Imagine the career of one of today’s popular country stars surviving news of a major drug bust. If you can buy that, imagine him releasing a single about the incident, with lyrics like this:
We were wrapped up in our music that’s why we never saw
Cars pull up, the boys get out and the room fills up with law
They came boundin’ through the backdoor in the middle of a song
They got me for possession of something that was gone, long gone
Don’t you think this outlaw bit’s done got out of hand?
What started out to be a joke the law don’t understand
Was it singing through my nose that got me busted by the man?
Maybe this here outlaw bit’s done got out of hand
That’s from Waylon Jennings’s 1978 hit “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of hand,” written after federal agents raided his studio searching for cocaine. By the time they got the required warrant, however, it was long gone. The heavily publicized incident didn’t hurt his career one bit. If anything, it helped him.
Jennings, who passed away in 2002, recounted the bust–and the other stories from his remarkable life–with refreshing honesty and humor in his 1996 memoir Waylon: An Autobiography, written with Lenny Kaye. Chicago Review Press reissued the book this year, and it belongs in the collection of not just every country fan, but any music lover and student of 20th century pop culture.
Waylon Jennings’s legendary music career was almost over before it started. Chosen to accompany another Texas legend, Buddy Holly, on tour in the late fifties, Jennings gave up his seat on the flight that killed Holly, Ritchie Valens, and “Big Bopper ” J.P. Richardson. His last words to Holly, who joked about how cold the tour bus would be?: “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes.”
It would take years for Jennings to overcome the horror and guilt–indeed, he never discussed the incident publicly until his book was published. For the next decade, despite incessant touring (and all the debauchery that came with it)–and even a starring role in the American-International flick Nashville Rebel–his recording career floundered.
Things turned better in the late sixties, when he married his fourth wife, Jessi Colter, who would stick with him right to the end. Moreover, after years of frustration dealing with Nashville record executives and producers–who produced a syrupy and smooth “Nashville sound” they weren’t willing to change–Jennings turned to the harder-edged “outlaw country” that would make him a superstar:
Nashville had a definite, set formula for what a country record should sound like. There’s more than one kind of country music though–a wide range that takes in everything from bluegrass to western swing. Their country was smooth and pop, one road that led to a Nashville Sound. Well, I couldn’t do that. I didn’t want to do that.
I had an energy, and it made them afraid. In response, they tried to control me, make me a cog in their machine, and it didn’t stop with record production. Everybody got in on it: the marketing departments, the promoters, the talent bookers. “I didn’t like his last album; he had some songs on there that sounded like rock and roll to me.” Maybe there was a heavier bottom, a rock and roll beat driving a country song, but if there’s no edge in the music, there’s no edge in me.
By 1976, Wanted! The Outlaws, a compilation featuring Jennings, his pal Willie Nelson, Colter and other “outlaw” performers, became the first million-selling country album in history.
With huge success came all the excesses of superstardom, especially the narcotic kind. Jennings’s 1977 bust made him even more of a folk hero (“Chet Atkins once told me that I was getting so much free publicity that he thought about committing a crime himself.”), but his heavy drug use–not to mention the legal fees–left him on the cusp of bankruptcy by the end of the decade. (This may explain why he was “the balladeer” on The Dukes of Hazzard for its entire run, even for the “Coy and Vance” season.)
Even after the “outlaw” movement faded–to the relief of Jennings, who felt like a prisoner of his image–he continued to record, with mixed success. Sadly, as with so many other veteran country artists, record companies and radio stations cast him aside. (Worse, after Waylon was published, health problems kept him from touring and recording as much as he wanted.) But his music–and his legend–lives on.
Waylon is an entertaining and thought-provoking read, with many candid (and sometimes surprising) opinions about his life and his line of work. Even his closest confidant and musical collaborator, Willie Nelson, is called out for attending the CMA awards, long boycotted by Jennings, after promising not to. And Waylon’s political and even religious views may surprise readers who assume all country performers fit some Christian-right template.
Jennings’s wife achieved success right out of the gate with “I’m Not Lisa” and his reaction says a lot about the man:
I never had a pop hit, at least on the Top Forty. For a while, in the early seventies, my favorite phrase was “I couldn’t go pop with a mouthful of firecrackers.”
People would ask me how I felt about “I’m Not Lisa” going gold. Did I mind?
Mind? Jessi was so happy, getting checks and buying presents for everybody she loves. For me, she put the down payment on our house, Southern Comfort.
But they’d continue: You’ve been struggling all these years, and here comes Jessi, first album, no reputation, and she has a million-selling record right out of the gate.
“Being a fuckin’ legend,” I’d have to say, “I don’t give a shit.”