In 1993, I produced a box set of Waylon Jennings recordings entitled Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line. Here are my liner notes for that set:
"We need a change," Waylon Jennings sings in "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way," the piercing kickoff track to his greatest album, Dreaming My Dreams, and as confident and precise a description of his long-lasting and dramatic career as anyone could imagine. Waylon is singing about the country-music industry in this song, but the sentiment could apply to any element of this ramblin' man's life or career. Restless personally and creatively, Waylon has never stood still, even at times when repeating himself would have garnered financial rewards. He's full of contradictions: a shy man who can be a mesmerizing live performer, a rebel battling the restrictions of the Sixties Nashville Sound who nonetheless made stellar records in the format, a spokesman for country music's iconoclastic Seventies Outlaws movement whose knowledge of country-music history is damn near encyclopedic. From his early days as a hilarious disc jockey in West Texas to his recent outstanding collaborations with songwriting and hell-raising comrade Billy Joe Shaver and Native American group Knifewing, Ol' Waylon has consistently upended expectations and marched to a drummer whose rhythmic changes no one could anticipate. Each of the performances on Waylon Jennings's Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line: The RCA Years, recorded during his 1965-1985 association with RCA, his glory years, stands on its own; taken as a whole, these forty numbers sketch the outlines of an unpredictable, rewarding career.
"It's like he was born in the studio," says a friend who has been in on Waylon's recording sessions for decades. "It's always like a family reunion. He's phenomenally comfortable there. This is a man who's had his office adjacent to his studio--His whole life right there. Seeing him and hearing him perform such an incredible range of material just reminds you what an incredible range of life experiences he's had."
Wayland Arnold Jennings's life opened up on June 15, 1937, in Littlefield, Texas, the first son to William Alvin and Lorene Jennings. Littlefield was an archetypal West Texas town, built in dust and never far from nature's whims. Along with his younger brother Tommy, Waylon grew up poor and religious. As for many others, Waylon's initial attraction to music was as a diversion from life. WSM's clear signal brought the Grand Ole Opry and its hint of a broader life elsewhere into his thinking, and William's cheap Gene Autry brand guitar led to imitations of Jimmie Rodgers. "My Jimmie Rodgers influence comes through my dad," Waylon says. "I listened to Jimmie later in life, but my father listened to him. You know, Jimmie was as much a blues singer as a country singer. I've always loved the blues. I've always had a dream to cut a song with B.B. King, but I'm kind of intimidated by him."
Waylon also liked to mimic Ernest Tubb, even when his dad's guitar wasn't handy. As Waylon remembered in 1966. "I had an old broom stick with part of the broom still on it and I'd be Ernest Tubb! I always had to be Ernest." By his thirteenth birthday, Waylon had won first prize at a jamboree sponsored by local radio station KSEL (first prize was a radio), and he was on his way. He had the fever and barged into every talent show he could find. Within a year, Waylon quit high school, even though his kicking skills made a football career a real possibility. But, at fourteen, Waylon's immediate ambitions had already soared beyond Littlefield High.
Waylon also had outgrown Littlefield, and he was drawn a few hours south on Route 66 to Lubbock, Texas, a small city that served as a magnet for the small, dead-end towns that dotted West Texas. Waylon arrived in Lubbock with some radio connections, and soon he established a base at KDAV, a crucial southwestern country and rock'n'roll station. In January 1955, Elvis Presley and his touring band crashed through Lubbock and screamed a new kind of freedom for the teenagers in town, among them Waylon and a fellow that he had met at KDAV, Buddy Holly.
It's impossible to overestimate the influence Buddy Holly had on Waylon in their too-few years together in Lubbock. "Buddy was an enormous influence even after I started cutting country," Waylon says. "He always went for the edge, that rhythm thing. Buddy always said to go for the feel, go for the rhythms. I'm still doing that." While Waylon established himself as a personality on KDAV prone to ad-libbing side-splitting non sequiturs, he spent much of his off time hanging around the station's studio with Holly, who had quickly developed his Elvis infatuation into an individual style. Holly saw himself as an all-around music disseminator; as well as singer, songwriter, guitarist, and band leader, he also saw himself as a producer and impresario. One night, Waylon joined Buddy and his band the Crickets as they drove to a show in Spur, Texas, and he wound up also joining in with the band onstage on bass guitar even though he had never played one before.
That tightened the bond between Waylon and Buddy, so in the fall of 1958, when Buddy flew saxophone master King Curtis down to Lubbock to cut a few songs, he decided to cut a record on Waylon as well. They came up with two sides, the more charming of them being a version of Harry Choates's Cajun standard "Jole Blon." The only problem was that no one in the studio knew any French, let alone the thick Cajun patois in which Choates sang the original, so Waylon sang the lyrics more or less phonetically. Holly's Brunswick label released the single to minimal attention.
Within a few months, Holly was short on cash due to the legal hassles that were epidemic among early rock'n'roll performers, so he decided to hit the road to raise funds. In late 1958, Holly and the Crickets were barely on speaking terms, so he put together a new band, featuring Waylon on bass. (Although Waylon rarely plays bass nowadays, it's no accident that his popular studio sound of the '70s and '80s was built around steady, swirling bass rhythms.) Waylon's playing was only a half-step above rudimentary, but at 21 he was thrilled to be party of the Winter Dance Party along with Holly, Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper, and Dion and the Belmonts.
Everyone knows how that tour ended, and Waylon returned to radio in Lubbock. He was disaffected, but he was brought back to good humor by Don Bowman, a fellow disc jockey with a wild verbal dexterity that served as the perfect foil to Waylon's out-of-left-field ad-libs. They started sharing shows, and they enjoyed each other's company so much that they'd show up for their shift, drop a Navy recruiting LP on the turntable, and head out to the local bowling alley. Alas, this scheme was revealed when a disc skipped, leading their boss to post a sign that read, "don bowman and waylon jennings not to be in the control room at the same time while on the air." The pair promptly discovered new ways to wreak havoc at the station, all of which made for great radio and one enraged station manager. Bowman eventually skipped town, escaping an unhappy marriage.
Music barged back into Waylon's life when local Trend 61 Records cut a handful of songs on him, all of which suffered the same fate as "Jole Blon." Waylon moved to Arizona, worked in radio there, and came up with lines like, "From the land of milk and honey, we bring you Arnold's Pickles." Waylon and Don Bowman soon discovered that they were in the same state and Bowman suggested they write some songs. Most of their songs were built around their DJ patter, though the odd straightforward ballad, particularly "Just To Satisfy You," which in mid-1963 caught the ear of Jerry Moss, the "M" in the new A&M Records. Moss and his partner Herb Alpert took a chance on a recording contract with Waylon.
Waylon was delighted to be recording, but he didn't last long at A&M. "Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss are just about two of my favorite people in world," he says, "But they wanted me to sound like Al Martino and I wanted to sound like Flatt and Scruggs. They didn't consider me that country." Indeed, at A&M Jennings met with the first of many producers who inexplicably considered him more of a folk artist than a country proponent. "I was hanging in limbo. I was somewhere between folk, Dylan, rockabilly, and Flatt and Scruggs. I didn't know where to go."
He soon found direction. Don Bowman's off-kilter letters to RCA had found a bemused and intrigued recipient in Chet Atkins, the label's flagship Nashville producer, and Bowman and his pal Bobby Bare, then in the first of his several stints with RCA, recommended Waylon so strongly that Atkins felt he had no choice but to sign him. (Guitar icon Duane Eddy also joined in the chorus of Waylon's boosters.) A bit of maneuvering was necessary to get Waylon released from A&M, a situation that may have been exacerbated by the appearance of a live album, Waylon Jennings at J.D.'s, on an independent label.
The RCA Years
From his first Nashville session on March 16, 1965 until roughly the end of the decade, Waylon recorded for RCA with Chet Atkins as his producer. The tension caused by Chet and Waylon's differing musical philosophies has been extremely well documented, though Waylon has been much more forgiving about the differences in recent years. "Chet wanted me to do what I wanted to do," Waylon acknowledges. "I just couldn't do it within the framework of what they had going, that whole system of doing four songs in three hours. Sometimes we'd get close to the edge, but we'd never reach it. The edge was where I was, and it was something you couldn't get with the number system. I'm sure that lack of communication was part of the problem. He was very anti-drugs and everyone knows what I was like at the time. And don't forget: The guy the drunk man hates the most is a sober man."
Waylon continues: "Chet is a left-field man. He can come out of left field with someone out of this world, but the way he works, he's the guy who has to come up with it. I didn't have much luck with the staff producers they threw at me after Chet started producing less. Ronny Light was awful young. He was thrown in there with a wild man. I was pretty scattered. He was green. It didn't work. The worst combination was me and Danny Davis. He thought I should have it all written out. That's the kind of musician he was. His attitude was, `You sing it. We'll fix it.' I can't work that way. You know, back then they thought I was trying to destroy the system. That was the last thing on my mind. I just wanted to do my music my way. There's always one more way to do something: Your way. You ought to be able to try it just once."
Waylon's old Outlaw compadre Tompall Glaser offers similar recollections. "We got a lot of resistance at that time," he says, "but I don't think we hurt 'em any. Me and Waylon used to sit and listen to Jimmie Rodgers by the hour, and then Eddy Arnold and Hank Williams, all the greats." In other words, they were trying to live up to country tradition. Perhaps that's what was most threatening about them.
With a quarter century of hindsight, the best of Waylon's Sixties recordings, collected here and on the highly recommended Waylon Jennings: The Early Years (RCA 9561), stand as exemplars of how a formula can promote creativity, not stifle it. The propulsive "Stop the World (And Let Me Off)" (1965) became Waylon's first Top Twenty single. "Everyone remembers it. People ask me what's the best way to get something going in country music. I tell them to find something that people have heard before and redo it your way. That makes 'em perk up out there. `Stop the World' started out as a slow song. Then we did a live take with me playing lead guitar. I looked up and there I was playing lead in front of Chet Atkins. What was I thinking?"
In 1966, Waylon starred in a terrible film called Nashville Rebel, opposite Mary Frann, who became famous a generation later as Bob Newhart's television wife. Although the script rehashed the usual boy-with-guitar-finds-girl-makes-good-loses-girl-loses-career-recovers-both plot with no new twists, Waylon acts well, looks great (especially in the performance sequences), and puts across several songs that still stand as fan favorites. Three of them appear on this collection: the wry "Nashville Bum" (written back in his Lubbock days) and a pair of hard-headed Harlan Howard tunes, the defiant, guitar-dominated title number and the quaking ballad "Green River."
"Love of the Common People" (1967) was the first of many long-lasting Waylon performances to begin life as a B-side, and it's no accident that its tale of perseverance in the face of unbeatable odds, a notion very close to Waylon at the time, connected with many fans even if it wasn't being promoted. "That came out at a time when I didn't get many bookings," Waylon says. "They were trying to starve me out of this town. There was this Navaho reservation in New Mexico. They adopted that as their theme song. It fit them."
Resistance notwithstanding, Waylon started piling up major hits with Red Lane's "Walk Out on My Mind" (1967), which made it to Number Five, and the smash uptempo "The Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line" (1968) of which Waylon says, "I remember I heard it by someone else, so I thought I'd wait a while before we put ours out. We waited six months, and man, it just took over. It was Number Two for a long time [five weeks]. I wished that `Harper Valley P.T.A.' would've gotten out of the way. Just as satisfying artistically if not commercially was a new, superior version of the A&M track "Just To Satisfy You" (1968), in which a swamp-drenched electric guitar anticipated many of Creedence Clearwater Revival's subsequent country/blues/rock'n'roll excursions.
"Willie and Laura Mae Jones" and "Six White Horses" were both recorded in 1969, just as Chet Atkins was stepping back from his daily production responsibilities, but remained unreleased for several years because of their controversial subject matter, respectively, interracial romance and ambivalence about war. They were important transitional records for Waylon. Even though he was still recording using the usual Nashville Sound methods, he was starting to assert himself in unexpected ways.
One such unexpected performance that didn't take so long to reach release was the Kris Kristofferson/Shel Silverstein composition "The Taker" (1970), of which Waylon says, "That's a great waltz. I remember back then I kept wanting to hear `Help Me Make It Through the Night.' I heard it was great and I wanted to cut it. Three times I asked Combine to send it to me, but they already had someone else in mind, so the tape box would have other songs on it, sometimes just blank, once with this one other song. It seemed like it was nine hours and twenty-two seconds long. So I changed the tempo."
Another Kristofferson tune, "Lovin' Her Was Easier (Than Anything I'll Ever Do Again)" (1970), was the first song Waylon ever recorded in Los Angeles. "It had a different sound," notes Waylon. "The label was afraid that a country hit could get cut in L.A. They wanted to keep the power in Nashville. I had to beg them to just release it."
"Good Hearted Woman" (1971) is best-known in a later version with an overdubbed Willie Nelson vocal, but this is the original. "I had almost finished writing that song," Waylon says. "Hell, I didn't like but two lines in it. But for some reason, I played it for Charlie Pride. He said `I'll cut it.' I thought, hey, maybe it's not too bad after all. So one night Willie, Paul English, and I were playing poker. I said, `I've got a session tomorrow night. Help me finish this song and I'll give you half of it.' Willie says it's the easiest money he ever made."
Waylon says that when he first heard "Black Rose" (1972), "that song flat knocked me out," and the country-rocker with the classical couplet "The Devil made me do it the first time/The second time I done it on my own" was the first song Waylon recorded for his landmark Honky Tonk Heroes LP, the first album on which he began to wrestle production control from label executives. All but one of the songs on that record were at least partly written by Billy Joe Shaver, a then-unknown writer and performer whose barbed view of modern country life melded perfectly with Jennings's burgeoning Outlaw attitude. Not that recording the album didn't have its tense moments. "I was in the studio, with laryngitis due to, well, other things. I was putting down tracks but I couldn't sing. I was trying to get Honky Tonk Heroes going. I had promised Billy Joe I'd do his songs, but I had to do them my way. Once I made a slow song a double-time thing. That's when he and I got into it."
Waylon remembers Shaver screaming furiously, "What are you doin' to my song?" Waylon replied, "Trust me." Shaver shot back, "I'll be a-listenin'." (Shaver, of course, remembers the night completely differently.)
Two other tracks from that album , the title number and "You Asked Me To" (both 1973) are also part of this collection. Of the latter, Waylon says, "We wrote this one night in the dark over in Bobby Bare's office across the street from a Burger Boy where we'd been playing pinball. Shaver said, `I've got it started. Let's finish it.' We wrote it pretty well in the dark." Around the same time, Waylon also cut a version of Steve Young's "Lonesome, On'ry and Mean" that lived up to its title, and a definitive take of Willie Nelson's "It's Not Supposed To Be That Way" (1973). "It's my favorite Willie Nelson song. I can relate to it so much. I have daughters. To see them thinking they're grown up and know all about love worries you to death."
In 1974, Waylon was peaking commercially, and "This Time" became his first Number One record even though it was a rerecording of a tune that RCA had rejected half a decade earlier. "I'm a Ramblin' Man" (1974) was a definitive Outlaw tune, even though "This song was 15 years old when I recorded it. It's my bubblegum country song. It reminds me of what a rock'n'roll-country song would sound like. What knocked me out about Ray Pennington's original was his blues singing." Waylon's newfound confidence as a producer took the song up another notch.
Waylon's Outlaw persona, with the mixture of thrills and grief that it brought him, had become his major lyrical subject, on songs like "Amanda" (1974), "Rainy Day Woman" (1974), and "Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)" (1977). A live album recorded in Texas yielded a wild Jimmie Rodgers reinterpretation ("T For Texas," with a Memphis beat but no yodel) and a deceptively complex new tune, "Bob Wills Is Still the King."
"I was never a big Bob Wills fan," Waylon acknowledges. "I wrote that song because I was mad at Willie Nelson. Willie had booked me at some clubs his old squirrelly friends were running. I found out he was booking me. He was branching out, booking me into the honky tonks down there. The bandstand was set up for big bands. With a four-piece band, I looked like an idiot. I wrote that to give him his comeuppance." The song's key couplet was, "It don't matter who's in Austin/Bob Wills is still the king."
The uproarious live "Bob Wills Is Still the King" (1974) provided a climax for Dreaming My Dreams, the LP recorded with producer Jack Clement that married the spontaneity of Clement's legendary work at Sun Records with Waylon's own restless soul. Says Waylon, "Like Buddy, Jack was another guy going after that feel. Until Jack started dancing I knew a track just wasn't right. Jack is crazy, so you had two insanities working on that record. You know, once we quit in the middle of making the album. Jack got drunk and I just up and left. One night I went to his house. Our families were having dinner. Jack said, `When are we getting back to the studio,' I said, `This may sound funny coming from me, hoss, but you have to straighten up." So he did, and we had only one crazy person finishing up the record. That was me of course." Three of the studio cuts from Dreaming My Dreams are included on this collection: "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way," which Waylon wrote one morning on an envelope while riding from his house to the studio, "Dreaming My Dreams With You," perhaps the gentlest of Waylon's great ballad performances, and the self-explanatory "Waymore's Blues."
Another top album from this period was Are You Ready for the Country (1976), which derived its name from Neil Young's country-rock title track. "I didn't understand the second verse so I rewrote it," Waylon says, "but Neil liked it." Also on that LP was the surprising "Jack A Diamonds" (1976), which Waylon considers an ideal country/blues fusion and remains one of his favorite performances from the period.
Waylon once titled an album I've Always Been Crazy and he doesn't shy away from the fact that the late Seventies up to 1981 were the craziest years of his life, due in large part to personal and pharmacological problems. Yet his strongest records from this period rank with his best and twice in those years he scored three consecutive Number One singles. So wherever he was going, his audience was loyal to him. "Don't You Think This Outlaw Bit's Done Got Out of Hand" (1978) tells the story of his notorious drug bust. " That song is word-for-word what happened that night." Waylon also reveals that the song's original title was `Don't You Think This Outlaw Shit's Done Got Out of Hand.'"
Waylon's studio guest the night of the bust was Hank Williams Jr., his talking duet partner for "The Conversation" (1978). Hank Jr. recalls, "Waylon was really into Daddy. I was opening a lot of shows for him back then, and we used to talk about Daddy all the time. You know, vision and reality are about as close as day and night, and we wanted to get that across. Waylon once said, `Your daddy shot out streetlights with guns and they call us Outlaws. Your daddy was the first Outlaw.'" For his part, Waylon says, "When we were done cutting it, I said, `Hank. let me tell you something. The problem with your parents was that they loved each other too much. It was a great love affair. Don't let anyone say nothing about it. Besides it's none of their business."
Other crucial tracks from the period were "I Ain't Living Long Like This" (1979), a fiery Rodney Crowell number that was cut in one take at 3 a.m., and J.J. Cale's "Clyde" (1980), which Waylon lists as "one of the best records I ever cut. I cut it five years before it was released and flat lost it." "It's Alright" (1980) paid homage to the George Jones school of country singers (Waylon says of Jones, "He could be the greatest of them all"). "Shine" (1981) emerged quickly as a soundtrack quickie with substance: "They wanted me to do music for this movie In Pursuit of D.B. Cooper. I saw the rushes and there was a scene where Cooper was in back of the plane fixin' to jump out. We went back to my agent's office and I wrote the song in his bathroom. I had to have it the next day." But the most, well, lasting track from this dark period was the deeply felt "Storms Never Last" (1980), a duet Jennings sang with the writer, his wife Jessi Colter. It was produced by Waylon and his longtime collaborator Richie Albright. Waylon says, "Jessi had this song and she threw it away. Like Lash LaRue I brought it back. She said, `I have a silly little song for you. There was not a rhyming line it, every line in the song standing on its own. At first the chorus went, `Storms never last/Do they, Waylon?' She wrote it for me."
The storms didn't last, and a sizable comeback was in order for the clean and sober Waylon. "Lucille (You Won't Do Your Daddy's Will)" (1983) was a complete reworking of the Little Richard classic. He transformed the New Orleans rocker into a devastating ballad, reestablishing himself as one of country's great interpreters. "I've always felt that blues, rock'n'roll, and country are just about a beat apart," Waylon says, and in this performance he brought them all together. This splendid song returned Waylon to Number One for the first time in nearly three years.
Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line concludes with two songs that find Waylon taking on new challenges. "Lookin' for Suzanne" (1984) is a sharp Paul Kennerley tune that showcases Waylon's ability to be contemporary without condescending to fashion. And "Never Could Toe the Mark" (1984) is classic Waylon, his full-throated baritone wrapping around an undeniable beat. Here, he's restless again, looking for new mountains to climb. It's likely he'll never stop searching.