LOS ANGELES (Reuters) — Hell-raising country music icon WaylonJennings, who escaped death by giving up his seat on Buddy Holly’splane and helped launch Nashville’s “outlaw” movement with WillieNelson, 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. Jenningshad battled diabetes and related illnesses, and last year had his leftfoot amputated. Nonetheless, he still had concert dates booked for thecoming months.
Disillusioned by country music’s slickness in the early 1970s,Jennings brought a rock ‘n’ roll sensibility to the genre and crossedover to mainstream fans. He enjoyed such hit songs as “Luckenbach,Texas,” “Good Hearted Woman” and the Grammy-winning duet with WillieNelson, “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys.”
His 1976 album, Wanted: The Outlaws, which also featured hiswife, Jessi Colter, Nelson and singer/producer Tompall Glaser, was thefirst country album to be certified Platinum. He also wrote the populartheme 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 Onecountry singles in a career spanning five decades. He was inducted intothe 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 tripleheart bypass, and he was forced to use a wheelchair in recentmonths.
Jennings lived an appropriate wild life in his younger days. In thelate 1960s, he shared an apartment in Nashville with Johnny Cash aftertheir respective marriages had broken up, and the duo lived high onmethamphetamines and general destruction. After Cash remarried and gotsober, Jennings complained in 1974 that Cash had “sold out toreligion.”
Jennings, too, gave up the drugs, but as recently as 2000, he saidreligion 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 recordinghome for many years. “The only spotlight he ever cared about was theone 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 ofJimmie Rodgers and B.B. King, Jennings got an early start in theindustry. He became a radio DJ at the age of 12, dropped out of highschool in the 10th grade, and befriended fellow Texan Buddy Holly aftermoving 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 anybarriers to it,” Jennings once said.
Holly produced Jennings’ first album and hired him as a bass playerfor his 1959 tour of the Midwest with Ritchie Valens and J.P. “the BigBopper” Richardson.
After a February 2 show in Clear Lake, Ia., an exhausted Hollychartered a small plane to get to the next gig. Jennings gave up hisseat to the Big Bopper, who was suffering from the flu and did not wantto ride in the bus.
The plane crashed soon after takeoff in the early hours of February3, killing Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper. For years, Jennings washaunted by a joking exchange he had had with Holly, as he related inVH1’s Behind The Music.
“Buddy was leaning back against the wall in this cane-bottom chairlaughing 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 along time to get over that.”
Jennings formed his own group, The Waylors in 1963, and developedhis 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 in1968 with “The Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line” and “Walk Out On MyMind.”
He recorded several songs for the soundtrack album of NedKelly, which starred Rolling Stone Mick Jagger.
Despite his success, Jennings never fit into the Nashville’spop-influenced hit-making machine, where the songwriters and producersheld sway over the artists. He started producing his own records,hiring his own musicians and stripped the music to its honky-tonk andwestern swing roots.
Albums like Ladies Love Outlaws (1972) and Honky TonkHeroes (1973) helped pave the way for the “outlaw” movement, aninformal 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 forthe country genre and sowed the seeds for the country megastars whowould burst onto the scene two decades later.
By that stage, country veterans like Jennings and Cash were out offavor on country music radio, as the genre reverted to its slickstylings. Jennings’ later albums were inconsistent. His latest albumwas titled Never Say Die, LIVE.
Jennings also starred in a number of film and TV projects, includingMarried … With Children, in which he played a wizened mountainprophet, the Mel Gibson movie Maverick and a SesameStreet movie called Follow That Bird.