Only once in a great while does an artist come along that not only breaks the rules but also is embraced by such a wide variety of fans. We lost just one star with the untimely death of "Country" music star, Waylon Jennings, on February 13 at his home in Arizona. He died of diabetes-related complications at the age of 64.
Born in 1937 in Littlefield Texas, Jennings grew up listening to a wide range of musical styles (country greats such as Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb, to legendary blues singers like B.B. King and Bobby "Blue" Bland). Having already formed a band at age 12, Waylon landed a gig as a DJ at a local station, KDAV, where he would make guest appearances on the station's "Sunday Party". This would prove to change his life forever. For it was at the Sunday program in 1955, that he met and befriended the late Buddy Holly. Waylon admitted that he learned everything from Holly, once saying, "He loved music, and he taught me that it shouldn't have any barriers to it." Holly produced Waylon Jennings' first solo record and used him as bass player. Waylon almost lost his life in the plane crash that would claim the life of his friend before giving up his seat for Jiles Perry Richardson, aka the Big Bopper.
By the early to mid sixties, the budding country star was headlining at a club called JD's in Phoenix. While his sound was "country", it borrowed from rockabilly and rock. Furthermore, the sound combined Waylons' "chicken-pickin" Telecaster guitar style with his signature rough- edged and soulful vocals. By 1968, he made it to the top five with "Only Daddy That'll Walk The Line" and "Walk On Out Of My Mind," and a year later he would win a Grammy for a version of "MacArthur Park". However, Nashville had a grip so tight on Country music that if you didn't conform, you would not gain access to the exclusive club known as The Country Music Association. Waylon was not about to play the game and continued to put out music his way. At a time when it was expected that an artist would use studio musicians and producers, Waylon Jennings snubbed his nose at the system. The 1973 album, Lonesome On'ry and Mean, and the 1974 release of This Time, which he co-produced with Willie Nelson, caught the attention of critics outside the country mainstream. This would again assert Jennings as a force to be reckoned with.
Growing tired of the resistance of the Nashville system, he took his gang, consisting of wife Jessie Colter, Willie Nelson and Tompaul Glaser, and recorded the LP that would ultimately change the face of country music. Wanted: The Outlaws was gritty and hard edged, in sharp contrast to the pop-inflected sounds that mainstream country fans were used to. The one time Nashville outcast's project was to become the first platinum album to ever be recorded in Nashville. That year Waylon and Willie swept the CMA Awards, winning Best Album, Best Single and Best Vocal Duo (for "Good-Hearted Woman).
While many would follow him in his anti-Nashville movement, join the "Outlaw" gang and claim their independence from the studio system, it was Waylon Jennings who broke down the floodgates and created alternative or progressive Country. Spanning five decades, Jennings recorded more than 60 albums, charting 16 No. 1 Country hits. His rebellious spirit continued last October when he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and he sent his son, Shooter, to accept the honor.
By staying true to himself and his art, Waylon Jennings became a legend in his own time, and even with his passing, he will remain an influence for decades to come.
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