Waylon Jennings is one of a handful of towing figures behind country musics current phenomenal success. At a time when countrys audience easily embrace diversity and when platinum albums are getting to be more and more common, Waylon stands as a true forerunner, a pioneer who was among the first to pull north and south, rural and city college kids and blue collar workers into a unified movement and who was the first, both as a solo artist and on the collaboration Wanted: The Outlaws, to got platinum as a county artist.
Modern country music owes much of its broad-based appeal and rugged individualism to Waylon, a man whose career stretches from the mid-50s, when he was a protégé of Buddy Holly, through four decades whose music he has helped shape. He has influenced instrumental and vocal styles, shaped attitudes and launched major trends, all by staying true to himself and his vision.
Along the way he has won Grammys and CMA awards while connecting with his audience in a way that few have, becoming one of the industrys true all-time legends in the process.
Born in 1937 in Littlefield, Texas, he grew up listening to folk songs and the music of seminal artist like Jimmie Rodgers, and later, to singers that range from Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb and Webb Piece to BB. King and Bobbie "Blue Band. He was a disc jockey at 14, and had already formed his own band at the age of 12, making guest appearances on local station KDAVs "Sunday Party," when he met Holly in 1955.
"Mainly what I learned from Buddy," Waylon says, "was an attitude. He loved music, and he taught me that it shouldnt have any barriers to it."
Holly produced Waylons first record and used him as a bass player – it was Waylon who gave up his seat to the big bopper on the plane that would crash, killing Holly and Ritchie Valens as well. By the early – to mid – 60s, Waylon was headlining a club called JDs in Phoenix, putting out a. sound that combined his "chicken-pickin" Telecaster guitar style, his rough-edged, soulful vocal style and an eclectic repertoire that often borrowed from rock and rockabil1y.
This combination was as popular as it was groundbreaking.
"We got long-haired people, lawyers, doctors, and all the cowboys," he says. Word got around, and after a short stint at Herb Alperts A&M Records, he was signed to RCA by Chet Atkins.
By 1968, he had hit the top five with "Only Daddy Thatll Walk the Line" and "Walk On Out Of My Mind," and a year later he would win a Grammy for a version of "MacArthur Park," recorded with the Kimberleys, and record several songs for the soundtrack album of Ned Kelly, a feature film starring Mick Jagger.
Still, the Nashville "system" in which producers often stamped their own ideas and formulas onto artists, was something Waylon was struggling against mightily.
"Every business has its system that works for 80% of the people who are in it," he says, "but theres always that other 20 percent who dont fit in. Thats what happened to me, and it happened Johnny Cash and it happened to Willie Nelson. We just couldnt do it the way it was set up. It wasnt until I started producing my own records and using my own musicians and working with people who understood what I was about that I first started having and real success.
When it came through, it came hard and heavy. Albums like 1973s Lonesome, Onry and Mean and 1974s This Time, which he co-produced with Willie Nelson, caught the attention of critics outside of country circles and reasserted him as one of the genres truly innovative stylists. He also teamed up with Nelson for the first of the Fourth of July picnics in Texas that solidified the demographic mix would turn into countrys modern audience.
In 1975, Waylon was named the Country Music Associations Male Vocalist of the Year and, in 1976, he helped found a movement that would change the face of country.
In that year, Waylon, Willie, Jessi Colter (who married Waylon in 1969) and Tompall Glaser teamed up for Wanted: The Outlaws that became the first platinum (one millions units) album ever recorded in Nashville. It also helped Waylon and Willie sweep that years CMA Awards, winning Best Album, Best Single and Best Vocal Duo (for "Good Hearted Woman")
This period found Waylon hitting Billboards Number One singles spot with song after song, from 1974s "This Time" through "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way," "Luckenbach Texas," "Wurlitzer Prize," "Ive Always Been Crazy," "Amanda," "Aint Living Long Like This" and "Just To Satisfy You," among others. In 1978, he would win his second Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group for "Mamas Dont Let Your Babies Grow Up Cowboys," with Willie Nelson.
His albums were great chart and sales successes as well, with eight consecutive LPs going gold (there have been 13 all together). OlWaylon, released in 1977, became the first country album by a solo artist to go platinum, and Greatest Hits, two years later, entered uncharted territory by going quadruple platinum.
Waylon continued to cross barriers and bridge gaps musically, as, for instance, Never Toe The Mark became the first country album to premier on Showtimes "Album Flash," and when he released his "audiogaphy," an autobiographical record and one-man Broadway-style show called A Man Called Hoss.
Although he has known success for three decades and has long since been accorded legend status, Waylon is still both highly active and highly visible. While some of the handful of performers who share living legend status with him have taken a back seat in resent years, Waylon continues to make his mark in several areas of show business.
Since the mid-80s, he has been part of another superstar foursome: The Highwaymen (Waylon and Willie, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson) who have turned their four-way collaboration into hit records and highly successful tours to packed venues, most recently in Australia, Singapore, Chins and Thailand.
Waylon is a highly visible on other recorded projects as well. He was the recent duet
He has released a childrens album, Cowboys, Sisters, Rascals & Dirt, and has and has spoken to schoolchildren about the importance of staying in school. A 10th grade dropout Waylon successfully completed studies for his GED in 1989, and being a spokesperson for that program.
In 1993, RCA Records assembled a 40 song retrospective boxed set called Only Daddy Thatll Walk The Line: The RCA Years, celebrating Waylons 20 years on the labe1 from 1965 to 1985. Admiring the respect and care which he was accorded in the collection, Waylon re-signed with RCA in the fall of 1994 to record Waymores Blues (Part II), with Don Was producing.
Nor have Waylons contributions been confined to singing. He has been a commercial spokesman for Pizza Hut chain. He has starred in a number of film projects, including Stagecoach, a CBS-TV movie with the Highwaymen, Oklahoma City Dolls, an ABC-TV movie, with Eddie Albert and Susan Blakeley, Follow That Bird, a Sesame Street movie in which Waylon played a farmer. He had a cameo in the Maverick movie, for which he also contributed "You Dont Mess Around With Me" to the soundtrack, and he has a role on Fox-TVs "Married With Children," playing a wizened mountain prophet named Ironhead Haynes.
This year will be another busy year for Waylon as well: he will perform about 100 concerts this year, RCA wil1 issue a Twentieth Anniversary edition of Wanted: The Outlaws, hell have a new album on Justice Records in May, and his authorized autobiography written with writer-musician Lenny Kaye, is scheduled for release by Warner Books in September.
Waylons contributions to the music industry he helped shape continue unabated. The man who has done so much to define the edge and the attitudes that are part of the current parameters of country continues, through his records and performances, to add to his status as one of the true giants of the business.