Remembering Waylon Jennings

 

An anecdote from the archives…

 

By Fred Mills

 

Nine years ago yesterday, on
Feb. 13, 2002, country legend Waylon Jennings passed away from complications
related to diabetes. He left behind an immense musical legacy, and he was larger
than life on a personal level, too, having helped boot-kick, as a key architect
of the “Outlaw Country” movement (the ‘70s progenitor to the ‘90s
alt-country/y’allternative scene), an aging, increasingly tepid musical format
back into relevancy. Just the names he was associated with – Willie Nelson,
Tompall Glaser, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Jessi Colter, among others – is
testimony to his artistic stature.

 

You can find plenty of Jennings appreciations on
the web. Here’s mine.

 

I don’t recall listening to
country music at all growing up, other than hearing the occasional tune on the
radio or catching someone on TV, and after the British Invasion hit, it was
twice as unlikely that I’d hear any. Many, many years later, though, I realized
that my dad must have been a closet country fan, because after he died I found
tucked in among his Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman big band albums a number of country
compilations and some titles from Jennings and Nelson, including the classic
’76 LP Wanted! The Outlaws that
featured both men. I suspect that my mom thought country was too redneck for
our “refined” household, and that he only listened when she wasn’t home, but
there’s a good chance I got to hear some of those records in the process and
some of the music crept into my being through osmosis. At any rate, as an adult
I’ve come to have a healthy appreciation for country and its myriad offshoots,
and Jennings
definitely ranks as one of the greats in my book.

 

In January of 1990 I got to
meet Jennings.
It was in Charlotte, NC, while working as the Music Editor of
weekly Creative Loafing, and it
happened purely by chance as a result of me attending the cast and crew wrap
party for the Tom Cruise-Robert Duvall racecar flick Days of Thunder, which was filmed at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Some friends of mine, roots/rockabilly combo the Belmont Playboys, had been
hired to play at the party, and they smuggled me in as roadie to document the
occasion.

 

From my original story:

 

Just before the
Playboys’ first set at 9 p.m., who should walk in but Cruise’s co-star Robert
Duvall, accompanied by an entourage of Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Waylon
Jennings and Jessi Colter. Jaws dropped. People gawked. Once they were all
settled in at their table I had to go speak to them.

 

I first approached
Duvall. Shaking his hand, I told him I enjoyed his singing in
Tender Mercies, the 1983 film in which he played an
alcoholic, down-and-out country musician. He grinned and pointed at Cash. “Well
thanks, but there’s the real king right there.” I asked him how the Cashes and
the Jennings
wound up here this evening. “They’re friends of mine, so I invited ’em, figured
we’d have some fun.” I went over to Cash. I shook his hand. His wife smiled
graciously at me and accepted my handshake as well, as did Jennings and Colter.

 

During the set the
Playboys did a spirited cover of a very early Cash tune, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Ruby,”
and afterwards Cash walked over to the band to thank them, saying, “I just
wanted to express my appreciation to you for doing my song. You guys sound
great, just like we did forty years ago!” Jennings introduced himself as well,
and before anyone realized what was happening both men were onstage, guitarist
Jake Berger handing his instrument to Cash and bandleader Mike Hendrix passing
his to Jennings. After a quick conference with the band the pair launched into
“Folsom Prison Blues,” followed by “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be
Cowboys” and several other tunes.

 

The evening progressed from there, with Johnny and Waylon
swapping off on lead vocals – Jennings let rip some impressive guitar solos to
boot – and both June and Jessi getting up onstage to sing. Duvall too – the
show concluded with Duvall leading an entire room of awestruck dancers and
revelers (Cruise among them) in an extended version of “Will The Circle Be
Unbroken.” The looks on the performers’ faces were as priceless as the ones on
the crowd members, and both Cash and Jennings
were still grinning ear to ear when they finally left the stage. One abiding
memory, among many, is of the two men settling back into their chairs, smiling
and nodding at each other as if to say, wow,
that was the most fun I’ve had in a long time.

 

Thanks Waylon, for being part of a story I’ve told proudly
many times, and one I hope to be able to tell my grandchildren one day, too.

 

 

 

 

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