Same Old Waylon

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.

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Jim Sherman