Singer, songwriter, musician. Born on June 15, 1937, in Littlefield, Texas. A musical rebel, Waylon Jennings is best remembered for helping to popularize a grittier and more rock-influenced style of “outlaw” country music. He and some of his fellow artists were labeled “outlaws” for challenging the country music establishment and for their hard-partying ways.
Jennings learned to play guitar as a child. By the age of 12, he was playing in a band and working as a radio disc jockey. Jennings dropped out of school and moved to Lubbock in 1954. There he found work at a local radio station, KLLL, where he met and befriended early rock and roll star Buddy Holly. In 1958, Holly produced Jennings’ first single, “Jole Blon,” and Jennings played in Holly’s backup band, The Crickets, for a time. He was performing with the group on February 3, 1959, and he was supposed to get on a private plane with Holly after their show at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. Jennings, however, gave up his spot on the plane to rock star J. P. Richardson better known as the Big Bopper who wasn’t feeling well. Shortly after takeoff, the plane crashed, killing Holly, Richardson, singer Ritchie Valens, and the pilot.
Heartbroken after the tragedy, Jennings returned to Lubbock for a time and worked as a radio disc jockey. He moved to Phoenix in 1960 and restarted his musical career, forming a band called the Waylors. The group developed a local following and even recorded some singles through the independent record label Trend. While the band never really took off commercially, Jennings landed a contract with A&M Records in 1963 and moved to Los Angeles. He got into a conflict with the record label over the direction of his music. They wanted him to take on more of a pop sound. Not one to be pushed around, Jennings remained committed to his country style. He made only one album for A&M.
During the 1970s, Jennings joined the Outlaw movement. He released critically acclaimed albums Lonesome, On’ry and
Mean and Honky Tonk Heroes, followed by hit albums Dreaming My Dreams and Are You Ready for the Country. In 1976 he released the album Wanted! The Outlaws with Willie Nelson, Tompall Glaser, and Jessi Colter, the first platinum country music album. The success of the album was followed by Ol’ Waylon, and the hit song “Luckenbach, Texas Back to the Basics of Love.” By the early 1980s, Jennings was struggling with a cocaine addiction, which he quit in 1984. Later he joined the country supergroup The Highwaymen with Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash. During that period, Jennings released the successful album Will the Wolf Survive. He toured less after 1997, to spend more time with his family. Between 1999 and 2001, his appearances were limited by health problems. On February 13, 2002, Jennings died from complications of diabetes.
Jennings also appeared in movies and television series. He was the narrator for The Dukes of Hazzard, composed and sang the show’s theme song. In 2001 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, which he chose not to attend until later on. In 2007 he was posthumously awarded the Cliffie Stone Pioneer Award by the Academy of Country Music.