Had Waylon Jennings lived forever -- as a just universe would have allowed -- he would haved whooped it up Saturday (June 15) on his 82nd birthday. But, alas, he left this mortal stage in 2002, when he was only 64.
Jennings was looming as a major presence in country music even before the release of the album Wanted: The Outlaws in 1976 boosted him to legendary status. By that time, he had already scored four No. 1 singles, beginning with “This Time” in 1974. But it had taken him nine years to reach that milestone.
Jennings first charted in 1965 with “That’s the Chance I’ll Have to Take,” which peaked at a disappointing No.49. He didn’t make it into the Top 5 until 1968 when “Walk On Out of My Mind” took him there.
Looking over Jennings’ 26 years of chart action (he last made the Billboard rankings in 1991 with “If I Can Find a Clean Shirt,” a duet with Willie Nelson), one thing that pops out is his penchant for saluting other singers while contextualizing himself among them.
So, as we lift a glass to “Ol’ Waylon,” let’s tune in to some of his lyrical celebrations of himself and others.
“Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way”
No. 1, 1975; written by Jennings
Here he tips his hat to Hank Williams while patting himself on the back for doing it his own way.
“Bob Wills Is Still the King”
A backhand slap at Nashville and a ringing declaration that, in Texas, the King of Western Swing is also King of It All.
“Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)”
No. 1, 1977; Writers: Bobby Emmons, Chips Moman
In this pair-up with Willie Nelson, Jennings taps into the then current craze for all things Texas--a craze largely generated by Nelson himself. The refrain is, “Let’s go to Luckenbach, Texas with Willie and Waylon and the boys.”
“Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand”
No.5, 1978; Writer: Jennings
The “outlaws” alluded to here, of course, are the ones spotlighted on the famous album -- Jennings, Nelson, Tompall Glaser and Jennings’ wife, Jessi Colter. But the particular outlaw Jennings chronicles in this song is himself. It recalls his being busted for drug possession while he’s “in the middle of a song.”
In this one, a cut from the 1980 album, Music Man, Jennings name checks J. J. Cale (who wrote Jennings’ 1980 No. 2, “Clyde”), the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, George Jones and Jessi Colter. It contains the oft-quoted encomium, “If we all sounded like we wanted to/we’d all sound like George Jones.”
“Leave Them Boys Alone”
No. 6, 1983; Dean Dillon, Gary Stewart, Tanya Tucker, Hank Williams Jr.
It gets a little incestuous here, but try to follow me. Sung by Jennings, Hank Jr. and Ernest Tubb, this ditty defends the music of Hank Jr. and Jennings as being in the spirit of Hank Sr. and, thus, canonically immune to criticism.
No. 15, 1983; Jennings, Richie Albright, Hank Williams Jr.
A lyrical chat between Jennings and Williams about the hard life and hard loving of Hank Sr.
“If Ole Hank Could Only See Us Now (Chapter 5 . . . Nashville)”
No. 16, 1988; Jennings, Shooter Jennings, Roger Murrah
Are you getting the picture yet? For Jennings, Hank Williams Sr. was the fixed point of the country music universe -- and, according to these lyrics, he would despair at the glitz that now passes as country music.
No doubt the old outlaw would be happy to know that he’s become the Hank figure to this generation of artists.