Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


JENNINGS, WAYLON (1937-2002)

Waylon Jennings playing guitar

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Among the leaders of the outlaw movement that revitalized country music in the 1970s, Waylon Jennings was born on June 15, 1937, in Littlefield, Texas. He formed his own band at the age of twelve and worked as a radio DJ two years later. He dropped out of high school in the tenth grade to pursue his career. In 1954 Jennings moved to Lubbock, Texas, where he met Buddy Holly the following year. His influences included Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Webb Price, B. B. King, and Bobbie "Blue" Bland as well as his early mentor, Buddy Holly.

From 1958 to 1959 Jennings played bass for Buddy Holly, who produced Jennings's first album and taught him that there should be no barriers between the audience and the performer. Jennings gave his seat to the Big Bopper on the fatal flight that also took the lives of Holly and Richie Valens in February 1959. Following this close call, Jennings returned to Lubbock to regroup before moving to Phoenix, where he started his band, the Waylors, and began to build a diverse audience.

Jennings moved to Nashville in 1965, signing with RCA. Like Willie Nelson before him, Jennings found himself an outcast in Nashville and perhaps a little more "country" than the industry itself. Although he scored several Top 5 hits, including "Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line" and "Walk on out of My Mind," he found success elusive until he began to produce his own records and use his own musicians. In 1969 he married fellow singer Jessi Colter.

By the 1970s Jennings had a series of hit albums, including the first platinum-selling solo country album, Ol' Waylon, in 1977. He was long associated with fellow outlaws Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson, with whom he recorded as the Highwaymen in the late 1980s. His teaming with Willie Nelson produced two notable albums, Waylon and Willie (1978), which produced the crossover hit "Mammas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to Be Cowboys," and WWII (1982), which went gold.

In addition to his musical work, Jennings acted in films such as Outlaw Justice (with Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Travis Tritt, 1999) and the made-for-television Stagecoach (1986) as well as providing the narration for the television show The Dukes of Hazzard. He wrote his autobiography, Waylon (1996), and even produced a children's album, Cowboys, Sisters, Rascals & Dirt (1993). His work was well received, with Jennings winning numerous awards from the Country Music Association: male vocalist of the year (1975), vocal duo of the year with Willie Nelson (1976), album of the year (Wanted: The Outlaws, 1976), and single of the year ("Good Hearted Woman," 1976). He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001.

Jennings spoke and wrote openly about his troubles with alcohol and drugs. After earning his GED in 1989, he also promoted the equivalency program and worked to encourage children to stay in school.

Despite less than enthusiastic acceptance from the country music industry, Jennings nonetheless attained legendary status due to his outlaw reputation and ability to appeal to rock audiences. Indeed, his popularity is broader and deeper than that of most modern country music stars, despite the lack of airplay that his songs now receive.

Jennings died on February 13, 2002, in Chandler, Arizona, of complications from diabetes.

Charles Vollan University of Nebraska-Lincoln

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