Full name Waylon Arnold Jennings; born June 15, 1937, in Littlefield, Tex.; son of a truck driver; married fourth wife, Jessi Colter (a singer), c. 1973; four children, including (fourth marriage) Waylon Albright. Education: Earned high school equivalency diploma, 1990. Addresses: Office --Utopia Productions, 1117 17th Ave. S., Nashville, Tenn. 37212.
Waylon Jennings, the quintessential Outlaw of country music, has successfully forged a distinctive sound best described as "redneck rock." For years Jennings chafed under the restraints imposed on his music by Nashville's tunnel vision, but when at last he was given creative control of his work his popularity soared. Newsweek contributor Maureen Orth credits Jennings with bringing "a new sophistication to country music and a welcome blast of country air to rock," noting that the singer "can make his music sound both pure country honest and stone-rock funky."
Jennings has managed simultaneously to return country to its roots and to revolutionize its beat and pitch. He has turned his back on the weepy strings and session orchestration most closely associated with modern country music, producing instead the exciting, gritty sound that has come to be the trademark of the Outlaw movement. "Maybe that's what has all these citified hippies so excited," writes Melvin Shestack in The Country Music Encyclopedia, "the fact that here's a big, mean-looking man with a band that could easily be a group of rock-and-rollers with their long hair and electric guitars, and they're playing music that has as much rhythmic guts as you could wish for, but still really isn't anything like what they get on the radio around here. It's country music, no mistake, and do they ever love it to death. It's genuine, no frills, no slickness, no pretensions. Just hard-hitting, hard-living country soul."
Jennings, who claims to have both Cherokee and Comanche ancestry, was born and raised in Littlefield, Texas. His father worked a succession of jobs from cotton farming to truck driving, and the Jennings family had little extra cash. Waylon himself began to pick cotton while still a youngster, but his heart was in music. As a child he immersed himself in the works of such country greats as Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams, then he discovered pop music and its nascent rock & roll beat. A performer from an early age, he saw singing as the only escape from a life of drudgery in the cotton fields.
By the time he turned fourteen, Jennings was a familiar sight in talent shows in his region, playing guitar and singing country or pop tunes. He dropped out of high school for a full-time job with the Littlefield radio station, where he spun discs and performed with his own band, the Texas Longhorns. In 1958 he took a job at a station in Lubbock, Texas, and there he met a young entertainer named Buddy Holly. Holly had already achieved national stardom with his country-rooted rock music, and before long Jennings was playing bass in Holly's band. Jennings toured with Buddy Holly and the Crickets for several months in late 1958 and early 1959, and he would have died in the plane crash that claimed Holly's life if he had not offered his seat that night to J. P. Richardson (The Big Bopper).
Holly's untimely death was extremely traumatic for Jennings, who had established a genuine rapport with the star. For a time after the crash Jennings quit the music business and returned to radio announcing. Then, in the early 1960s, he moved to Phoenix, Arizona, and formed a new band. Waylon Jennings and the Waylors were soon regular performers at J.D.'s, a large club that drew an audience from every walk of life from cowboy to corporate attorney. Jennings met the challenge such an audience offered admirably, playing rock and pop with a country flavor as well as country in an up-tempo rock style. Before long his reputation transcended the bounds of Phoenix and drew talent scouts from Los Angeles and Nashville.
In 1965 Chet Atkins persuaded Jennings to sign a contract with the prestigious RCA label. Jennings then moved to Nashville, where he took bachelor quarters with Johnny Cash. Shestack writes: "The following two years might well go down in history as the most spectacular era in the fine arts of door smashing, house wrecking, and general craziness." Jennings's career took off with albums such as Love of the Common People and The One and Only Waylon Jennings, and his reputation for hard-drinking rowdiness followed suit. He became a member of the Grand Ole Opry, appeared in the film Nashville Rebel, and generally began to cultivate a maverick personality.
According to Bill C. Malone in Country Music U.S.A., Jennings's artistic independence, lifestyle, and personality all contributed to the "Outlaw" label he attracted as the 1970s began. Still, Malone notes, "it is clear that the Outlaw phenomenon was largely a product of promotional hype, and most of it independent of Jennings himself." Whatever the case, Jennings embraced the Outlaw concept wholeheartedly--and proceeded to turn it to his use as an artist. In 1972 he hired Neil Reshen, a New York-based manager who helped his client win more control over the content of his albums. Almost overnight, the well-groomed and gaudily attired Jennings became the long-haired, leather-clad rebel rocker he is today. With the collaboration of friends such as Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Tompall Glaser, and Jack Clement, he "elevated country record production from cheap pap to soul art," to quote New Times contributor Patrick Carr.
Jennings had already seen the top of the country charts with songs like "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town," but even he was amazed at the critical and commercial reception for his new work. His 1976 release Wanted--The Outlaws, an ensemble package with his wife, Jessi Colter, Nelson, and Glaser, was the first country album ever to go platinum in sales. He was showered with awards from the Country Music Association and was in demand as never before for live performances. Gradually, however, the down side of the Outlaw image began to take its toll. Jennings had long struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, but another drug--cocaine--almost claimed his life.
Late in 1984 Jennings told People magazine that he was saved from cocaine addiction by his old friend Johnny Cash, himself a substance abuser. Jennings quit drugs cold turkey and cut down on the extensive touring that had contributed to his habit. He and Jessi Colter continue to provide vital material to the country music arena to this day, both as a duo and as solo artists. Malone writes: "Despite the hype surrounding the Outlaws, they did make a healthy challenge to Nashville's homogenization. And while they drew freely from other forms of music, such as rock, they also remained respectful of their own and country music's roots. In fact, if they used any term in private to describe themselves it was 'hillbilly' and not 'outlaw.' The ultimate irony for the Outlaws may be that, while drawing upon a diverse array of musical sources and reaching out to new audiences, they did more to preserve a distinct identity for country music than most of their contemporaries who wore the 'country' label."
Jennings put it another way in The Country Music Encyclopedia. "I couldn't go pop with a mouthful of firecrackers," he said. "I'm a country boy; I'm a hillbilly.... They talk about the Nashville Sound, y'know. My music ain't no Nashville Sound. It's my kind of country. It's not Western. It's Waylon."
by Anne Janette Johnson
Waylon Jennings's Career
Disc jockey in Littlefield, Tex. and Lubbock, Tex., c. 1950-58. Singer and guitar player, 1957--; played bass with Buddy Holly and the Crickets, 1958-59; formed own band, the Waylors, c. 1961, played in clubs in Phoenix, Ariz. Signed with RCA Records, 1965, moved to Nashville, had first number one single, "Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line," 1968. Became associated with the "Outlaw" movement in country music, 1972; had first platinum album (with Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser), Wanted--The Outlaws, 1976. Has appeared in feature films and television dramas; has toured in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
Waylon Jennings's Awards
Numerous citations for country music performances, including male vocalist of the year from the Country Music Association, 1975; duo of the year (with Nelson) and single of the year from the Country Music Association, both 1976.
- Selective Works
- Waylon Jennings at J.D.'s Sound Limited, 1964.
- Folk Country RCA, 1965.
- Leavin' Town RCA, 1966.
- Nashville Rebel RCA, 1966.
- Waylon Jennings Sings Ol' Harlan RCA, 1966.
- Love of the Common People RCA, 1967.
- The One and Only Waylon Jennings RCA, 1967.
- Hankin' On RCA, 1968.
- Only the Greatest RCA, 1968.
- Jewels RCA, 1969.
- Country Folk: Waylon and the Kimberleys RCA, 1969.
- Just To Satisfy You RCA, 1969.
- Waylon Jennings Vocalion, 1969.
- Don't Think Twice A&M, 1969.
- Best of Waylon Jennings RCA, 1970.
- Waylon RCA, 1970.
- Singer of Sad Songs RCA, 1970.
- The Country Style of Waylon Jennings A&M, 1970.
- The Taker RCA, 1970.
- Cedartown, Georgia RCA, 1970.
- Ladies Love Outlaws RCA, 1971.
- Good Hearted Woman RCA, 1972.
- Heartaches by the Number RCA, 1972.
- Lonesome, On'ry, and Mean RCA, 1972.
- The Taker/Tulsa RCA, 1972.
- Honky Tonk Heroes RCA, 1973.
- Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town RCA, 1973.
- This Time RCA, 1974.
- Ramblin' Man RCA, 1974.
- Ned Kelly United Artists, 1975.
- Dreaming My Dreams RCA, 1975.
- (With Jessi Colter, Willie Nelson, and Tompall Glaser) Wanted--The Outlaws RCA, 1976.
- Are You Ready for the Country? RCA, 1976.
- Waylon Jennings Live RCA, 1976.
- Mackintosh & TJ RCA, 1976.
- Hits of Waylon Jennings RCA, 1977.
- Ol' Waylon RCA, 1977.
- (With Nelson) Waylon & Willie RCA, 1978.
- I've Always Been Crazy RCA, 1978.
- Music Man RCA, 1980.
- WWII RCA, 1982.
- It's Only Rock 'N' Roll RCA, 1983.
- Waylon and Company RCA, 1983.
- Never Could Toe the Mark RCA, 1984.
- Turn the Page RCA, 1985.
- Collector's Series RCA, 1985.
- Will the Wolf Survive MCA, 1986.
- A Couple More Years RCA, 1986.
- Sweet Mother Texas RCA, 1986.
- Waylon! RCA, 1986.
- (With Johnny Cash) Heroes Columbia, 1986.
- Hangin' Tough MCA, 1987.
- The Best of Waylon RCA, 1987.
- (With Nelson) Take It to the Limit CBS, 1987.
- Full Circle MCA, 1988.
- A Man Called Hoss MCA, 1988.
- Waylon Jennings: The Early Years (1965-1968) RCA, 1989.
- New Classic Waylon MCA, 1989.
- (With Nelson, Cash, and Kris Kristofferson) Highwayman Columbia.
- (With Nelson, Cash, and Kristofferson) Highwayman II Columbia, 1990.
- The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, Harmony, 1977.
- Malone, Bill C., Country Music U.S.A., revised edition, University of Texas Press, 1985.
- Shestack, Melvin, The Country Music Encyclopedia, Crowell, 1974.
- Stambler, Irwin and Grelun Landon, The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country, and Western Music, St. Martin's, 1969.
- After Dark, March 31, 1973.
- Country Music, April, 1981.
- Cue, February 24, 1975.
- Newsday, January 22, 1978.
- Newsweek, August 26, 1974.
- New Times, February 20, 1978.
- New York Daily News, May 31, 1981.
- Penthouse, September, 1981.
- People, October 22, 1984.
- Stereo Review, August, 1983.