Jennings, who died Wednesday at 64 after a battle with diabetes, got his start at 14, spinning other people's records for a local radio station in his hometown of Littlefield, Texas. By 21 he was playing bass for Buddy Holly. He dodged rock n' roll tragedy a year later, skipping the flight that killed Holly when it went down in an Iowa cornfield. That day, he gave up his seat to the Big Bopper and joked to Holly, "I hope your ol' plane crashes." He learned from Holly what would be the mark of his career. "Attitude," Jennings would say later. "He loved music, and he taught me it shouldn't have any barriers to it."
Barriers like the Nashville system he found himself working for a decade later interchangeable studio bands, string sections, and sparkly suits. In the '70s, while Coppola shook up Hollywood and Joey Ramone tore down rock n' roll, Jennings, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash were revolutionizing Nashville. These "hippies of country," as Jennings described them once, "just couldn't do it the way it was set up." Jennings played by feel, kept it simple and made a point and a persona of doing things just the way he wanted.
The titles of Jennings' early albums said it all: 1973's "Lonesome, On'ry and Mean" and "Honky-Tonk Heroes," and 1976's "Wanted: The Outlaws," a collaboration with Nelson. Jennings began producing his own stuff once threatening to "shoot the fingers off" any musician who read sheet music and before long was using his own road band in the studio.
The hard edges he and Nelson put back on country music reinvigorated the genre, and Jennings quickly became a country superstar. His 1972 duet with Nelson, "Good-Hearted Woman," was a No. 1 country single and a crossover pop hit, as was his own "Ramblin' Man" in 1974; in 1975, the Country Music Association named him its Male Vocalist of the year. "Wanted: The Outlaws" was the first million-selling album recorded in Nashville, and in 1978 Jennings and Nelson won a Grammy for their duet "Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys." In 1979 his "Greatest Hits" album sold 4 million copies. (And who could forget Jennings' theme song and narration for "The Dukes of Hazzard"?)
Jennings was not won over by the acclaim. He skipped awards shows on the grounds that musicians should not be in competition and did not attend his induction to the Country Music Hall of Fame last year. He kept on making music, however, recording and touring with Nelson, Cash and Kris Kristofferson as the Highwaymen in the mid-80's, putting out more albums with ornery titles 1992's "Too Dumb for New York, Too Ugly for L.A.," for one and even playing a few dates on the 1996 Lollapalooza tour headlined by Metallica.
Current country stars such as Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt, Charlie Daniels, Steve Earle, even the already-long-on-legacy Hank Williams Jr., have all ridden the down-and-dirty-fication of country that Jennings, Nelson and Cash began, and all of them knew the value of a down-and-dirty persona to go with it. Waylon Jennings first and foremost.
"It was a good marketing tool," Jennings told the Associated Press in 1992. "In a way, I am that way. You start messing with my music, I get mean. As long as you are up front and honest with me, I will be the same with you. But I still do things my way."
Official Site of Waylon Jennings
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Jennings biography, discography, awards and audio clips compiled by CMT.com, America's No. 1 Country Music Channel
A "Best of" list of Jennings songs to download (Real Player or Windows Media required)
A comprehensive library of the lyrics to the Waylon Jennings collection "Only Daddy That'll Walk The Line: The RCA Years, 1965-85" and lesser known tracks