Waylon Jennings 1937-2002

The outlaw hero who brought attitude to country music is dead at 64.

By Edward Morris
Published February 14, 2002 9:00AM (EST)

Waylon Jennings, who died on Wednesday at his home in Chandler, Ariz., was the first musician to bring real attitude to country music. By the time he came along in the mid-1960s, country had already had its share of lovable and not-so-lovable rogues -- from Hank Williams to Johnny Cash -- but Jennings institutionalized the unapologetic swagger and overtones of menace that would later take root in the likes of Hank Williams Jr., Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, Travis Tritt and Toby Keith.

Jennings, who was suffering from diabetes and had recently had a foot amputated, was 64. A native of Littlefield, Texas, Jennings teamed up musically with his friend Buddy Holly in 1955. He played in Holly's band from 1958 until the rising young rock star was killed in a plane crash the following year. Jennings was booked to be on the plane but gave up his seat at the last minute to J.D. Richardson, the Big Bopper.

After stints as a D.J. and club singer, Jennings signed to RCA Records' country division in 1965. He scored several hits during the next 10 years, among them "(That's What You Get) For Lovin' Me," "Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line," "I'm a Ramblin' Man" and "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way."

In 1976, strictly as a marketing ploy, RCA packaged songs cut by Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jennings' wife, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser into an album the label called "Wanted! The Outlaws." It would become the first country album to sell a million copies, and it took Jennings beyond the borders of country music. It also gave him a platform, which he used until his death, to preach the gospel that artists should be allowed to record the songs they want in the way they wanted. While the practice is common in other areas of pop music, it is one that still finds considerable resistance at country labels.

The sound Jennings cultivated and made instantly identifiable featured a thudding, walk-all-over-you bass and forceful, plain-spoken lyrics. He also began making a name for himself as a songwriter. He penned such hits as "Rainy Day Woman," "Good Hearted Woman," "I've Always Been Crazy" and, in 1980, "Good Ol' Boys," the theme song for the megapopular (if critically lambasted) TV series "The Dukes of Hazzard." He was elected to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1995 and last year to the Country Music Hall of Fame.

His image and his rowdy offstage behavior made Jennings almost as famous as his music. By his own admission, he battled a drug problem for more than two decades, reportedly spending as much as $1,500 a day on cocaine in the 1970s.

Besides his solo work, Jennings joined Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson in the mid-'80s to record and tour as the Highwaymen. Working with songwriter Roger Murrah, Jennings did his "audio-biography" album, "A Man Called Hoss," in 1987. In 1998, he linked up with Jerry Reed, Mel Tillis and Bobby Bare to record the album "Old Dogs."

Edward Morris

Edward Morris is an entertainment writer for CMT.com and book reviewer for BookPage. He lives in Nashville, Tenn.

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