Waylon: Friends Recall the Man and the Myth

The thing about creating a myth is that you’ve got to live with it. Waylon Jennings did a better job than most. When RCA’s promotional machine branded him an outlaw and critics took up the cry, he obligingly assumed the role. He brought cockiness and swagger to a music long characterized by its “yes ma’am” civility and politeness. It paid off in a string of No. 1 hits, best-selling albums, packed concert halls and, ultimately, his induction last year into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

In his final years — whether because of his debilitating illness or radio’s neglect of his music — Jennings seemed increasingly bitter and critical of the contemporary country music scene. But from start to finish there was never any doubt that his music and his insistence on doing it his own way earned the respect of his peers and the country performers who followed him.

“I’ve been in the business several years,” says songwriter Roger Murrah, who co-wrote Jenning’s 1987 autobiographical album, A Man Called Hoss, “and I’ve met some of the artists, some of the stars. After you get to know them, you find that they’re pretty much like the rest of us. But Waylon was different in that he remained bigger than life, even after getting to know him. He had a great heart. He was kind of crusty and rough, but he had a real gentle nature about him. Kind of like the gentle giant. He loved children. I know of several benevolent things he did for people that nobody ever really knew that much about. He was constantly helping people any way he could.”

Jennings had an eye for talent. “He just kind of took me in,” Murrah recalls. “Unbeknownst to me, he’d been listening to some of my songs through the months and recent years before we started working together. A few of them he ended up recording. [Then] he gave me the opportunity to write the album with him about his life. When he called me the first time, I was just really surprised and thrilled. I met with him, and he told me what he had in mind. That was right before Christmas. He said he’d give me a call after the first of the year and we’d get together and talk about the album. Of course, I was a little skeptical. I didn’t really know him that well. I thought, well, I may never hear from him again, but it’s been great to get to meet him. But true to his word — as he always was — after the holidays we got together. Working with him was just a fascinating experience.”

“My heart is broken,” says Travis Tritt. “’With the passing of Waylon Jennings, I have lost a great friend, a tremendous influence, a mentor and a teacher. He represented everything that I admire and respect in an artist and in a person. Doing things his own way, speaking his mind regardless of the consequences and reaching out and touching the true inner feelings of his audience are all things that Waylon stood for throughout his career.”

Adds Mark Chesnutt, “From the time I was a little boy, I sang all Waylon’s songs, even dressed like him. I guess I always wanted to be like him. The best thing was getting to be friends with him. I’d always call Waylon when I was ticked at someone at the [record] label or my management, and he’d listen, then say, ‘Aw, the hell with ‘em. You just go and tell ‘em to kiss your butt.’ Then I’d say, ‘Aw, Waylon, I can’t do that. You’re the only one who can get away with that.’ … I was fortunate enough a few years back to record ‘Rainy Day Woman’ with Waylon for one of my records. That’s a day I’ll never forget. At the time, my wife was pregnant with our first son. When we were done in the studio that day, as he was leaving and I was gushing with gratitude, he looked at my wife and said jokingly, ‘The only thing I want out of this deal is for you to name that baby after me.’ Waylon was so tickled when we called to tell him that our son was named after him.”

One of the new generation of country artists Jennings took under his wing was RCA’s Andy Griggs. “Waylon’s friendship to me was as big as his music,” Griggs says. “With a broken heart I smile, because I can see him crossing over, softly singing, ‘Storms Never Last.’ I’m gonna miss you, hoss.”

“Waylon was certainly one of my influences,” says Tracy Lawrence. “I listened to his music as a teenager and later performed a lot of his songs in the clubs where I was starting out. … While I never got to do a show with Waylon, I did make an appearance on Burt Reynolds’ television show a few years ago alongside Waylon, Jerry Reed and Joe Diffie. We sat around and jammed, and that was something I’ll never forget. He was truly a gracious human being and a passionate advocate for traditional country music.”

Reed, Jennings, Mel Tillis and Bobby Bare (who brought Jennings to RCA) teamed up in 1998 to record the largely whimsical album, Old Dogs.

Wanted: The Outlaws, the 1976 compilation album that rocketed Jennings to superstardom, also featured songs by Willie Nelson, Jennings’ wife, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser. Glaser says he has mixed feeling about Jennings. “We agreed on a lot of things; we disagreed on a lot of things. It really didn’t matter what we thought of each other because what we agreed on we agreed on so strongly that we just went ahead and did it. … I know he lived hard, loved fast and died young. … It’s not something anybody should be shocked about, I think. We were very close at one time, but the last few years we weren’t. We fought the [country music recording] system. We just decided we weren’t going to have any part of it, and we didn’t.”

Another rebel and contemporary, Merle Haggard, has fond memories of Jennings. “Waylon and I were real close,” he says. “We were close in age, and we both made our start out West. Sometimes I was mistaken for Waylon, and sometimes he was mistaken for me — throughout our careers. We go back a long way. We’re all going to miss him. He’s one of a kind.”

A publicist who once worked with Jennings recalls his common touch. “We were in New York, and he took us to breakfast at the Plaza. He was in his black performance clothes with this short-waisted jacket. At one point, he excused himself and got up from the table. As he was walking away, an Oriental couple approached him and -— obviously mistaking him for a hotel employee — asked for directions to the restroom. Instead of pulling a star trip, he smiled and said, ‘Come on. I’m going that way myself.’”

Waylon Jennings Tribute

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.