Waylon Jennings: An Outlaw Opens Up Musically In 1996, country star Waylon Jennings, who helped found the "outlaw country" movement, joined Terry Gross for a discussion of his music, his work with Willie Nelson and Buddy Holly, and his time spent working in Nashville in the 1970s.
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Waylon Jennings: An Outlaw Opens Up Musically

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Waylon Jennings: An Outlaw Opens Up Musically

Waylon Jennings: An Outlaw Opens Up Musically

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Up next on our Country Music Week series, an interview from our archive with Waylon Jennings. He started his career playing with Buddy Holly, and went on to change the sound of country music as a creator of the country outlaw movement. Along with Willie Nelson, he originated a sound with less strings and more rock rhythms, and an image with no sequins.

Being an outlaw was a very rewarding experience. Jennings had 16 number one singles, and several gold and platinum albums. He also performed with Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, as the group the Highway Men.

A lot of people knew him as the narrator of the TV series "The Dukes of Hazzard." He also sang the theme.

Waylon Jennings died in 2002 of complications from diabetes. He was 64.

Let's start with the title track from his popular 1973 album, "Honky Tonk Heroes." The song was written by Billy Joe Shaver.

(Soundbite of song, "Honky Tonk Heroes):

Mr. WAYLON JENNINGS (Singer-Songwriter): (Singing) Where does it go? The good Lord only knows. Seems like it was just the other day, I was down at Green Gables, a hawkin' them tables and generally blowin' all my hard-earned pay. Piano roll blues, danced holes in my shoes. There weren't another, other way to feel, for lovable losers, no-account boozers, and honky tonk heroes like me. Hey, hey. Where does it go? The good Lord only knows. Seemed like it was just the other day, I was down at Green Gables, hawkin' them tables and generally blowin' all of my hard-earned pay. Piano roll blues, danced holes in my shoes. There weren't another, other way to be for lovable losers and no-account boozers, and honky tonk heroes like me. Hey, hey.

GROSS: I spoke with Waylon Jennings in 1996, after the publication of his autobiography.

Did you have a sense, as a young man, of what your own music was?

Mr. JENNINGS: Now, you know, no. I didn't. I was just like everybody else. I heard somebody I liked. I loved Hank Williams, and I loved Carl Smith and Ernest Tubb. And I wanted to sound like all of them. And I was in Phoenix and in a club before I really realized that I was different - and that no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't imitate nobody.

GROSS: What made you realize that at this club?

Mr. JENNINGS: Well, the thing was, I was writing songs, and they sounded different. They sounded - you know, I thought, man, mine don't sound like anybody else's. You know? Which I didn't realize was good. I thought - but you couldn't imagine it being played on the radio, because I would use calypso beats and hard rhythms, and what have you. And they wouldn't have fit, at all, on the radio, in country music that way.

But the way I developed my style, really, was getting bored. I would be in a nightclub and play for four hours, and you sing the song like somebody - the guy that wrote it or the guy that sang it. And I got tired of that. So I started changing the rhythms and maybe giving it a heavier beat, and just rearranging the song to fit what I felt. And it worked.

GROSS: So what was the moment in which you were discovered?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENNINGS: Well, you know, Bobby Bare is one of the great country singers of all time. And he came through Phoenix, and he came over to this club where I was working and just flipped out. He heard, you know, we had our own sound. And I was telling you a while ago, I had my own way of doing songs and own rhythms, and I could sing on a lot of them - that helps.

Well, he gets - he's playing there in Nashville and - I'm sorry, in Phoenix. And then he's going from there to Vegas. Well, the next day when he left to Vegas, he stopped at every phone booth he saw, and he hounded Chet Atkins, saying: You've got to sign this guy. He said: This guy deserves to be on a major label.

Finally, Chet called me to get Bobby Bare to shut up.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENNINGS: And said - he's so laid-back and everything - he said, we'd like to have you with RCA. He said, I like what you do.

He had seen - heard some of my demos, and what have you. And he said, would you like to sign with us? And of course, you know, that's the right hand of God - is Chet Atkins. And so I signed with him, and that was it.

Chet signed me without ever seeing me. You can't do that nowadays.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Why don't we hear one of the records that Chet Atkins produced of yours? And this was also your first single to reach number one on the country charts, recorded in 1968. This is "Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line."

Do you want to say anything about this?

Mr. JENNINGS: Yeah. You know, that song, Chet is all over that. Wayne Moss is playing the guitar on it, and the band is wonderful. This song was out by someone else and I said, well, I'd love to do that but I'm going to give him a chance. So I waited six months and then he re-released it, and I had to wait another six months to do it, because I wasn't going to cover him.

(Soundbite of song "Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line")

Mr. JENNINGS: Everybody knows you've been steppin' on my toes and I'm gettin' pretty tired of it. You keep a steppin' out of line and be messin' with my mind. If you had any sense you'd quit. 'Cause ever since you were a little bitty teeny girl, you said I was the only man in this whole world. Now you better do some thinkin' then you'll find you got the only daddy that'll walk the line. I keep a workin' every day all you want to do is play. I'm tired of stayin' out all night. I'm a comin' unglued from your funny little moods. Now, honey baby that ain't right. 'Cause ever since you were a little bitty teeny girl, you said I was the only man in this whole world. Now you better do some thinkin' then you'll find you got the only daddy that'll walk the line.

GROSS: My guest, Waylon Jennings, recorded in 1968.

In your book, you write the more your records sold, the further they receded from what you had in mind, the sounds you wanted to hear.

What did you want, and what did you feel you were getting instead?

Mr. JENNINGS: I wanted to recognize a record, have a - duel tracks. And I come back and they had put horns and all kinds of things on it. This was when Danny Davis started producing me.

Chet was trying to get away from producing and more back into his own artistry, and playing guitar more. And he put me with Danny Davis. And he was just overworked.

But anyway, what I wanted to hear was what I was feeling and what I had in mind. It was kind of like a painting. I don't know. That sounds corny, I guess. but to me it was. I could write a song or find a song I like, and I could describe to you what it was going to sound like when I got through. And I got into a position where it didn't. And that's very frustrating and drives you crazy.

GROSS: Now, I want to just take a little sidestep here, into a tangent. I can't remember who was producing the session - it might have been Herb Alpert - where you decided that you just couldn't stand pickup notes...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: ...you took a gun and said what?

Mr. JENNINGS: I took it in the studio but it was - I think at the - on that session, I think that was - I'm not sure - Danny Davis, and that was after Herb Alpert. Herb Alpert would throw something at me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENNINGS: So I did go in there. And what had happened is, I'd loaned Harlan Howard...

GROSS: The songwriter.

Mr. JENNINGS: Yeah, my gun. It was a Buntline. He took it out in his fishing boat. And Merle Haggard wound up with it, somehow, and he brought it back to me. And so I was just putting it on the holster. You know, I still got it and everything - and put it on. And I went in there and I thought, well. And there was - some British journalists were in there in the studio - in the little studio, there at RCA. I walked in, and I said, now, the first guy that I hear use a pickup note, I'm going to shoot his fingers off.

And the guy that's sitting there looking at those numbers on that paper, after the third rundown, I'm going to just kill him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENNINGS: Anyway, later on, I met John Lennon, and I - you know, we were cutting up and everything at one of the Grammy things. And I said, man, you're a lot of - you're funny. I didn't know you were funny. I said, I thought you were some kind of mad guy or something like that. And he said, me? He said: Listen, people in England think you shoot folks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Now, explain for people who don't know written music what pickup notes are. And then tell us why you're so opposed to them.

Mr. JENNINGS: Well, you know, it gives it away. You know, it goes...

(Singing) ...dun, dun, dun, dun...

You know, like - and there you - you know, why not just keep it rolling and rolling and having a good time, and then come in where you're supposed to? And you haven't given everything away. You know, that's what pickup notes do. And it's the easy way, too, because it keeps - you know, you don't have to pay that much attention. When you hear a pickup note coming, you know you've got to change keys. And...

GROSS: So it was just all becoming formula to you.

Mr. JENNINGS: It was all formula. It was like cookie cutters, you know, everything you did. And here are these guys playing four sessions a day, sometime. How creative can you be, you know? And they wouldn't let you use your own band. They didn't want you to use your - I'm not saying one thing bad about the musicians here. They were the greatest musicians in the world because, I mean, they could - they had that number system. And for that music, it was wonderful. I just didn't like, you know, pickup notes, like I said. It's like...

(Singing) ...dun, dun, dun, dun - oh, I'm a good dun, dun, dun, dun, dun.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENNINGS: That was it.

GROSS: How did the outlaw name come about?

Mr. JENNINGS: I had an album on RCA, and it was called "Ladies Love Outlaws," which was after a song, you know. And they kind of picked it up there. And then, when in search of something, they called me everything for a long time. They called me outlaw. They called me rebel. They didn't know quite what pocket to put me in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENNINGS: And - but that's where it had started, originally. And then when they decided to put out the album with me and Tom, Paul, Jesse and Willie, they used it there, and it kind of caught on.

GROSS: That's the album "Wanted: The Outlaws," which was the first country album to sell a million, I think.

Mr. JENNINGS: It was, yeah.

GROSS: Why don't I play one of the recordings featured on the "Wanted: The Outlaws" album that you did with Willie Nelson and Jessi Colter? This is something you co-wrote with Willie Nelson, and you both sing on it. And it's "A Good-Hearted Woman," which you also recorded on your own. Tell me about this particular track.

Mr. JENNINGS: That song, Willie and I wrote that when we were playing poker one time in a hotel, with Billy Gray and Paul English.

GROSS: You were playing poker with Billy Graham?

Mr. JENNINGS: Billy Gray.


(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I thought that sounded improbable.

Mr. JENNINGS: Billy Graham cheats. We don't let him play no more.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JENNINGS: But anyway, and - so I was recording the next day, and I said, Willie, I lack two lines in this song. You help me get them, and I'll give you half this song. So we did, but we wrote it while we was playing poker. Now, we lost our rears in that poker game, but we got a pretty good song.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. JENNINGS: Hey, I've enjoyed it. I really have. You got some good questions there, girl.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Well, thank you.

Waylon Jennings, recorded in 1996. He died in 2002 of complications from diabetes. Our Country Music Week continues tomorrow. You'll find links to all the interviews in this series on NPRMusic.org.

Here's Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, singing a song they co-wrote, "A Good-Hearted Woman."

(Soundbite of song, "A Good-Hearted Woman")

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Mr. JENNINGS: (Singing) A long time forgotten, the dreams that just fell by the way. The good life he promised ain't what she's livin' today.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Mr. JENNINGS: Willie.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Mr. WILLIE NELSON (Singer-Songwriter): (Singing) But she never complains of the bad times or the bad things he's done, Lord. She just talks about the good times they've had and all the good times to come.

Mr. JENNINGS and Mr. NELSON: (Singing) She's a good-hearted woman in love with a good-timin' man.

Mr. JENNINGS: (Singing) She loves him in spite of his ways she don't understand.

Mr. JENNINGS and Mr. NELSON: (Singing) With teardrops and laughter, they pass through this world hand in hand, a good-hearted woman lovin' a good-timin' man.

GROSS: Coming up, David Edelstein reviews George Clooney's new film, "The American."

This is FRESH AIR.

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