For a young, aspiring journalist, encountering Waylon Jennings for the first time was a fairly intimidating experience. In 1972, I reviewed Jennings’ new album Ladies Love Outlaws for Rolling Stone, and I did not review it favorably. I wrote that it sounded incomplete and hurried, as though it had been finished by someone other than Jennings.
At the time I was in graduate school at the University of Texas in Austin and was stringing for the young rock magazines Rolling Stone and Creem, and we all thought we were very hot stuff indeed. The magazines had been paying no attention whatsoever to country artists, but I had started doing some country coverage for them, arguing that the audiences were beginning to overlap with artists like Jennings and Willie Nelson.
Then, I got a call out of the blue from RCA Records in New York. Someone very important in public relations at RCA said that Mr. Waylon Jennings would like to speak to me about something I had written and would I be available to receive a phone call that afternoon.
I was terrified. Here, I had gone and offended one of the leading lights of the new country music that I was championing. And from all accounts he was one very tough leading light at that. I waited for that phone call and sweated. And fretted.
Phone rings. “Flippo?” Yes sir.” “This is Waylon Jennings. I just wanted to tell you that I read what you wrote -– and, hoss, you were right! RCA took that record away from me and put it out before I was ready.”
Whew. He went on to say that he respected anyone who tried to tell the truth and invited me to come and ride the bus with him and the Waylors anytime I wanted to.
A month later I caught up with them and boarded a beat-up old black Flxible touring bus at a bus stop in Lubbock and didn’t realize I was walking into a friendship that would last for the next 30 years.
In those days, the whole entourage –- star and all -– traveled and slept on one bus. And what an entourage he had. His driver, Harley Pinkerton, looked and dressed and acted like Porter Wagoner. His road manager Johnna Yurcic carried a .38 in his battered old silver Halliburton briefcase and occasionally had to use it to collect money at some of the seedier honky-tonk gigs. His great steel player Ralph Mooney had written “Crazy Arms” and had worked for Buck Owens and Wynn Stewart. Mooney told me at great length how difficult it was to clean vomit out of a steel guitar. Jennings’ drummer Richie Albright was a fresh-faced all-American hell-raiser. His guitar player Billy Ray Reynolds was a rawboned, tough young outlaw with a heart as big as his talents.
Waylon was whip-thin in those days and wore black leather with turquoise and silver dripping off him, a black cowboy hat and dark sunglasses day and night. He chain-smoked, told bad jokes and called everybody “hoss.” He put me at ease right away. I liked him immediately
The tour took us next to El Paso, to a rough-and-tumble roadhouse dance hall. “It’s a ‘let’s-whup-em’ joint,” Waylon said. He translated: it was a lowdown honky tonk full of tough guys who sneered at the country artists and invariably would say “let’s whup ‘em.”
That was pretty close to the scenario. Several of the badasses tried to taunt the “pretty boys” in the band, especially because the women flocked to the stage. Fights broke out throughout the night. Johnna had to show his .38 to the club owner who first tried to violate the unwritten club rule of always paying in cash. He offered to write a check instead. That’s when Mr. Smith & Wesson made his convincing appearance.
We ate bad truck stop food, bad motel café food or bologna and Wonder Bread sandwiches, smoked marijuana and watched Clint Eastwood movies. What a life.
We went on to a Navajo reservation in New Mexico, a regular stop for him. Waylon was a hero to the Indians and they never tired of hearing his “Love of the Common People.” I could see in his gentle manner with them, and the respect they paid him, the essence of the man.
Then it was on to a string of “let’s-whup-em” joints throughout Arizona and Colorado. I actually was reluctant to go home.
I would go on to tour with Waylon several more times, go with him and wife Jessi Colter and flamboyant Nashville sheriff Fate Thomas to the Kentucky Derby. My wife and I stayed with Waylon and Jessi at their home in Brentwood and we remained friends. All because of a negative record review.