Many consider him the gold standard for outlaw country music. One thing is sure, there’s been another like Waylon Jennings. Even 16 years after his death, no one has stepped up and come close to filling the shoes of this Texas-born great.
But country music has changed pretty significantly since Waylon and his wife, Jessi Colter, along with pals like Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Tanya Tucker, Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, Guy Clark, David Allan Coe and Billy Joe Shaver were making music. And when you turn on your local contemporary country radio station, it certainly poses the question, “Are you sure Hank done it this way?”
It’s ironic that when Waylon released his 1975 chart-topping homage to Hank Williams, “Are You Sure Hank Done it This Way,” he was bemoaning the contemporary country artists of that time who were wearing “rhinestone suits” and driving “new shiny cars.” Just a year prior to the song’s release, pop star Olivia Newton-John had taken home the CMA’s Female Vocalist of the Year trophy. Then in 1975, John Denver, who had previously established residency on the adult contemporary chart, crossed over to win the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year prize.
Pop-infused country was once again punctuating the charts as it had in the 1960s and ’70s when Eddy Arnold and Ray Price, and then later Tammy Wynette and Glen Campbell, were making their ascent to the stars, and Waylon wasn’t having it.
Staying true to his Texas roots, Waylon, like most Texas artists we know, did it his way. He kept his arrangements jangly and ready for a turn around the hardwoods or tipping back a cold bottle of Shiner. And even when he slowed it down for a waltz, like “Dreaming My Dream” or his duet with wife Jessi, “Storms Never Last,” Waylon’s gravelly vocal and subtle production gave the tunes a grit that you didn’t hear from his contemporaries.
It sure makes you wonder what he would say about today’s country music.
As we mentioned, we lost Waylon in 2002 from complications from diabetes. He was just 64 years old, but his time on earth was well spent developing his signature sound and applying it to hits like “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line,” “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Life),” the Bob McDill hit recently resurrected by Chris Stapleton, “Amanda,” as well as the theme song from the “Dukes of Hazzard,” “Good Ol’ Boys.” Waylon was also committed to building relationships with fellow outlaw performers like Willie, Johnny and Kris, that would produce songs like “Good Hearted Woman,” “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and The Highwaymen’s “Highwayman,” all of which are now staples in the American country songbook.
Maybe Hank Williams didn’t do it the way Waylon did it, and maybe a lot of today’s country stars aren’t doing it the way Waylon did it, but there is still plenty of fiddle and steel happening in Tennessee and Texas. Sometimes you might just have to look for it.
And anything worth having is worth working for.