No Flies on Waylon
An Outlaw Who's Not Angry?
"Okay," Jennings quips, "get more money!" The Littlefield, Texas native casts his perpetually sly gaze about the small audience assembled aboard his tour bus. "Wait 'til the last minute." He shoots another roguish glance and adds, "That's what we'll do with Lollapalooza. If I get out there and don't like the looks of things, I'm gonna ask for more money. Then quit."
Ol' Waylon nails his interrogator with another sardonic smirk. "See, there ain't no flies on me, Hoss!"
No, there ain't no flies on Waylon Jennings, but this doesn't mean time and nature haven't been drumming a finger or two upon this one-time notorious hellraiser. He's quite open about his recent spell of bad health. ("You spend too much on doctors, and they'll kill ya.") And if he doesn't reflect upon it, there are visible signs: the hand therapy ball being flexed in his right hand through the interview's duration; a couple of points during the set where he ceases his relentless Telecaster assault to shake the kinks out of that right hand. There are whispers of a bout with diabetes that's forced a curbing of certain old habits: See a thanks on his new Justice CD Right for the Time aimed at "everybody at Woodland and all of the restaurants that made veggie burgers."
But if no flies are landing on Waylon Jennings, neither is even a spot of pathos. The man is bearing these difficulties with the grace, dignity, and wry humor that have always lurked beneath his hard-bitten exterior. There may have been a slight diminishment of his onstage drama and power this Saturday night at the Travis County Exposition Center, but the heat in that barn would have doused the ardor of Johnny Storm (the Human Torch, in case you're not up on your Marvel Comics lore). But what the shit? He couldn't be feeling too unhealthy. After all, Ol' Waylon faced a few thousand pierced 'n' tattooed youths on the Des Moines and Indiana stops of Lollapalooza last month, and just this week he'll face several thousand more on the New Orleans layover of dreadfest.
No, your chain is not being yanked. Thanks to having both an open mind and a 17-year-old mouth-to-feed, Shooter Jennings, Waylon's much hipper to the modern beat than your father. The Twisted Willie record found him assisting L7 with their version of old pal Willie Nelson's "Three Days"; he told Rolling Stone he thought they were teamed because they were all equally mean. Shooter, a musician himself who plays on Right for the Time and will accompany Pop onstage at Lollapalooza, has meantime turned Jennings on to the likes of Nine Inch Nails and Metallica. The latter fondness has gotten personal: Jennings became friends with that band's James Hetfield and his recently deceased father. It was at Hetfield's insistence that Jennings got the Lollapalooza booking, one which Waylon claims to have first heard about through the radio.
"I dunno if this is gonna work or not," Jennings muses in his rumbling West Texas drawl, clearing his throat. He then laughs, "I can get as nasty as they can.
"I listen to all kinds of music. I get a lotta ideas from that. Used to I'd get ideas from J.J. Cale. Remember him? Yeah, he's great, crazier than a goddamned gooneybear. Shooter got me into the Nine Inch Nails scene and Metallica, just several of 'em. Pride and Joy, you never heard of them? I love what they do. I didn't get into the lyric thing. I always called them `musical geniuses and lyrical idiots,'" he laughs. "They had a lot of shit in there that didn't really belong."
Too much anger for ya, Waylon?
"Aw, yeah! What the hell? There's enough of that shit out there, anyway. Why ruin our music -- a happy thing? That's all it is, is a goddamned opinion, anyway."
Yeah, but hasn't anger always been a part of rock & roll, though?
"No, I don't think so, at all. The real first rock & roll that ever happened -- the true rock `n' roll! -- Fats Domino and all those people, it was good rockin' music, y'know? Buddy Holly, no anger in that. They took it where they wanted it to. It's fine if they want to do that. I just don't agree with it.
"I don't really see a place for the anger. But what's a 16-year-old boy know about anger? What's he know about goddamned livin', if you know the truth about it? Because actually, he gets pissed off if he has to come in early," he laughs. "Is that anger? I don't know whether I'm right or wrong. It's just that music is great when it moves you. Why would you want to make it a downer?
"Look at Courtney Love," says Jennings, that wry look lighting his eyes again. "That oughta turn ya back around! That's a little ugly, ain't it?
"I saw this group down there in Atlanta. I did a thing where we had a panel, and I was part of the panel called `Demystifying the C-word.' Country, y'know? This group's called the Old 97s. They are great! They are country, but I think country is headin' that way, right there. And Old 97s is from a song called `The Wreck of the Old 97.' I watched 'em. Man, that thing hits ya right there," Waylon remarks, thumping his chest for emphasis. "They were strong!"
Yeah, Dallas' wonderboys are kinda like what Gram Parsons & the Flying Burrito Brothers were in their time: rock & rollers who are approaching and adapting traditional country music. "Ex-actly!" says Jennings, eyes blazing. "I love 'em!" he gushes, before adding with another laugh, "Didn't understand one word they were singing, but they are uncommonly good."
As is Jennings' new record, Right for the Time, which has to feature some of the strongest, most involved work the man has done in awhile. Like any great Waylon record, there's an appropriate mix of hard raunch (especially noteworthy in that department is "Hittin' the Bottle Again," featuring the dueling Fenders of Jesse Dayton and slide-man Shawn Jones), and the sensitive, introspective material you never really think of in conjunction with Waylon Jennings. The truth of the matter is, however, the ballads-to-raunch ration in the man's ouevre has been generally more skewed to the former.
And Mr. "I Listen to All Kinds of Music" Jennings once again pops up with some utterly bizarre choices in material with this record's swipe at Paul Simon's "The Boxer," which is thankfully absent of Jennings singing the "lay-da-di" part. (We're also talking about an artist of such testicular fortitude, he will trot "MacArthur Park" before that arena's worth of bikers. The response? One guy began waving his bandana around his head in a joyful circle. "Hey, evenI got scared when Waylon called that one out!" Jerry Bridges remarked.)
You may balk, and so may I, at such Quixotic choices of song, but the evidence is completely audible: The conviction this man brings to these tunes is so absolute, you walk away believing whether you want to or not. This is the mark of a true artist. As Jennings told Peter Guralnick in a Massachusetts hotel room over two decades ago, "You know, I've got to be able to get into a song, I've got to be able to relate to it before I can get up and sing it on a stage." He would also tell Guralnick, "It's the singer, not the instrumentation. Hell, if it was the instruments, Dean Martin would be the biggest thing in country music today."
That was in Boston, 1974. This is Austin, 1996, and if it were the instruments, Vanilla Ice would be the biggest thing in country music today. Don't think Waylon Jennings doesn't know it: After resigning with longtime former label RCA a couple years back and seeing a perfectly fine, Don Was-produced album lost down the cracks, Jennings has moved over to burgeoning "Texas soul music" label Justice, mostly because Justice proxy Randall Jamail made a philosophical statement-of-intent Jennings appreciated.
"He said, `I'm not in the record business. I'm in the music business.' People who ain't, ain't got enough sense to come up with that," Jennings laughs. "I thought, `All right! He's either real smart, or he means it!' I like both [ideas]."
Right for the Time ends with Jennings and an acoustic guitar making some very pointed remarks about modern country music's health and calling it "Living Legends, Pt. II."
"Well, that was easy," Jennings smirks. "I've never run into that much bullshit in my life! It's back to where the record companies and the producers are in control of it, and it's like cookie-cutting. You ought to talk to those guys that have to do these sessions. They're about to go crazy. They have 'em do the same thing. If they do something that works, then every goddamned record that comes out has it on there. But I was just teasing 'em to see if they had a sense of humor. Of course, they didn't," he chuckles.
Well, if Jennings isn't happy with his chosen form's current state, neither is he as angry about it as Merle Haggard.
"I'm not angry about it," he affirms. "I've got no reason to be angry about it. That's why I don't like that [attitude]. I'm not angry about it. How can I bitch? I've had a great deal and still got a good thing goin'. So, that's not anger. ["Living Legends, Pt. II."] was just cutting up. Actually, I wrote that thing about myself. Like I said, much as anything -- runnin' around with a goddamned briefcase that ain't got not one song in it! What's that about, y'know? I'm worse than they are! At least they ain't got no goddamned briefcase!" He pauses chuckling again, shaking his head. "Big bidness."
"I'll tell ya who are great," he shoots, eyebrows in full arch. "The girls! They laugh their ass off at those guys havin' to get up there and move their ass around. I can imagine them saying to me, `You've gotta learn how to dance!" he laughs. "You're out of your fuckin' head! Can you imagine me and Willie Nelson trying to dance?"
Nope, that's why you learn to play guitar. With that, the interview's over, more brief than it has any right to be, yet crammed with more content than most three-hour talks, as well. Jennings now has to find his hat and celebrate his 59th birthday before a bunch of Harley riders in a damned convection-oven tin shed, forcing "MacArthur Park" on 'em whether they want it or not. And y'know what? Waylon Jennings is right: There are no flies on him, hoss. n