Waylon Arnold Jennings (June 15, 1937 - February 13, 2002) was an American country music singer, songwriter, and musician. Jennings began playing guitar at eight and began performing at twelve on KVOW radio. Jennings formed a band The Texas Longhorns. Jennings worked as a D.J on KVOW, KDAV, KYTI and KLLL. In 1958, Buddy Holly arranged Jennings' first recording session, of "Jolie Blon" and "When Sin Stops (Love Begins)". Holly hired Jennings to play bass. Jennings unintentionally missed flying with Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens on the flight which they died. Before takeoff, Holly, in jest, told Jennings "I hope your ol' bus freezes up", to which Jennings, also in jest, responded with "I hope your ol' plane crashes". These words would haunt Jennings his entire life.
He worked as a D.J in Coolidge, Arizona and Phoenix. He formed a rockabilly club band, The Waylors. He recorded for independent label Trend Records, A&M Records before succeeding with RCA Records after achieving creative control of his records.
During the 1970s, Jennings joined the Outlaw movement. He released critically acclaimed albums Lonesome, On'ry and Mean and Honky Tonk Heroes, followed by hit albums Dreaming My Dreams and Are You Ready for the Country. In 1976 he released the album Wanted! The Outlaws with Willie Nelson, Tompall Glaser and Jessie Colter, the first platinum country music album. That album's success was followed by Ol' Waylon, and the hit song "Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)". By the early 1980s, Jennings was struggling with a cocaine addiction. Later Jennings joined the country supergroup The Highwaymen with Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash. During that period, Jennings released the successful album, Will the Wolf Survive. Jennings toured less after 1997, to spend more time with his family. Between 1999 and 2001, his appearances were limited by health problems. On February 13, 2002, Jennings died from complications of diabetes.
Jennings also appeared in movies and television series. He was the narrator for The Dukes of Hazzard. In 2001 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, which he chose not to attend until later on. And in 2007 he was posthumously awarded the Cliffie Stone Pioneer Award by the Academy of Country Music.
Waylon Jennings was born in Littlefield, Texas, the seat of Lamb County, the son of Lorene Beatrice (née Shipley) and William Alvin Jennings. His original birth name was Wayland, meaning land by the highway, but it was changed after a Baptist preacher visited Jennings' parents and congratulated his mother for naming him after the Wayland Baptist University in Plainview, Texas. Lorene Jennings, who had been unaware of the college, changed the spelling to Waylon. Jennings later expressed in his autobiography "I didn't like Waylon. It sounded corny and hillbilly, but it's been good to me, and I'm pretty well at peace with it right now." When Jennings was eight, his mother bought him his first guitar, a Harmony Patrician, and taught him to play. Jennings never learned to read music, but he practiced to seek a career in music, to avoid a possible future picking cotton.
Beginnings in music:
The twelve-year-old Jennings auditioned for a spot on KVOW in Littlefield, Texas. Owner J.B. McShan, along with Emil Macha, recorded Jennings' performance. McShan liked his style, and hired him for a weekly thirty-minute program. Following this successful introduction, Jennings formed his own band. He asked Macha to play bass for him, and gathered other friends and acquaintances to form The Texas Longhorns. The style of the band, a mixture of country & western and bluegrass, often was not well received. At seventeen, Jennings and band recorded a demo of the songs "Stranger in My Home" and "There'll Be a New Day" at KFYO radio in Lubbock, Texas. In addition to performing on air for KVOW, Jennings later worked as a D.J for the station. Jennings dropped out of high school in tenth grade to pursue music. His early influences were Bob Wills, Floyd Tillman, Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Carl Smith and Elvis Presley. He moved to Lubbock, where he initially worked for KDAV, and later for KLLL, Jennings' show was successful in both venues.
In 1958, Jennings met Buddy Holly during the broadcasts of "Sunday Party" at KDAV, looking for a start in record production. On September 10, Jennings recorded the songs "Jolie Blon" and "When Sin Stops (Love Begins)", with Holly and Tommy Allsup on guitars with saxophonist King Curtis. The single was released on Brunswick in 1959 with limited success. Holly then hired Jennings to play electric bass for him during his "Winter Dance Party Tour".
After a show in Clear Lake, Iowa, Holly chartered a plane for himself, Allsup and Jennings to avoid a long bus trip to Fargo, North Dakota. Allsup lost a coin toss to Ritchie Valens for his seat on the plane, while Jennings gave up his seat to J. P. Richardson, who was suffering from a cold and complaining about how uncomfortable a long bus trip was for a man of his size. Holly jokingly told Jennings, "I hope your ol' bus freezes up!". Jennings replied, "Well, I hope your ol' plane crashes!" During the early morning hours of February 3, 1959, later known as The Day the Music Died, the charter crashed outside Clear Lake, killing all on board. Jennings and Allsup continued the tour for two more weeks, featuring Jennings as the lead singer. Jennings later admitted that he felt severe guilt and responsibility for the crash, and that his words would haunt him for the rest of his life.
He later returned to KLLL and performed regionally. He released recordings under Trend Records, and experienced moderate success with his single "Another Blue Day".
Phoenix and the Nashville Sound:
In 1961, Jennings lived briefly in Coolidge, Arizona working in radio, before moving to Phoenix, where he formed a rockabilly band, The Waylors. Jennings and his band performed at a newly opened nightspot called JD's. The band earned a small fan base, eventually signing with the independent label Trend Records. The recordings were not successful and Jennings began working as a record producer. In 1963, he moved to Los Angeles, California where he signed a contract with Herb Alpert of A&M Records.
His records had little success, because A&M's main releases were folk music rather than country. He had a few hits on local radio in Phoenix, including Ian Tyson's "Four Strong Winds" and "Just To Satisfy You" (co-written with Don Bowman). He also recorded an album on BAT called JD's. After 500 copies were sold at the club, another 500 copies were pressed by the Sounds label. He also played lead guitar for Patsy Montana on a 1964 album. Alpert tried to shift Jennings' style from country to pop, but Jennings refused. After his only single, "Sing the Girl a Song, Bill", Alpert released Jennings.
Singer Bobby Bare, who covered Jennings' songs "Four Strong Winds" and "Just To Satisfy You", recommended Jennings to producer Chet Atkins, who signed Jennings to RCA Victor in 1965.
In 1966, Jennings released his debut album for RCA Folk-Country, followed by Leavin' Town, and Nashville Rebel. Nashville rebel was the soundtrack to an independent film of the same name, starring Jennings. In 1967, Jennings released a hit single, "Just to Satisfy You". During an interview, Jennings stated, "The song is a pretty good example of the influence that working with Buddy Holly had on me. This has probably influenced me a lot; you know, what they used to call Rockabilly". During the next years, Jennings produced mid-chart albums that sold well, including Just to Satisfy You, that included the same-named hit single of 1967.
In 1972, Jennings released Ladies Love Outlaws. The single that headlined the album became a hit for Jennings, and was his first approach to Outlaw Country. Jennings was accustomed to performing and recording with his own band, The Waylors; a practice that was not encouraged by powerful Nashville producers. Over time, however, Jennings felt limited by the Nashville sound's lack of artistic freedom. The music style publicized as "Countrypolitan" was characterized by orchestral arrangements, and the absence of traditional country music instruments. The producers did not let Jennings play his own guitar, or select material to record.
In an interview Jennings recalled, "They wouldn't let you do anything. You had to dress a certain way: you had to do everything a certain way ... They kept trying to destroy me.... I just went about my business and did things my way ... You start messing with my music, I get mean" In 1972, his recording contract was nearing an end. Hepatitis-afflicted Jennings accepted an offer from Neil Reshen to renegotiate his recording and touring contracts. At a meeting in a Nashville airport, Jennings introduced Reshen to Willie Nelson. By the end of the meeting, Reshen had become manager to both singers. Jennings' new deal gained him a $75,000 advance and artistic control. Reshen advised Jennings to keep the beard that he had grown in the hospital, in order to match the image of outlaw country.
By 1973, Nelson had returned to music, finding success with Atlantic Records. Now based in Austin, Texas, Nelson had made inroads into the rock and roll press by attracting a diverse fan base that included the rock music audience. Atlantic Records was now attempting to sign Jennings, but Nelson's rise to popularity persuaded RCA to renegotiate with Jennings before losing another potential success.
He followed with Lonesome, On'ry and Mean and Honky Tonk Heroes in 1973, the first albums recorded and released under his creative control. The albums were commercial and critical successes. More hit albums followed, with The Ramblin' Man and This Time, in 1974, and Dreaming My Dreams, in 1975. In 1976, Jennings released Are You Ready for the Country, Jennings wanted the record to be produced by Los Angeles producer Ken Mansfield. Although RCA denied the request, Jennings and The Waylors went to Los Angeles and recorded with Mansfield at his expense. After a month, Jennings presented the master tape to Chet Atkins who decided to release it. The album hit number one on Billboard's country albums three times the same year, topping the charts for ten weeks. It was named country album of the year in 1976 by Record World Magazine and it was certified gold by the RIAA.
In 1976 Jennings released the album Wanted! The Outlaws, recorded with Willie Nelson, Tompall Glaser and Jessie Colter for RCA. The album was the first country music album certified platinum. The following year, RCA issued Ol' Waylon, an album that produced a hit duet with Nelson, "Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)." Jennings, who never liked the song, later commented: "It's not the type of song I'd do. But I learned a lesson from that, I turned around and told Richie (his drummer), I said, Next time when I record a song, you remind me I have to sing that sumbitch the rest of my life". The album Waylon and Willie followed in 1978, producing the hit single, "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys". Jennings released I've Always Been Crazy, also in 1978, and Greatest Hits the following year.
In the mid-1980s, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Nelson and Jennings formed a successful group called The Highwaymen. Aside from his work with The Highwaymen, Jennings' released a gold album WWII (1982) with Willie Nelson.
In 1985 Jennings joined with USA for Africa to record "We Are the World", but he left the studio due to a dispute over the song's lyrics that were sung in Swahili. By this time, his sales decreased. After the release of Sweet Mother Texas, Jennings signed with Music Corporation of America. The debut release with the label, Will the Wolf Survive (1985), peaked at number one in Billboard's Country albums in 1986. Jennings' initial success tailed off, and in 1990, he signed with Epic Records. His first release, The Eagle, became his final top ten album. In 1993, in collaboration with Rincom Children's Entertainment, Jennings recorded an album of children's songs, Cowboys, Sisters, Rascals & Dirt, which included "Shooter's Theme", a tribute to his 14-year-old with the theme of "a friend of mine".
Despite low record sales, Jennings attracted large audiences in live appearances. In 1997, after the Lollapalooza tour, he decreased his tour schedule and became centered on his family.
In 1998, Jennings teamed up with Bare, Jerry Reed and Mel Tillis to form The Old Dogs. The group recorded a double album of songs penned entirely by Shel Silverstein. In mid 1999, Jennings assembled what he referred to as his "hand-picked dream team" - and formed Waylon & The Waymore Blues Band. Consisting primarily of former Waylors, the thirteen-member group performed a limited number of concerts from 1999 to 2001. In January 2000, Jennings recorded what would become his final album at Nashville's historic Ryman Auditorium, Never Say Die: Live.
Movies and television
In 1966, Jennings starred in the movie Nashville Rebel, an independent production shot in Nashville. Jennings portrayed Alvin Grove, a local singer on his way to stardom. Jennings next appeared in the movies All American Cowboy, and The Oklahoma City Dolls. Outside the music industry, Jennings was known as the primary voice of the narrator/balladeer on the television series The Dukes of Hazzard and its predecessor, the 1975 film, Moonrunners. The theme song, "Good Ol' Boys", an original Jennings composition, became one of the most well-known television theme songs in American television history. In 1986 he appeared in the movie Stagecoach, portraying Hatfield, alongside Cash, Nelson and Kristofferson.
Jennings made an appearance on Married... with Children, and played a truck driver in the 1985 film, Sesame Street Presents Follow That Bird. Jennings sang "Ain't No Road Too Long" in the movie with Big Bird and the other Sesame Street characters. In 2000, he provided the voice of Judge Thatcher in the animated adaptation of Tom Sawyer. In an episode of The Angry Beavers entitled The Legend of Kid Friendly that aired in April 1999, Jennings provided the voice for the narrator/singer. In 2001, Jennings voiced a character in an episode of Family Guy for a Dukes of Hazzard parody (his last televised appearance). The episode was entitled "To Love and Die in Dixie". The episode originally aired that November. He also narrated a watch fight in an earlier episode, "Chitty Chitty Death Bang".
Jennings was married four times, and had six children. He was first married to Maxine Caroll Lawrence in 1956 at age 18, with whom he had four children Terry Vance Jennings (born January 21, 1957), Julie Rae Jennings (born August 12, 1958), Buddy Dean Jennings (born March 21, 1960), and Deana Jennings. Jennings married again on December 10, 1962 to Lynne Jones, adopting a child Tomi Lynne. They divorced in 1967. He next married Barbara Rood. He composed the song "This Time" about the trials and tribulations of his marriages and divorces. He married for the fourth and final time in Phoenix, Arizona, on October 26, 1969 to Jessi Colter. Colter and Jennings had one son, Waylon Albright "Shooter" Jennings (born May 19, 1979). Colter had one daughter, Jennifer, from her previous marriage. Jennings' grandson, William "Struggle" Harness, became a rap/hip hop artist, based out of Nashville.
In 1997, he stopped touring to be close to his family. To set an example about the importance of education to his son Waylon Albright, Jennings earned a GED.
Addiction and recovery:
Jennings started to consume amphetamines at the time he lived with Johnny Cash during the mid-1960s. Jennings later stated, "Pills were the artificial energy on which Nashville ran around the clock". In 1977, Jennings was arrested by federal agents for conspiracy and 'possession of cocaine with intent to distribute'. A private courier warned the Drug Enforcement Administration about the package sent to Jennings by a New York colleague that contained twenty-seven grams of cocaine. The DEA and the police went to Jennings' recording studio. They found no evidence, because while they were waiting for a search warrant, Jennings flushed the cocaine. The charges were later dropped and Jennings was released. The episode was recounted in Jennings' song "Don't You Think This Outlaw Bit's Done Got Outta Hand?"
During the early 1980s, his cocaine addiction intensified. Jennings claimed to have spent US$1500 daily to satisfy his addiction, draining his personal finances and leaving him bankrupt with debt of up to US$2.5 million. Though he insisted on repaying the debt and did additional tours to earn the funds, his work became less focused and his tours deteriorated. Jennings decided to quit his addictions, leased a home in the Phoenix, Arizona area and spent a month detoxing himself, intending to start using cocaine again in a more controlled fashion afterward. In 1984 he quit cocaine. By Jennings' own admission in interviews, his son, Shooter Jennings, was the main inspiration to quit permanently.
Illness and death:
Jennings' health had been bad for years prior to his death. Jennings quit cocaine, and his habit of smoking six packs of cigarettes daily. In 1988 he underwent heart bypass surgery. By 2000 his diabetes worsened, and the pain reduced his mobility, forcing Jennings to end most touring. Later the same year he went under surgery to improve his leg circulation. In December 2001 his left foot was amputated at a hospital in Phoenix, Arizona. On February 13, 2002, Jennings died in his sleep of diabetic complications in Chandler, Arizona. Jennings was buried in the Mesa City Cemetery, in Mesa, Arizona. At the funeral ceremony, on February 15, Colter sang "Storms Never Last" for the attendees, who included Jennings' close friends and fellow musicians.
Between 1966 and 1995, 54 Jennings' albums charted, with 11 reaching number one. Meanwhile between 1965 and 1991, 96 singles charted, with 16 number ones. In October 2001, Jennings was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. In one final act of defiance, he did not attend the ceremony and opted instead to send son Buddy Dean Jennings. On July 6, 2006, Jennings was inducted to Hollywood's Rock Wall in Hollywood, California. On June 20, 2007, Jennings was posthumously awarded the Cliffie Stone Pioneer Award by the Academy of Country Music.
In 2006, Jennings received a tribute from actors John Schneider, Tom Wopat, and Catherine Bach (Bo, Luke, and Daisy Duke). Schneider, Wopat, and Bach reworked and rerecorded the Theme from "The Dukes of Hazzard" (Good Ol' Boys). They made a video for the song, which appeared on the season seven Dukes of Hazzard DVD set. The song ends with Daisy (Catherine Bach) saying, "We love you, Waylon".