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How Waylon Jennings Took Over My Family's Life

Willie Nelson (left) and Waylon Jennings, members of the country supergroup The Highwaymen, perform at a concert in Central Park in 1993. i i

Willie Nelson (left) and Waylon Jennings, members of the country supergroup The Highwaymen, perform at a concert in Central Park in 1993. Ron Galella, Ltd./Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Ron Galella, Ltd./Getty Images
Willie Nelson (left) and Waylon Jennings, members of the country supergroup The Highwaymen, perform at a concert in Central Park in 1993.

Willie Nelson (left) and Waylon Jennings, members of the country supergroup The Highwaymen, perform at a concert in Central Park in 1993.

Ron Galella, Ltd./Getty Images

In 2002, the country star Waylon Jennings died of complications from diabetes, leaving behind a handful of unfinished recordings that now, a decade later, have been completed and released on an album called Goin' Down Rockin'. On NPR's All Things Considered, you can hear an interview with Jennings' widow, Jessi Colter, and Robby Turner, the producer who put the finishing touches on the songs. ATC Producer Melissa Gray worked on the story, but her time with Jennings doesn't end when she leaves the office.


My preschooler is an outlaw ... at least in his little three-year-old head.

From what my husband and I can tell, Thomas thinks he's part of the 1980's country supergroup The Highwaymen. He's sort of the 5th Highwayman — along with Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and, of course, Waylon Jennings.

"I told Willie a joke the other day and he busted out laughing," Thomas told me one morning. "Johnny didn't laugh, though, because his belly hurt and Kris was just a baby. Waylon laughed and then he drank all the apple coffee."

Though I still haven't figured out what exactly apple coffee is, I have learned other curious details from my imaginative son: The four Highwaymen once lived in our neighborhood. Willie did not clean out the cat box, but he did the dishes. Waylon liked hugs. Johnny hung out with Kris on the porch.

All Things Considered producer Melissa Gray's son Thomas, in his "Got Jennings?" shirt. i i

All Things Considered producer Melissa Gray's son Thomas, in his "Got Jennings?" shirt. Melissa Gray hide caption

itoggle caption Melissa Gray
All Things Considered producer Melissa Gray's son Thomas, in his "Got Jennings?" shirt.

All Things Considered producer Melissa Gray's son Thomas, in his "Got Jennings?" shirt.

Melissa Gray

Then there are the Waylon Days. Other three year olds are Spider-Man. My kid is Waylon Jennings, toy guitar strapped to his shoulder, singing "Luckenbach, Texas" at the top of his lungs.

I laid the groundwork for this obsession (it's always the mother's fault, isn't it?). When he was a baby, I played and sang the Willie/Waylon duet "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys." In my defense, I also played and sang The Boswell Sisters and played a lot of Yo Yo Ma for him. But Waylon Jennings stuck like superglue, and I think for a very simple reason:

Waylon helped Big Bird.

When Thomas was two years old, we got the DVD of the 1985 Sesame Street movie, Follow that Bird.

In one scene, Big Bird, trying to get back to Sesame Street, hitches a ride on a turkey truck. Waylon Jennings is the driver. They share a meaningful song about having the confidence to get to where you need to go. And that's it.

YouTube

Unless you live at our house — because there is no more movie at that point, just that song over and over again.

Trying to spare my nerves, I broke out my Waylon Jennings Greatest Hits CD. Thomas would listen to nothing else for over a month. Then after a long car trip, my husband decided to introduce Thomas to the Highwaymen concert DVD, in hopes we could work Johnny Cash into the soundtrack of our household.

This brings us to the present. Every morning, Thomas sets up his Little People figurines on the table — or, stage, as he calls it — and gives a performance. He's now apt to sing "Ring of Fire" as much as "I've Always Been Crazy", but he's also introduced to that Cash/Jennings classic "There Ain't No Good Chain Gang." It's full of wisdom and, when there's nothing more to say to each other, my husband and I will sometimes sign off with "don't go writin' hot checks down in Mississippi."

Thomas' obsession can be charming. And maddening. But when I consider the alternative — Barney, anyone? — Willie, Waylon and the boys are a lot easier to live with, even when Waylon drinks all the apple coffee and Willie won't clean the cat box.

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