phoenix, AZ, where he founded a rockabilly band called the Waylors. Jennings and the Waylors began to earn a local following through their performances at JD's, eventually signing to the independent label Trend in 1961. None of the group's singles made any impact, and Jennings began working for Audio Recorders as a record producer. In 1963, Waylon moved to Los Angeles, where he landed a contract with Herb Alpert's A&M Records. Alpert wanted to move him toward the pop market but Jennings didn't cave in to the demands and his sole single, "Sing the Girl a Song, Bill," and album for A&M flopped.
Following the A&M debacle, Jennings landed a contract with RCA with help from Bobby Bare, and he moved to Nashville in 1965 to record with the legendary Chet Atkins. After arriving in Nashville, he moved in with Johnny Cash, and the two musicians began a long-lasting friendship. Waylon often told stories about Johnny cooking biscuits in his trademark black suit.
"His biscuits weren't that great but I loved when he cooked 'em cause he looked so damn funny with flour all over the place." Waylon released his first single for RCA, "That's the Chance I'll Have to Take," late in the summer of 1965, and it became a minor hit. With his second single, "Stop the World (And Let Me Off)," he had his first Top 40 country hit, and it began a string of moderate hits that eventually developed into several Top Ten singles -- "Walk On out of My Mind," "I Got You," "Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line," "Yours Love" -- in 1968. At this point, he was working with Nashville session men and developing a sound that was halfway between honky-tonk and folk. As the next decade began, he started to move his music toward hardcore country.
In 1970, Jennings recorded several songs by a struggling but promising songwriter called Kris Kristofferson, which led to a pair of ambitious albums -- Singer of Sad Songs and Ladies Love Outlaws -- the following year.
On these two records, he developed the roots of outlaw country, creating a harder, tougher muscular sound with a selection of songs by writers like Alex Harvey and Hoyt Axton. During the following year, Waylon began collaborating with Willie Nelson, recording and writing several songs with the songwriter. Just as importantly, he also renegotiated his contract with RCA in 1972, demanding that he assume the production and artistic control of his records. Honky Tonk Heroes, released in 1973, was the first album released under this new contract. Comprised almost entirely of songs by the then-unknown songwriter Billy Joe Shaver and recorded with Jennings' road band, the album was an edgy, bass-driven, and surly variation on stripped-down honky-tonk. Jennings and his new sound slowly began to gain more fans, and in 1974 he had his first number one, "This Time," followed by yet another number one single, "I'm a Ramblin' Man," and the number two "Rainy Day Woman."
Waylon's success continued throughout 1975, as Dreaming My Dreams -- featuring one of his signature songs, the number one "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way" -- reached number 49 on the pop charts; he was also voted the Country Music Association's Male Vocalist of the Year. Jennings truly crossed over into the mainstream in 1976, when Wanted! The Outlaws -- a various-artists compilation of previously released material that concentrated on Waylon but also featured songs from his wife Jessi Colter, Willie Nelson, and Tompall Glaser -- peaked at number one on the pop charts.
Following the success of Wanted!, Waylon became a superstar, as well known to the mainstream pop audience as he was to the country audience.
During many of these same years, the TV series The Dukes of Hazzard --- for which Jennings wrote and sang the theme song and served as off-screen narrator --- further popularized his sound and the trademark image of his leather-covered guitar.
For the next six years, Jennings' albums consistently charted in the pop Top 50 and went gold. During this time, he recorded a number of duets with Nelson, including the multi-platinum Waylon & Willie (1978), which featured the number one single "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys."
Over the course of the late '70s and early '80s, Jennings scored ten number one hits, including "Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)" (which hit number 25 on the pop charts and spent six weeks at the top of the country charts), "The Wurlitzer Prize (I Don't Want to Get Over You)," "I've Always Been Crazy," "Amanda," "Theme from 'The Dukes of Hazzard' (Good Ol' Boys)," and three duets with Nelson.
While Jennings was selling albums in numbers previously associated with rock stars, his excessive lifestyle also resembled those of many rock icons.
Substance abuse eroded his career for a time, but he eventually beat this problem and stabilized his personal life. He set an example for others by completing his high school equivalency diploma, and has spoken to schoolchildren about the importance of staying in school.
The singer continued a scaled-down but no less creative career, recording for MCA and Epic during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and touring until his death in 2002. With Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson, Jennings gained another No. 1 smash with 1985's "Highwayman," title cut for a gold-selling Columbia album. (The foursome recorded two follow-up albums and also made limited concert tours.) In addition to important albums reissued by RCA and by Buddha Records, he recorded new albums for RCA, Ark
21 Records, and a children's album titled Cowboys, Sisters, Rascals, and Dirt (Sony Wonder, 1993). Other achievements include motion picture and TV movie roles and a televised documentary on cowboys aired on TNN.
Jennings won election to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001 and died on February 13, 2002. He is survived by his wife, Jessi Colter, and their son, Waylon Albright "Shooter" Jennings; Colter's daughter, Jennifer; and five children from Jennings' previous marriages: Terry, Tomi Lynn, Julie, Deana and Buddy. Jennings' rugged individualism and musical vision continue to inspire both seasoned veterans and young, aspiring artists.
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