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Waylon Jennings Q&A
Waylon Jennings Interview
By Holly George-Warren
Jan 2004

On Sept. 19-20 of 2003, many of the biggest names in Texas and Oklahoma music came together at New Braunfels’ Saengerhalle for “The Red River Tribute to Waylon Jennings.” On June 27, the salute to Ol’ Waylon continues with a party celebrating the release of a rockin’ two-disc live album (official street date June 29) that collects some of the Red River Tribute’s finest performances, including songs by Waymore’s wife Jessi Colter and son Shooter Jennings as well as Jennings classics interpreted by Cross Canadian Ragweed, Billy Joe Shaver, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Jerry Jeff Walker, Jason Boland, Cooder Graw and many more.

In honor of Waylon and all the artists who helped make “The Red River Tribute” so memorable, we are proud to feature the following intimate profile of the legendary outlaw, originally published in Texas Music Magazine Issue No. 13 (Winter 2002/2003) a year after Waylon’s passing. Our thanks go out to writer Holly George-Warren and Stewart Ramser, publisher of Texas Music, for allowing us to rerun the article here on LoneStarMusic.com.

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Ladies Love Outlaws
Remembering Waylon Jennings 

By Holly George-Warren
Much thanks to Richard Skanse

It’s no wonder Waylon Jennings got the nickname “Waymore.” One of the most charismatic artists I’ve ever met, he was an over-the-top guy who never did anything half-assed. This personality trait got him his first gig as a deejay at age 12 in his hometown of Littlefield; it earned him the mentorship of Buddy Holly, who produced Waylon’s first recording, “Jole Blonde” in 1958 – and won him a gig as Holly’s bassist, even though he’d never played the instrument before. When Jennings came to Nashville in 1965, he looked more like a rock ’n’ roll star than a hillbilly artist (just ask groupie Pamela Des Barres!), and he got cast in an early C&W-exploitation movie, The Rebel — another appropriate nickname. Jennings refused to buckle under to Nashville’s strict way of doing business in the studio. He stood up to heavies like RCA head Chet Atkins and won, becoming the first country artist to use his own band in the studio and control the proceedings. His reward was the 1976 RCA release, Wanted: The Outlaws, which prominently featured Jennings, along with fellow renegades, wife Jessi Colter, Tompall Glaser, and runnin’ and duettin’ buddy Willie Nelson. It became the first country album to go Platinum, and kicked off the Outlaw movement, widely responsible for expanding country music’s appeal to longhaired rock fans in the 1970s.

In fact, it was for a feature in Rolling Stone that I scored the following interview, which — typically — ended up on the magazine’s cutting-room floor. In September 1994 I hooked up with Waylon at his homey Music Row headquarters in Nashville. Looking lean ’n mean dressed in his requisite black, he was recovering from carpal tunnel surgery in both wrists, which were sheathed in bandages, with his trademark red bandana still wrapped around one wrist (which he asked me to tighten for him). You’d never know he was in pain, though; he welcomed me like one of his long-lost party pals, making me immediately feel at home. Conversation flowed easily, and he regaled me with stories about his pal Hank Williams Jr., and his admiration for his dad Hank Sr.

Quite the raconteur, he always kept his sense of humor, even when railing about the state of contemporary country music, country radio and the Country Music Association. Though he predicted he’d never be inducted into the CMA Hall Of Fame, he got the nod in the fall of 2001 — just a few months before his untimely death. His principles, no doubt, prevented him from going from his new home in Arizona to accept the honor; he sent his son Shooter (who played percussion in the Waymore Blues Band) to go in his stead.

I, like everyone, fell into shock when the news came — on February 13, 2002 — that Waylon Jennings had died peacefully in his sleep, even though he’d been battling diabetes and other health problems for a while. I guess we all thought he’d go out fighting, as he described in his song “Never Say Die” — also the title of his last album, appropriately recorded live at the Ryman in January 2000. “I’ll never say die / Ain’t givin’ in or givin’ up without a try / Never say die.”

* * *

What are your earliest musical memories?

The first thing I remember is music — and wanting to play a guitar. I had to be less than 2 years old, because it was by lamplight and we were living in a half dugout. My daddy had borrowed a guitar from somebody. I remember the lamplight was on that guitar, and I can see this cowboy on a horse raring up, painted on the guitar. I was in one of those little jumper swings and I remember trying to reach the guitar. I always said I really had no choice — being a musician was all I ever dreamed about.

When did you learn to play guitar?

My mother and dad taught me how to play a couple, three chords, when I was about 8, and the rest of it I learned myself. I didn’t get a guitar that was really any good ‘til I was about 10 or 11 years old. Before that, my uncle had a guitar, but you could have used it for a bow and arrow, the neck was so bowed on it. And there were some boys from Arkansas named Rastus and Sambo. That was their real names! They had a pretty good little guitar. They’d come over and let me play on their guitar a little bit.

What kind of music did you like as a kid?

Country — real country. Things like “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” And I liked Ernest Tubb. Then, when I heard Hank Williams, I thought the world had come to an end. There was nobody like him. I’ve read everything that's been written about him. I have a pretty good idea of what he was and who he was. He had a lot of problems, and I came along and thought that was the way you do it — such as drugs and things. I'm not blaming him — but I can trace [my indulging] back to that. Those things sounded so great, like how wild Hank Williams was. I was about half wild going in, so I … but all those things, I don't know, it took me a long time to realize that wasn't the way to go. But anybody that destroys themselves like he did, it sure leaves the wrong picture.

His son Hank Jr is one of my dearest friends. He's like my little brother. And we have a great time. We've written songs together and we've sung together and what have you.

It must have been great to meet your hero's son.

We've been friends for —oh gosh, I guess it's been 30 years. I knew his mom [Audrey] pretty well. I was her connection when Hank Jr. decided to go off on his own. His mom at the time was running things for him. When he decided to go off on his own, it was really hard for her. Of course it was hard on Hank too. But she really, really was trying to make Hank Jr be Hank Williams over, only without all the bad trappings. Well, it was miserable for him. She was wanting him to be like a prisoner. And Audrey meant well by him — she loved him dearly. But he was writing songs and he wanted a place in music. He loved his dad's music, everybody loved his dad's music, but he wanted to show them his music. And if you want to know the truth about it, Hank Jr is a better songwriter than his dad. His dad … most of those songs — a lot of those songs — were with other people and a lot of help from Fred Rose. His dad was a wonderful idea man more than he was a writer.

Have you ever thought what would have happened in country music if Hank Sr had lived?

I think it would have advanced a lot quicker than it has. He had inspiration. He worked on inspiration. If he coulda straightened himself out he coulda been bigger than he ever was. He had a little slump right around the time he died, you know. He wouldn't show up and the people were getting kind of tired of messing with him.

I never saw him play. He came to Lubbock and I never did see him. I was still a kid in school when he died. He would still have been in there and written greater songs. A lot of that stuff he did purely unconscious, when he was drunk. That's what Audrey told me and what I've heard through the years from people whose word I trust. At one time I asked Minnie Pearl about him, and she never says anything [bad] about anybody in the world. And all she said was, “Hank was someone, you couldn't tell him anything.” She told him he was killing himself and he paid no attention to it.

What effect did his songs have on your songwriting?

On my new album [Waymore’s Blues Part II], I have something that I tried to write like he would write. Like the songs I grew up on. It’s called “She Was Just No Good For Me.” I wanted it to come from that — just straight down the pike. He still has an effect on me. Every once in a while I'll dig out some old things [of his] and I love the [Luke the Drifter] recitation things he did. I've always loved the blues. The effect the blues had on him was great. And “The Lovesick Blues” — of course, that Georgia cracker [Emmet Miller] wrote that. Everybody thought that Hank wrote it, but he didn't. And “Bucket's Got A Hole In It.” He had a great friend in Fred Rose. Fred helped him a lot. But his singing and the feeling in it was all natural. He had a cockiness about him and he had a blues thing about him too. Those things combined with the hurt, the soulfulness — that's what made him so great.

What did you learn from hanging around with Buddy Holly?

What I learned from Buddy Holly, if I never learned anything else, was to not compromise your music. I see that every day — it's all compromise now. There's about three or four artists who've remained true to who they really are. When the record companies and producers get in control, the music dies and it’s in the process of doing that now. They use the same musicians and they control everything. They'll be doing three sessions a day. They'll be with this artist here and over here for a while and over here for a while. It's all about money.

Are things returning to the way it was before you started producing yourself?

Exactly. When I came here [to Nashville], you had very little to say about anything. They would talk to you about it, but they would have final say. And you had to ask to use your own band. I had one producer who was horn happy. I would leave and come back and there would be stuff all over my record. I didn't even recognize it. I went through that for so long. Finally I said, “I'll either quit or you're going to have to let me ...” What I did was I made them know one thing: There's always one more way to do things and that's your way, and you have a right to try it at least once. And we had a long hard battle in it. You had to record in their studios, with their engineers, and they were in control. They'd say, “You don't have any idea how to do this,” and they'd pick the material. I would send things in to some of the producers and they'd turn it down — and I'd already said I wanted it. And they'd come up with some goofy song, and say, “This could be a big hit for you.” If I left anything in this business for anybody, it was taking control of your own recording, and they kind of let it get away. But I had it.

The heads of the labels would say, “This is your year with the CMA.” They knew it was because they'd do the block voting. They act like nobody knows. They act like the people have a say in it. I would like to ask them one day — and get a straight answer — “What have you ever done for country music? Have you built a home for guys on skid row?” If I hadn't had such loyal people, I'd probably be on skid row. But there's a lot of them that have gone from having a hit record, and now they wouldn't give 'em 50 cents. The CMA wouldn't do nothing for those people.

There was a guy overseas who was head of CMA over there. And he would say, “I have Hank Snow and so and so and so and so, and Waylon Jennings is going to be there in the next show,” and never even booked you, never even called you. So he was doing that and Johnny Cash called me from Europe and said, “Are you going to be in Sweden and England?” And I said no, and he said, “Well, they're advertising you.” And then when you wouldn't appear, he'd come onstage and say, “I booked this man in good faith, but he's not dependable. I'll give you your money back, but if I give your money back I'll be bankrupt and we'll never have any more shows over here.” What a slimeball. So I went to the CMA and said, “If you stop this guy and show me you're on my side, I'll make peace with you.” They wouldn't do it.

I've heard that I'll never be invited to the Country Music Hall Of Fame. And I don't know if that's gonna bother me a whole lot. I know I'll be in the hearts and minds of people that matter. I want to start an entertainer's association of some kind where no managers are involved. An artist's association where we can get together and really get to know each other. I want an association for everybody — not just country singers. There's so many things we could do to help country music, help people who need help. The record labels, some of them just rape people — heart, soul and money. Carl Smith, one of the great country singers of all time, Jimmy Dickens, all those people — they've forgotten them. And they're trying to do the same thing with Willie and John [Cash] but we still have a big following.

This music they're pushing now is not country. It's regurgitated rock ‘n’ roll. They've got some great ones still in there — Travis Tritt's wonderful, Mark Chesnutt is one of the best, a natural. But the people at Epic told me I was over with. I'm trying to cut an album and this guy says, “This is wonderful, wonderful, but I hear an Eric Clapton guitar here.” I said, “Well put it on and we'll see.” He didn't know what he was talking about. Then they finally told me that radio was not going to play me, they don't like my kind of music any more, that I was over with. In other words, why don't you go crawl into a hole somewhere and die? A friend of mine over there at Epic said, “If you have someone under 40 and Waylon Jennings, who do you sign? The person under 40.” I thought, “Well maybe that's true, maybe I've had a good run.” I wasn't bitter. I probably had a little pity party for a day or two. But then I thought, “It’s not a matter of eating or not eating. I'll keep playing, but I don't have to record.” And that's when I realized that radio controls the charts, not the audience. And the people still come [to shows], they still remember. I haven't had a hit song in 10 years, but the other day in Albuquerque, New Mexico, they had about 20,000 people at a rodeo, and I was the only one out of some of the young bucks that they've had there in 4 years that sold the place out. They were so excited. Here was this radio station talking to me and they said, “You sold it out, this is the best thing.” I said, “You don't play me, do you?” And they said, “No, but we have a sister station that does.” I said “What has age got to do with music? I know a lot of those little bitty kids love me. You know it shows you something — I sold out your place here and the ones you're playing couldn't sell it out. I might blow up your radio tower or I might hit your radio station with a class action suit. That's discrimination.”

There's 400 stations out there that control what's played. In the mid-’80s country music became big business like rock ‘n’ roll did in the ’60s, to where that's all it’s amounted to. There’s payola, and what’s sold is what's crammed down people's throats. John Cash was over at the house the other night and I said, “I think I know what it is: the people who are in control of radio don't know who we are. They have no emotional ties to us, what we've done.”

On that subject, I love your song “Nashville Bum.”

Isn't that a funny song? I wrote that before I ever came to town. Roger Miller was my hero as a writer. He was the cleverest man and the cleverest writer. I miss him every day in my life and I always will. One of the worst things I've ever seen in this world was to see Roger Miller die.

Did you guys both land in Nashville around the same time?

He had been here a while before I got here. I met him in Lubbock when I was [a deejay] at KLLL. He came by looking for a job. He was living in Nashville then. I thought, “What a piece of work this is.” He came in there, just bopping all the way through everything and he was so funny. And he wanted my job! I never got over it.

And how did you meet Buddy Holly?

Highpockets Duncan [Holly’s mentor] and me worked together as deejays. The first full-time country music station in the country was in Lubbock. It was KDAV. We were across town and we were the competition at K triple L. I was pretty hot as a deejay. Then I moved to Arizona and then back to Lubbock and got a job at KDAV. Highpockets helped me get over the plane crash [that killed Buddy Holly]. I came back feeling really guilty, thinking I had caused it you know. When you're 19 you can't find any other reason for it to happen except that you caused it. You're alive and they're dead. And I was supposed to be on the plane and I wasn't. Highpockets talked to me a lot. He was a great disc jockey. Full of it, you know [laughs]. But he and Dave Stone started that station together — KDAV. Where I met Buddy Holly was, Highpockets and Dave Stone had a thing on Sunday afternoon called the Sunday Party. It was there on KDAV. And we let local acts come in and play and Buddy had a thing called Buddy, Bob and Larry. I had my group — I think we were called the Texas Longhorns. It was a big deal to get to play on that station cause it was the only exposure you got. And Buddy was singing country then. So I knew him for several years before I ever worked with him.

When he got his Decca deal?

Yeah. He ran into the same thing there that I ran into years later.

He was the original outlaw in Nashville. Got run out of town.

Yeah. It had to be ’55 or ’56 or ’57. We talked about that a lot of times. He told me, “Stay out of there, those people got a lock on it and they ain't gonna turn loose of it.” And he didn't like Nashville at all. Cause he had ideas, and they took it away from him and did it another way.

Buddy will be forever. He was the first rock ‘n’ roller who wrote his own songs. Those great ideas that didn't sound like Elvis. I knew he was really great that way.

Of all the songs you've written, which one are you most proud of?

“Good Hearted Woman” was probably one of the best songs I ever wrote. But “I've Always Been Crazy” is just me really.

What do you look for in a producer?

I think women would make good producers — men would trust them with their emotional part. You can have a bunch of old hair-legged boys, but they can't get too emotional in a song. So maybe you're not giving it your all. So women would be good working with men on the production.

Has your wife Jessie helped you in that way?

Yeah. Jessie's my monitor in a lot of ways. The only bad thing about Jessie is she's smarter than me — and the good thing is she don't know it [laughs]. Jessie is my balance, complete balance. Musical, my whole life. I am a black/white, yes/no, right/wrong person. And it takes me a long time to find that middle ground. Jessie, I have to say she lives in the gray area. She can immediately see both sides and I can't. So I have to go through her to find it. I guess that's the redneck in me. But she's a very intelligent person. Knows me better than anybody on earth.

We’ve been together since ’69. Twenty-five years this year. What she seems to be, she is. She's never had an ego problem. I'd love her to record again. When we had [our son] Shooter, she kind of backed off, and then she got her heart broken by Capitol Records. She’d sold millions of records and she wrote this song called “Her Mama.” In it, she said, “I am Miriam, my name is Miriam, but I was Jessi for a song.” Cause her name really is Miriam. And she wanted to do that song for her mom who had died, and they wouldn't do anything with that record. Nothing — they didn't want it. It hurt her real bad. She lost it then. She walked away from it.

During your own hard times, has music been a shelter from the storm – or has it been fuel to the fire?

[Laughs] It has been the storm — and the fuel to the fire. But music is my equalizer. I never took too serious the star stuff. Never bothered me much. The short answer is: The more I do, the more I want to do.




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