The Outlaw Rebel

When I heard about the death of country singer Waylon Jennings in February, my mind flashed back to the day I first bought one of his records. I was 19, and I literally shed my own blood to buy that album.

The year was 1973—a time of terrible disappointment for us rock-and-roll disciples. The music that had promised so much just a few years before had all but given up the ghost. Then one day I read in Rolling Stone magazine that Waylon Jennings had recorded a bare-bones, hard-core country album that also managed to capture rock's old rebel spirit.

Without having heard a note, I knew I had to have it. But I was a foolish and profligate youth, and I had no money, not even the $5 you needed in those days for a 12-inch slab of vinyl. Then some even more foolish and profligate friends of mine showed up with a plan. They'd found a place downtown that paid cash for blood plasma. They took a pint of your blood and ran it through a centrifuge. Then they kept the clear liquid, pumped the red stuff back into your arm and sent you out the door with a $5 bill. My friends were going, and I, to my eternal shame, went with them. The plasma bank was horrible, and I never went back, but I never completely repented of that one trip, either, because I took my fresh new $5 bill and immediately traded it for Honky Tonk Heroes by Waylon Jennings and The Waylors.

I took the album home and looked at the cover. On the front was a sepia-toned photo of Jennings, his band, and a battered posse of cronies gathered around a bar. The picture was a little scary. These weren't kids. They were grown men, mostly in their 30s and 40s (Jennings was 35); it looked like a shot from the ultra-violent western of the day, The Wild Bunch.

I put the disc on my turntable and listened to it, and I didn't stop listening to it for several years. It was like nothing I'd ever heard, and like something I'd been waiting for all my life. It had songs of interracial romance, love, and adventure on the Texas-Mexico border and Whitmanesque hymns to the open road. It had the unity and sweep of a great novel, one that Cormac McCarthy would eventually write. The grand unity of the album derived from the fact that all of the songs were by the same writer—Billy Joe Shaver—and from the signature sound (never before recorded) of Waylon and his touring band, The Waylors. It was a spare, loping sound that was mostly bass and drums and Fender Telecaster (those were the only instruments on some tracks), with a dash of pedal steel. It was the sound of Buddy Holly and the Crickets playing the collected works of Bob Wills. Waylon struck a groove on that album, and he never budged from it for the next 30 years.

LATER I LEARNED Jennings had shed some blood of his own to make that album. For eight years the marketing wizards of Nashville had been trying to force him into the "countrypolitan" mold of the day. He couldn't select his own songs, and he couldn't use his own band on his records. They even tried to make him wear sequins. For a man who had something to say, and knew it, this was the worst form of torture, and it drove Waylon a little crazy. The drugging and drinking that started in those years dogged Jennings into the 1980s, but in his middle years he finally put all that down and learned to live as his own true self. The diabetes that killed him was a cruel reminder of those bad old days, but in his last interviews Jennings chose to emphasize the good he'd found in life. "All my dreams came true," he said.

For three weeks after I heard of Waylon's death I went around humming the song "Honky Tonk Heroes." The song begins slowly and reflectively, with the solo strum of an acoustic guitar. Then Waylon's voice comes in with a tone of world-weary resignation, singing the words that could be his epitaph. "Go down evening sun. Done did everything that needs done." He did, and then he left, just like that evening sun.

Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

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