Given his history, it's not surprising that Waylon Jennings has been a little confusing on the whole outlaw/rebel thing. This is, after all, the man who used to room with a pill-popping Johnny Cash, and popped his share of pills at the same time. (Though he and Cash, he insists, never gave each other drugs. They may have been on parallel roads to perdition, but they never provided fuel to anyone but themselves.) And this is also the man who, according to Nashville legend, walked into a studio when he'd been told by his label that his road band wasn't good enough to back him in a recording session and pulled out a gun. "Yeah, that's a true story," Jennings admits. "[I] said I would shoot the fingers off of anyone that played a pickup note -- and if anyone was still looking at the sheet music by the third time through, I'd kill them. That got their attention. After that, they let me use my own band."
While buddy Cash might have been seen as a stern preacher, and buddy Willie Nelson came off as a mild-mannered hippie with a wry side, Jennings always seemed a little dangerous. Part of that had to do with his appearance. He is not a small man, and his West Texas background has long shown in the lines of his face; suffice to say it is not a visage that would make someone feel relieved if it came out of the shadows in a dark alley. But part of that also had to do with his music. Even before 1976's Wanted: The Outlaws -- the first platinum release ever recorded in Nashville -- codified his image as a rough, tough fighter of the country music machine, Jennings' gruff voice and blunt lyrics had made him a symbol of resistance to all those for whom the word "countrypolitan" was an epithet.
So it's understandable that when Jennings' name is raised among some music fans, the suggestion is of a rebel who's constantly seeking change. A listen to his songs, though, shows something else: a rebel who refuses to change. That has never been more evident than on his latest release, Right for the Time, his first CD done for Houston's Justice Records. Take off the cover of Paul Simon's "The Boxer" (a moment of true weirdness) and perhaps the overly cute "Living Legends Part II" (in which he reels off comments on the current country music scene), and this could be an album from 20 or 30 years back. Imagine that: country's best known outlaw stripping himself bare to reveal a traditionalist. But then again, in an industry where "revolutions" and "new sounds" are a dime a dozen, perhaps the most rebellious thing anyone can do is discover what they're good at and stick to it, no matter what anyone else says. And that's exactly what Waylon Jennings has tried to do.
The cotton fields of Littlefield, Texas, are hundreds of miles from Waylon Jennings' Nashville office, but they are never far from his thoughts.
"It's been raining up here for three days with no end in sight," Jennings reports. "Sure wish I could send it to the folks back home that really need it, out in West Texas."
Jennings was raised in a family that valued both hard physical work and country music, and after having experienced both, Jennings opted for a career based on the lessons he learned from his parents in the latter.
"My mom was the one who first taught me guitar," he remembers. "She only knew about three chords that my dad had taught her, and she showed me. [My dad] played a lot of Jimmie Rodgers and Ernest Tubb songs when he could, but I don't remember him ever sitting down and teaching me any guitar. He was a hard worker, a laborer -- farming, driving trucks, working in a creamery. But sometimes he'd get home from work when I was still up and he'd play for a while -- sing 'Maple on the Hill' and things like that."
From the moment he first picked up a guitar to Right for the Time, Jennings' life has been remarkably eventful, even for a musician. At age 12, he was already performing over radio station KDOV, and he was still a teenager, with several years of playing both country and rockabilly around West Texas behind him, when he met Buddy Holly at a talent show in 1955. Though it's often been reported that Jennings was a member of the Crickets, the band he actually played bass for was Holly's post-Crickets big band that accompanied Holly on his final tour with Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. But before Jennings gave up his seat on the plane to the Big Bopper on "the day the music died," Holly had produced Jennings' first solo recording -- a cover of the oft-recorded "Jole Blon," which served as the national Acadian anthem through much of the 1950s.
Though his time with Holly might have suggested he'd follow the path of rock and roll, Jennings instead kept to his country roots, though not without difficulty. In the early '60s he moved to Phoenix, where he was discovered by Herb Alpert, who wanted to make him a folk singer. But Bobby Bare brought him to Nashville, where Chet Atkins signed him to RCA and started him along the path of standard country stardom. By the early '70s, though, he'd hooked up with producer/singer Tompall Glaser and started on his outlaw ways.
Being an outlaw was about more than drug binges and crash pads. The real issue, the idea that blew Nashville's mind, was creative and artistic control. Nashville regarded the way they did things as techniques carved in stone, and the ideas of the outlaws as heresy. Creative control was not something they gave up willingly. That's one reason why, on that fabled occasion when he was told his band couldn't cut it in the studio, Jennings opted to test Mao Zadong's assertion that power comes out of the barrel of a gun.
That West Texas approach to problem solving grabbed both the attention of Nashville and of John Lennon. "Lennon really liked that when he heard about it." Jennings says. "He wrote me this really nice letter I've still got at home that was just all over the place. Part of it was hand-written, part of it was typed. I got to meet him a couple of times after that. I was amazed at how much fun he was to be around."
What he didn't understand about Lennon was his relationship with Yoko Ono. "I never understood what he saw in her," Jennings admits. Of course, there's no more fertile field of country-song inspirations than love's curve balls. Any honky-tonk worthy of the name can supply a half-dozen relationships that make Lennon and Ono appear downright normal and stable. Even a happy, long-term involvement such as Jennings' marriage to Jessi Colter can provide enough grits of sand to produce a few pearls. The couple's first duet, 1971's "Suspicious Minds," remains both a beautiful song and a powerful commentary on dealing with jealousy. If it was a personal tale, it was obviously one they worked through.
"We have a wonderful marriage. I really don't like to go out without her," Jennings says.
The new Right for the Time features a Jennings/Colter duet that equals "Suspicious Minds." "Deep in the West," penned by Houston's Shake Russell, features the haunting, simple chorus, "Together we're one / Divided we're through," which radiates an overwhelming love. "When Jessi comes in on that song, it's just like when she comes in the bedroom in the morning and opens the curtains," says Jennings.
Sometimes, though, a country songwriter -- especially a happily married one -- has to look elsewhere for heartache. Two cuts on Right for the Time, "Kissing You Goodbye" and "Out of Jail," showcase Jennings' abilities to make a song out of an overheard remark. "Get your tongue out of my mouth / I'm kissing you goodbye" is a nifty hook Jennings borrowed from a friend's soon-to-be ex-wife, but the song's clincher is the "I-know-all-about-that-woman" sucker punch "If you ever tried to tell the truth / You'd choke yourself to death."
Even better is the chorus of "Out of Jail," which "Rainy Day in Georgia" composer Tony Joe White took from a golf partner and handed over to Jennings. "This guy had been complaining about his wife all through the game," Jennings recalls. "As they got ready to tee off on the last hole, the guy told Tony 'If I'd killed her when I met her, I'd be out of jail by now.' "
With that as its anchor, "Out of Jail" is as riotous as it is politically incorrect, and it was the freedom to record songs such as "Out of Jail" that convinced Jennings to sign with Justice after years of major-label hits and hassles. "I've always insisted on creative and artistic freedom," says Jennings. "That was something that [Justice owner] Randall [Jamail] didn't like giving me, but he gave it to me."
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The result of that surrender is a CD that is fresh, yet vintage, outlaw country. Right for the Time is not much of a departure from what Jennings has been doing since the Nixon era -- which is not a complaint. Gritty, original, honest country rings as true today as it did when Jennings forced Nashville to listen to reason at gunpoint.
After all these years, has Music City finally come around to accepting Jennings as one of its own?
"Hell, no. It pisses them off when I take my first breath every morning," says Jennings. "But I ain't ever gonna let up on 'em."
Waylon Jennings performs at 8 and 11 p.m. Friday, June 21, at Rockefeller's, 3620 Washington Avenue. Tickets are $30, $50 and $60. For info, call 869-8427.