|...Does It His Way in Chesapeake Country
By Connie Darago
Ah, good ol' country music.
Maw, Paw and the youngins setting on the front porch of a shack pickin' a mail-order geetar or banjer from the Sears and Roebuck catalogue. Do-si-do-in' to knee-slappin', toe tappin', flat-footin' music.
That was yesterday's country music.
Today's express-yourself, don't-be-afraid-to-test-the-waters country music is cool, hip, happening - and embraced world round.
Modern country music owes much of its broad-based appeal and rugged individualism to legendary country singer Waylon Jennings, whose influence and style, spanning over four decades, has made him one of a handful of towering figures behind country music's current success.
"I've always felt that blues, rock n' roll and country are just about a beat apart," says Jennings.
Chesapeake Country Greetin's
Come Saturday, June 2, you can listen to the beat and decide for yourself as Waterside 2001 brings Jennings fresh from Bayou country's Bossier City, Louisiana, to Bay Country's Solomons Island, Maryland, at the Calvert Marine Museum. Jennings shares the stage and his own country style with singer and wife of 31 years, Jessie Colter.
Opening for Jennings is the local band Good Deale Bluegrass, left.
"It's an honor to be on the same stage as Waylon," says Good Deale Bluegrass tenor and mandolin player Tim Finch. "I think we'll be playing to a sell-out crowd. Waylon's a legend. He's got a fabulous track record. He does it his way."
Finch, who describes his two-year-young band, Good Deale Bluegrass, as new age/traditional, has played to a few of his own sell-out crowds recently at the Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis and the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia.
"You can be a good band and not get anywhere," says Finch. "It takes the right combination of people and good harmony. I think we've got that and this opportunity proves it."
"We're proud to have Waylon closing for us," he jokes.
Brought up with the Legends
Waylon Jennings, born in Littlefield, Texas, in 1937, grew up listening to folk songs and the blues. Country legends Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb and blues artists B.B. King and the Bobbie 'Blue' Bland were his favorites. By age 12 he had formed his own band. At 14, he was a disc jockey, making guest appearances on a local Texas radio station. It was there, in 1955, that Jennings met his mentor, "That'll-Be-the-Day" Buddy Holly.
"Mainly what I learned from Buddy," Jennings said, "was an attitude. He loved music and he taught me that it shouldn't have any barriers to it."
Jennings learned his lesson well. He was - and is - an outlaw in the truest sense of the word. Musically, personally and politically, he seeks to promote no agenda other than his own. Throughout his career, these qualities have enabled Jennings to broaden country music's audience without compromise.
Holly, who produced Jennings' first record and used him as a bass player, tapped into the young rebel's first years of performing. Jennings' "chicken-pickin'" Telecast guitar style, his rough-edged, soulful baritone voice and an eclectic repertoire that often borrowed from rock and rockabilly gave him a sound unique to country music.
Holly would never know he had stumbled upon a combination that was as popular as it was groundbreaking. It was Jennings who gave up his seat to the Big Bopper on the plane that would crash near Mason City, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 1959, killing Holly and Ritchie Valens as well.
But Holly had started the ball in motion. He'd passed on an attitude, instilled a confidence that would drive Jennings.
"Jennings was at the forefront of the country movement," says Calvert County's own successful recording star and master of the Telecast guitar, Bill Kirchen. "He decided to do things differently in Nashville. He pushed his own material and used his own band to make music he chose. And people listened. His hippy-outlaw country was a precursor of rough-and-tumble, back-to-roots country."
"I'm glad Waylon's coming to town," says Kirchen. "I'm still a big fan."
Jennings became the first musician to pull north and south, rural and city, college kids and blue-collar workers together into a unified music movement. You'll see that same variety on the stage at Waterside 2001.
"We got long-haired people, lawyers, doctors, and all the cowboys listening to country music," said Jennings after being signed to RCA records by legendary guitarist Chet Atkins.
As Jennings introduced new instruments and unfamiliar sounds to country music, barriers fell.
"When I started using the bass and a kick drum, they like to went crazy at the RCA studios," said Jennings. "They said that'll make the record skip."
Skipping to that beat, Jennings found his first real success with "Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line" in the top five in 1968. A year later, he picked up a Grammy for a version of "MacArthur Park." He was off and rolling, attitude and confidence strong.
Even as Jennings was proving his music could draw a diverse audience, the Nashville "system," in which producers often stamped their own ideas and formulas onto artists, still tried to control his style.
"Every business has its system that works for 80 percent of the people, but there's always that 20 percent who just don't fit," said Jennings. "That's what happened to me, Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. We just couldn't do it the way it was set up."
So Jennings, armed with that change-is-good attitude, broke away. He started producing his records.
"It wasn't until I started producing my own records and using my own musicians and working with people who understood what I was about that I first started having any real success," said Jennings.
His own records came across hard and heavy. Albums like Lonesome On'ry and Mean and This Time in the early 1970s, co-produced with Willie Nelson, caught the attention of critics outside country circles, who reasserted him as one of the genre's truly innovative stylists.
It was about that same time that he teamed up with Nelson for the first of the Fourth of July picnics in Texas that solidified the demographic mix that would turn into country's modern audience.
In those years, 1972 to be exact, Kirchen first met Jennings. As a member of Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, the lead guitarist was flying high on the band's first hit, the now-classic "Hot Rod Lincoln."
"It was a thrill to meet Jennings," says Kirchen. "He was a great guy." Kirchen has played four times on stage with Jennings.
"We opened for Jennings at a Texas concert in the mid '70s," says Kirchen. "He told us he'd just had an argument over whether we should be considered a country band. Then he invited us to his hotel room for a friendly game of pot-stakes poker. We realized we were out of our league as we sat down at the table covered with $20 bills and C-notes. Later I heard Jennings' bus driver won the band's bus playing poker."
Markin' the Miles
Named Country Music Association's Male Vocalist of the Year in 1975, Jennings was at the top of the heap.
As song after song hit No. 1, he held true to his convictions and proved he could make music his way and be successful.
In 1976, he teamed up with Willie Nelson, Tompall Glaser and his wife Jessie Colter to record Wanted: The Outlaws.
Considered by some the best country album ever made, it became the first platinum (one million copies sold) album ever recorded in Nashville. It also swept the Country Music Awards, winning Best Album, Best Single and Best Vocal Duo for "Good Hearted Woman."
By the late '70s, Jennings was still cranking out the hits. "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way," "Luckenbach, Texas," "I've Always Been Crazy" and "Amanda" all captured Billboard's Number One single's spot. Eight consecutive LPs went gold. Ol' Waylon, released in 1977, became the first country album by a solo artist to go platinum, and his Greatest Hits entered uncharted territory by going quadruple platinum.
In 1978, he won his second Grammy for "Mammas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" (featured in the movie Urban Cowboy starring John Travolta.)
Crossin' the Waters
As the 1970s drew to a close, Jennings found himself traveling a new path.
It was Jennings who supplied the witty narration through the entire run of the TV series The Dukes of Hazard.
You might not think such a simple-minded show would require a balladeer, but his gifted story-telling made the show a success.
The series' theme song, "Good Ol' Boys," which Jennings composed and sung, hit Number One on the country charts in 1980.
Jennings teamed up with fellow country stars Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson in the 1980s to form The Highwaymen. Crossing barriers and bridging gaps musically, they carried their style of country to such exotic places as Australia, Singapore, China and Thailand. Those international tours further solidified the mix of country's modern audience.
By 1988, touring and traveling had taken its toll on Jennings. He was suffering from chronic fatigue even before having a heart attack and undergoing triple bypass surgery.
"I was tired, real tired," Jennings said. "I really went too long on the road. It wrecked my health for a while."
But everyone knows you can't keep a good ol' boy down.
Jennings, a 10th-grade dropout, recuperated by going back to school and earning his GED.
Becoming a spokesperson for the GED program, he visited schools and talked about the importance of staying in school. He even released a children's album in 1993, Cowboys, Sisters, Rascals & Dirt.
Holding strong to his style of country, Jennings has broken every musical barrier.
Staying true to his tradition of innovation, in the '90s he and his band, Waymore Blues, reached into the music of such artists as Paul Simon, Metallica, Soundgarden and Neil Diamond.
"I went to one of Simon's concerts, and the things he was doing with rhythms and with song structures really killed me," said Jennings. "In country, we can get very particular and stuck in a certain verse-chorus pattern. He helped me loosen up. I began writing songs just for pleasure."
And it was just as pleasurable in the summer of 1996, when Jennings joined Metallica and Soundgarden on stage at three of their Lollapalooza tours. Metallica's James Hetfield specifically requested Jennings be a special guest for the rock festival.
"I'm excited to perform on the same stage as Waylon," Hetfield had said. "Anyone who gives the finger to the lame music business rules and who cuts new trails is all right by me. And hey, the man wears black."
Jennings was still wearing black in 1998 when he released his Closing In on the Fire album - with its mix of country, blues, rock and honkey-tonk - and again when he teamed up with Neil Diamond on his first country album, Tennessee Moon.
But being a legend and a pioneer with umpteen Number One records and a room full of Country Music Awards doesn't guarantee your music will hit the airwaves. Waylon is one of many country legends who have been snubbed by New Country radio stations looking to make top ratings.
"They won't play anybody over 45," said Jennings, then 61 years young. "I don't know what age has to do with it."
Neither does Bill Kirchen, who finds his band, Too Much Fun, also ignored by many of today's stations. Like Jennings, they find their music on alternative and underground Americana stations.
"We play some of Waylon's music today. I just love that free-wheeling stuff where the line is blurred," says Kirchen. "It's all the reason I went to making my own music. It's edgy, hard. I don't know why they continue to ignore us."
It took singer/songwriter Neil Diamond more than 30 years to follow Jennings' advice and branch out and cut a country album. Lucky for him, his pop singer status opened other airwaves. Tennessee Moon rose to Number Three on the Billboard charts, thanks in part to a duo, "One Good Love," joined by none other than 'The Outlaw' and 'The Solitary Man.'
When Jennings released the same song later on his own album, he spoke with that old attitude. "I'm going to tell everyone this guy is my harmony singer," he joked.
Moving into the 21st century attitude intact, Jennings remains active and visible.
In a Lazarus-like renewal in 2000, paired with stylistic disciples Montgomery Gentry, John Anderson and Travis Tritt - all of whom had to hustle to keep up - he rocked the walls at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium recording his live album Lucky Dog.
This month's Country Music Awards exemplified the broad-based appeal of today's country music.
Tuxedoes and glittering, low-cut, designer evening gowns were the choice of dress. Topless gyrating male dancers bumped and grinded to the hot sounds of youngster Leann Rimes. The stage seared with fire and a full rising moon. Guitars twanged and horns blared.
Somewhere along the way, country music changed.
Someone dared take a chance, cross barriers, throw a little blues, rock and individualism into the mix. Pave the way for cool, hip, happenin' country music.
Who can today's country music listener thank?
One of the old-timers, over 45. The Outlaw Waylon Jennings.
Thank him yourself at 7:30 Saturday June 2 @ Ralph's Dodge-Jeep and Cumberland & Erly, LLC Waterside 2001 at Calvert Marine Museum's Washington Gas Pavilion, Solomons. $35 premium; $25 general; all tickets come w/a chair: 800/787-9454 · www.calvertmarinemuseum.com.