In a memorial service that was by turns raucous, rocking and reverent, Waylon Jennings was warmly remembered by friends, fans and family at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium on Saturday (March 23).
Artists ranging from Charley Pride to Kris Kristofferson to Jennings’ own son Shooter paid tribute to the late Country Music Hall of Fame member in song and story. The 64-year-old country star died on Feb. 13 in his sleep at his home in Phoenix where he and wife Jessi Colter had moved after selling their Nashville home.
The service was open to the public — the Ryman’s main floor was reserved for family and friends; the 1,000-seat balcony was open to the general public, on a first come, first serve basis. Fans started arriving long before the 7:30 p.m. start time, and by the time the doors opened at 7 p.m., a double line of waiting people snaked from the Ryman’s doors down Fourth Avenue to Broadway. Fans spent the time swapping stories about Jennings and waving to the celebrities arriving in tour buses and limousines. “There’s Emmylou !” “I saw Rodney Crowell !” “I said hi to Hank Jr. in the alley!”
Nashville disc jockey Carl P. Mayfield, who in recent years gave Jennings a public forum with the call-in show “Waylon Wednesdays” on station WKDF-FM (103.3), served as master of ceremonies. The service — dubbed “I’ve Always Been Crazy: A Celebration of the Life and Legacy of Waylon Jennings” — began with Jennings’ son Shooter taking the stage — which was adorned with a large backdrop of Jennings’ signature flying “W” logo, a large picture of him and two tall vases of red roses flanking his familiar Telecaster guitar with the hand-tooled leather cover, a black cowboy hit perched atop its neck.
Shooter Jennings welcomed the crowd and explained that although Johnny Cash had been scheduled for the service (and was listed in the program as the first musical performer), his doctors had advised against him traveling from his winter home in Jamaica. “I talked to him and Johnny said to enjoy yourselves and honor Waylon,” said Shooter.
With that, Travis Tritt took the stage. Remarking that “Waylon had one foot firmly in country and one in rock ‘n’ roll, and I’ve tried to pattern myself after him,” Tritt launched into a rocking version of Jennings’ 1973 song “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean.” Backed by the 10-piece Waymore’s Blues Band — Jennings’ last musical ensemble –which includes noted sax player Jim Horn and guitarist Reggie Young, Tritt at times sounded eerily like Jennings.
He was followed by the young group Cross Canadian Ragweed, who performed an energetic version of “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line.” That was followed by lengthy video clips of different periods in Jennings’ life and career, anchored by a recurring scenario of actor Robert Duvall portraying a shrink, interviewing Jennings as his patient. The biggest laugh of the night came during the airing of a clip of Jennings on the TV show Politically Incorrect, in which he said, “We don’t want to impeach Clinton. We just want somebody to kick his ass.”
Pride came onstage to sing “Good Hearted Woman” and to recall that Jennings had offered him that song before he himself recorded it. He also flashed a ring that Jennings gave him years ago, which he still wears.
Pride was followed by Hank Williams Jr. who said that Jennings had been a father figure to him and took him on the road with him as opening act when Hank Jr. was still a teenager. “When I was 16,” he said, “Waylon let ol’ Bocephus go out there. He could have had the pick of anybody he wanted.” Williams sang his emotional composition “Eyes of Waylon” and was interrupted by an audience ovation for the line “the first triple platinum in this town is hanging on his wall” — a reference to Jennings’ 1979 Greatest Hits album, which became Nashville’s first 3 million-selling album and has since been certified quadruple platinum.
Kristofferson prefaced his version of Jennings’ composition “I Do Believe” by saying, “If I ever thought I would be singing to honor Waylon in the Ryman Auditorium, it might have helped me through some hard spots.” After Nashville songwriter Tom Douglas sang “Nothing Catches Jesus by Surprise,” another series of videos was shown, featuring the video of Jennings’ “Wild Ones” and a Kid Rock video in which he sang Jennings’ theme song from the TV show Dukes of Hazzard and paid homage to Jennings.
Among those sending letters and e-mails of condolence that were read to the crowd were Graham Nash, Kenny Rogers , Paul Simon, Billy Bob Thornton, Neil Diamond, James Garner, and Metallica lead singer James Hetfield, whose lengthy message was very heartfelt.
The latter got a great cheer from the balcony crowd, which was made up of staunch and very vocal Jennings fans. There was more black leather showing in the balcony than on the stage and the ground floor combined, and there were black cowboy hats up there galore. One fan T-shirt read “Waylon F—–g Jennings,” as he used to introduce himself in shows long ago.
Live music resumed with David Lee Murphy singing Jennings’ 1978 hit “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand.” Texas singers Pat Green and Cory Morrow performed Jennings’ 1975 hit song “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” with Green introducing it by remarking, “This is one of those songs I wish I’d written.” Then, the Waymore’s Blues Band did a rousing version of “Never Say Die.”
Mayfield prefaced Shooter Jennings’ performance with his L.A. band Stargunn by saying, “Jessi said that Waylon wanted Shooter to sing ‘I’ve Always Been Crazy’ at his funeral.” And Shooter and his metal band fused very well with his father’s Waymore’s Blues Band on the song, with Shooter’s fiery vocals and his band’s churning metal guitars alternating with lively fiddle and piano and trumpet solos from the Waymore band. “This may be the changing of the guard,” said Mayfield after the song.
Folksy minister and author Will D. Campbell delivered what he called “the geriatric part of the program” and called Jennings “a renegade, an outlaw, a man of faith and a man of music … he was ministering all these years and his ministries go on. We bid him Godspeed with the words of another bard, ‘Good night sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.’ Amen.”
Billy Ray Cyrus then walked onstage with an acoustic guitar to begin “Amazing Grace,” on which he was joined first by Tritt and then by Kristofferson. The song concluded by Cyrus urging the audience to stand and sing along, which became a very rousing version of the overly familiar anthem.
The service ended with the first public hearing of the last song Jennings recorded which was played over a darkened stage. “The Dream” is a lovely piano-based ballad comparing life with a dream, which Jennings concludes by singing “I’ve had it both ways and the dream could never compare.”
Shooter Jennings returned to bid all a goodnight and to say, “Thank you for coming. We hope you enjoyed yourselves. We sure as hell did.”