Today would have been Waylon Jennings’ 84th birthday. The singer personified the outlaw country genre in the 70s, but Jennings had been performing since the 50s. He achieved his stardom by rejecting the Nashville sound of the day, choosing to perform in a stripped down honky-tonk style that rejected the use of legions of session musicians. His stance as an anti-Nashville artist drew others, including Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson and the outlaw country movement was born.
Born in Texas, Jennings began performing as a twelve year old. Quitting school at fourteen, he moved to Lubbock and took a job as a radio DJ, where he met Buddy Holly. Holly mentored Jennings on guitar and produced his first single in 1958. Jennings came on with the Crickets as temporary bass player on their last tour and was also scheduled to fly on the plane ride that ended in Holly’s tragic death in early 1959, but he gave up his seat at the last minute to the Big Bopper, who was suffering from a cold.
Early in his career, Jennings signed to A&M Records, making for an odd pairing with Herb Alpert, who wanted Jennings to be a pop musician. Waylons’ insistence on pure country put an end to that record deal.Moving to Nashville, Jennings moved in with Johnny Cash, and by the early 70s was recording songs written by Kris Kristofferson and Billy Joe Shaver.
His 1976 album Wanted: The Outlaws was a collaboration that defined outlaw country to a wider audience, and for the following six years Jennings was a fixture in the country charts. Drug abuse and the decline of interest in outlaw country slowed his career – but he quit drugs and returned with the supergroup The Highwaymen to record several hits through the late 80s and early 90s.
While his sales declined over his later years, Waylon Jennings remained a popular musician thanks to his pioneering work in the 70s. He died of complications from diabetes in 2001.