Country Music Rebel Waylon Jennings Dead at 64

Feb 14, 2002 12:00 PM, Reuters

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) -- Hell-raising country music icon Waylon Jennings, who escaped death by giving up his seat on Buddy Holly's plane and helped launch Nashville's "outlaw" movement with Willie Nelson, died on Wednesday, February 13, 2002. He was 64.

The deep-voiced Texas troubadour "died very peacefully in his sleep" at his home outside Phoenix, spokeswoman Schatzi Hageman said. Jennings had battled diabetes and related illnesses, and last year had his left foot amputated. Nonetheless, he still had concert dates booked for the coming months.

Disillusioned by country music's slickness in the early 1970s, Jennings brought a rock 'n' roll sensibility to the genre and crossed over to mainstream fans. He enjoyed such hit songs as "Luckenbach, Texas," "Good Hearted Woman" and the Grammy-winning duet with Willie Nelson, "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys."

His 1976 album, Wanted: The Outlaws, which also featured his wife, Jessi Colter, Nelson and singer/producer Tompall Glaser, was the first country album to be certified Platinum. He also wrote the popular theme to the 1970s television series The Dukes of Hazzard.

Overall, the two-time Grammy winner (for the 1968 cover of "MacArthur Park") recorded dozens of albums and had 16 Number One country singles in a career spanning five decades. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame last October, but was too ill to attend. Ill-health had plagued him since the late 1980s, when he had a triple heart bypass, and he was forced to use a wheelchair in recent months.

Jennings lived an appropriate wild life in his younger days. In the late 1960s, he shared an apartment in Nashville with Johnny Cash after their respective marriages had broken up, and the duo lived high on methamphetamines and general destruction. After Cash remarried and got sober, Jennings complained in 1974 that Cash had "sold out to religion."

Jennings, too, gave up the drugs, but as recently as 2000, he said religion could be "a bad crutch."

"For Waylon, it was always about the music," said Joe Galante, chairman of the RCA Label Group/Nashville, which was Jennings recording home for many years. "The only spotlight he ever cared about was the one on him while he was onstage. It wasn't about the awards or events. He was an original and a pioneer in terms of creating his own sound. This is a great loss for the music world."

In the mid-1980s, he and Nelson formed The Highwaymen, a "superstar" quartet that also included Cash and Kris Kristofferson.

TWIST OF FATE
Born June 15, 1937, in Littlefield, Texas, and raised on the music of Jimmie Rodgers and B.B. King, Jennings got an early start in the industry. He became a radio DJ at the age of 12, dropped out of high school in the 10th grade, and befriended fellow Texan Buddy Holly after moving to Lubbock to work at a station there.

Jennings credited the rock 'n' roll pioneer with bestowing "attitude" upon him.

"He loved music, and he taught me that it shouldn't have any barriers to it," Jennings once said.

Holly produced Jennings' first album and hired him as a bass player for his 1959 tour of the Midwest with Ritchie Valens and J.P. "the Big Bopper" Richardson.

After a February 2 show in Clear Lake, Ia., an exhausted Holly chartered a small plane to get to the next gig. Jennings gave up his seat to the Big Bopper, who was suffering from the flu and did not want to ride in the bus.

The plane crashed soon after takeoff in the early hours of February 3, killing Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper. For years, Jennings was haunted by a joking exchange he had had with Holly, as he related in VH1's Behind The Music.

"Buddy was leaning back against the wall in this cane-bottom chair laughing at me. He says, 'You're not going on the plane tonight, huh?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'Well, I hope your bus freezes up.' And I said, 'Well, I hope your plane crashes.' I was awful young, and it took me a long time to get over that."

Jennings formed his own group, The Waylors in 1963, and developed his own style by merging a soulful vocal with an eclectic repertoire. He was signed to RCA Records by Chet Atkins and had Top Five hits in 1968 with "The Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line" and "Walk Out On My Mind."

He recorded several songs for the soundtrack album of Ned Kelly, which starred Rolling Stone Mick Jagger.

OUTLAW ROOTS
Despite his success, Jennings never fit into the Nashville's pop-influenced hit-making machine, where the songwriters and producers held sway over the artists. He started producing his own records, hiring his own musicians and stripped the music to its honky-tonk and western swing roots.

Albums like Ladies Love Outlaws (1972) and Honky Tonk Heroes (1973) helped pave the way for the "outlaw" movement, an informal grouping with a fluid membership of artists who came and went. He and Nelson also recorded three duet albums.

This new form of progressive country music expanded the market for the country genre and sowed the seeds for the country megastars who would burst onto the scene two decades later.

By that stage, country veterans like Jennings and Cash were out of favor on country music radio, as the genre reverted to its slick stylings. Jennings' later albums were inconsistent. His latest album was titled Never Say Die, LIVE.

Jennings also starred in a number of film and TV projects, including Married ... With Children, in which he played a wizened mountain prophet, the Mel Gibson movie Maverick and a Sesame Street movie called Follow That Bird.






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