"Ladies love outlaws," Waylon Jennings once sang, and well knew. Yes they do, and so do plenty of fellers, who may love the late Littlefield-born musician -- who was a losing coin flip away from being on Buddy Holly's doomed plane in February 1959 -- even more.
Jennings would have been 76 this past Saturday, but instead passed away in February 2002. He was gruff but sensitive, a ladies' man and family man who lived as hard as he played and let absolutely no one (except maybe wife Jessi, once he settled down) tell him what to do. He certainly had no problem whatsoever telling his bosses at various labels exactly what they could do with their ideas about his music. Waylon went through a lot of record labels there for a while.
No wonder everybody in the music business idolizes him these days. Waylon's name still gets invoked in Nashville all the time, some by artists who generally know they're talking about (Dierks Bentley, Travis Tritt), and still others who cause real country fans to borrow a phrase from one of the man's own songs and cry out, "Are You Sure Waylon Done It This Way?" (Blake Shelton, cough.)
Luckily, Jennings' legacy is in much more secure hands. His DNA is embedded into Sirius/XM's Outlaw Country channel, where his son Shooter hosts a two-hour show on the weekends (including the "Waylon Fuckin' Rocks Block"), and he shows up on the playlist at least once an hour. Usually he's preceded by one of his buddies (Billy Joe Shaver, Willie Nelson) and/or followed by one of the many latter-day outlaws keeping his torch lit (Hank Williams III, Charlie Robison, Steve Earle).
In Houston, Rocks Off's buddy William Michael Smith - himself sometimes known as Lonesome Onry and Mean - and Born Again Virgins bassist Bryan Wayne will take to the turntables and wish Waylon a happy belated birthday around 10 p.m. tonight at Poison Girl (1641 Westheimer). If for some obscure reason you need a refresher course, we spent a blissful few hours arriving at five of his must-hear albums. But we don't really need much of a reason to listen to Waylon, ever.
5. Soundtrack, Ned Kelly (1970) Taking respite from one of the most tumultuous periods in the Rolling Stones' history, Mick Jagger got his acting career off to a less than auspicious start with a role as Kelly, the notorious 19th-century "bushranger" (armed robber, in other words) who is also one of Down Under's biggest folk heroes.
In already the seventh time Kelly's tale had been filmed (the late Heath Ledger followed in 2003), Jagger's role was almost universally panned. The soundtrack fared considerably better, as a set of Irish-tinged folk ballads written for the film by Jennings and poet/irascible "A Boy Named Sue" songwriter Shel Silverstein. Kris Kristofferson shows up on a handful of tracks, too.
The Taker/Tulsa (1971) The clouds of Waylon's later triumphs were already gathering here, though they wouldn't burst for a few more albums. Brooding, dramatic songs like opener green-eyed "The Taker" and "(Don't Let the Sun Set On You) Tulsa" spotlighted a man willing to go to dangerous lengths for love, while Kristofferson's "Lovin' Her Was Easier (Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again)" and "Sunday Morning Coming Down" allowed him to reveal a softer, albeit just as scruffy, side.
3. Honky Tonk Heroes (1973) Jennings had already sung the song "Ladies Love Oulaws," but his first album on RCA - a label that after some resistance allowed him to record as he wished - codified the whole bubbling-under outlaw-country philosophy in these 12 songs by a then-unknown songwriter from Waco named Billy Joe Shaver.
Offering the question-and-answer couplet "Where does it go?/ The Good Lord only knows" at the outset, Jennings dutifully follows Shaver's honky-tonk highway wherever it leads: through love, Mexico, sorrow, redemption and many of the finest country-western songs of the '70s (and probably ever since).
2. Dreaming My Dreams (1975) Even more than his more reflective Red Headed Stranger buddy Willie Nelson, Jennings was the undisputed ruler of the outlaw-country roost by Dreaming My Dreams, which deservedly gave him his first No. 1 album. Every song pulsates with the flared nostrils of a man who wrestled with the biggest, baddest bull in the music-biz barn and came out on top. And there are a lot of songs: "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?", "Waymore's Blues," "The Door Is Always Open," Roger Miller's "I've Been a Long Time Leavin' (And I'll Be a Long Time Gone)," all crowned by Waylon's own masterpiece "Bob Wills Is Still the King."
1. Goin' Down Rockin' (2012) Jennings was already pretty sick by the time he headed into longtime pedal steel player Robby Turner's studio with just his guitar and cut these songs, watching his last mortal grains of sand slip through life's hourglass but refusing to give in to despair. His legacy is on Jennings' mind from the very first song, where he sings "If I can't go down rockin'/ I ain't gonna go down at all." With Turner's posthumously overdubbed arrangements guiding him home, rest assured he does.
AND FIVE MORE WORTH CHECKING OUT
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- Lonesome Onry and Mean (1973)
- This Time (1974)
- Wanted: The Outlaws (1976; with Jessi Colter, Willie Nelson and Tompall Glaser)
- The Highwaymen, The Highwaymen (1985; with Johnny Cash, Nelson and Kris Kristofferson)
- Right For the Time (1996)