Singer, songwriter, guitarist
Waylon Jennings, the quintessential Outlaw of country music, has successfully forged a distinctive sound best described as “redneck rock.” For years Jennings chafed under the restraints imposed on his music by Nashville’s tunnel vision, but when at last he was given creative control of his work his popularity soared. Newsweek contributor Maureen Orth credits Jennings with bringing “a new sophistication to country music and a welcome blast of country air to rock,” noting that the singer “can make his music sound both pure country honest and stone-rock funky.”
Jennings has managed simultaneously to return country to its roots and to revolutionize its beat and pitch. He has turned his back on the weepy strings and session orchestration most closely associated with modern country music, producing instead the exciting, gritty sound that has come to be the trademark of the Outlaw movement. “Maybe that’s what has all these citified hippies so excited,” writes Melvin Shestack in The Country Music Encyclopedia, “the fact that here’s a big, mean-looking man with a band that could easily be a group of rock-and-rollers with their long hair and electric guitars, and they’re playing music that has as much rhythmic guts as you could wish for, but still really isn’t anything like what they get on the radio around here. It’s country music, no mistake, and do they ever love it to death. It’s genuine, no frills, no slickness, no pretensions. Just hard-hitting, hard-living country soul.”
Jennings, who claims to have both Cherokee and Comanche ancestry, was born and raised in Littlefield, Texas. His father worked a succession of jobs from cotton farming to truck driving, and the Jennings family had little extra cash. Waylon himself began to pick cotton while still a youngster, but his heart was in music. As a child he immersed himself in the works of such country greats as Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams, then he discovered pop music and its nascent rock & roll beat. A performer from an early age, he saw singing as the only escape from a life of drudgery in the cotton fields.
By the time he turned fourteen, Jennings was a familiar sight in talent shows in his region, playing guitar and singing country or pop tunes. He dropped out of high school for a full-time job with the Littlefield radio station, where he spun discs and performed with his own band, the Texas Longhorns. In 1958 he took a job at a station in Lubbock, Texas, and there he met a young entertainer named Buddy Holly. Holly had already achieved national stardom with his country-rooted rock music, and before long Jennings was playing bass in Holly’s band. Jennings toured with Buddy Holly and the Crickets for several months in late 1958 and early 1959, and
Full name Waylon Arnold Jennings; born June 15, 1937, in Littlefield, Tex.; son of a truck driver; married fourth wife, Jessi Colter (a singer), c. 1973; four children, including (fourth marriage) Waylon Albright. Education: Earned high school equivalency diploma, 1990.
Disc jockey in Littlefield, Tex. and Lubbock, Tex, c. 1950-58. Singer and guitar player, 1957—; played bass with Buddy Holly and the Crickets, 1958-59; formed own band, the Waylors, c. 1961, played in clubs in Phoenix, Ariz. Signed with RCA Records, 1965, moved to Nashville, had first number one single, “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line,” 1968. Became associated with the “Outlaw” movement in country music, 1972; had first platinum album (with Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser), Wanted —The Outlaws, 1976.
Awards: Numerous citations for country music performances, including male vocalist of the year from the Country Music Association, 1975; duo of the year (with Nelson) and single of the year from the Country Music Association, both 1976.
Addresses: Office— Utopia Productions, 1117 17th Ave. S., Nashville, Tenn. 37212.
he would have died in the plane crash that claimed Holly’s life if he had not offered his seat that night to J. P. Richardson (The Big Bopper).
Holly’s untimely death was extremely traumatic for Jennings, who had established a genuine rapport with the star. For a time after the crash Jennings quit the music business and returned to radio announcing. Then, in the early 1960s, he moved to Phoenix, Arizona, and formed a new band. Waylon Jennings and the Waylors were soon regular performers at J.D.’s, a large club that drew an audience from every walk of life from cowboy to corporate attorney. Jennings met the challenge such an audience offered admirably, playing rock and pop with a country flavor as well as country in an up-tempo rock style. Before long his reputation transcended the bounds of Phoenix and drew talent scouts from Los Angeles and Nashville.
In 1965 Chet Atkins persuaded Jennings to sign a contract with the prestigious RCA label. Jennings then moved to Nashville, where he took bachelor quarters with Johnny Cash. Shestack writes: “The following two years might well go down in history as the most spectacular era in the fine arts of door smashing, house wrecking, and general craziness.” Jennings’s career took off with albums such as Love of the Common People and The One and Only Waylon Jennings, and his reputation for hard-drinking rowdiness followed suit. He became a member of the Grand Ole Opry, appeared in the film Nashville Rebel, and generally began to cultivate a maverick personality.
According to Bill C. Malone in Country Music U.S.A., Jennings’s artistic independence, lifestyle, and personality all contributed to the “Outlaw” label he attracted as the 1970s began. Still, Malone notes, “it is clear that the Outlaw phenomenon was largely a product of promotional hype, and most of it independent of Jennings himself.” Whatever the case, Jennings embraced the Outlaw concept wholeheartedly—and proceeded to turn it to his use as an artist. In 1972 he hired Neil Reshen, a New York-based manager who helped his client win more control over the content of his albums.
Almost overnight, the well-groomed and gaudily attired Jennings became the long-haired, leather-clad rebel rocker he is today. With the collaboration of friends such as Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Tompall Glaser, and Jack Clement, he “elevated country record production from cheap pap to soul art,” to quote New Times contributor Patrick Carr.
Jennings had already seen the top of the country charts with songs like “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” but even he was amazed at the critical and commercial reception for his new work. His 1976 release Wanted— The Outlaws, an ensemble package with his wife, Jessi Colter, Nelson, and Glaser, was the first country album ever to go platinum in sales. He was showered with awards from the Country Music Association and was in demand as never before for live performances. Gradually, however, the down side of the Outlaw image began to take its toll. Jennings had long struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, but another drug—cocaine— almost claimed his life.
Late in 1984 Jennings told People magazine that he was saved from cocaine addiction by his old friend Johnny Cash, himself a substance abuser. Jennings quit drugs cold turkey and cut down on the extensive touring that had contributed to his habit. He and Jessi Colter continue to provide vital material to the country music arena to this day, both as a duo and as solo artists. Malone writes: “Despite the hype surrounding the Outlaws, they did make a healthy challenge to Nashville’s homogenization. And while they drew freely from other forms of music, such as rock, they also remained respectful of their own and country music’s roots. In fact, if they used any term in private to describe themselves it was ‘hillbilly’ and not ‘outlaw.’ The ultimate irony for the Outlaws may be that, while drawing upon a diverse array of musical sources and reaching out to new audiences, they did more to preserve a distinct identity for country music than most of their contemporaries who wore the ‘country’ label.”
Jennings put it another way in The Country Music Encyclopedia. “I couldn’t go pop with a mouthful of firecrackers,” he said. “I’m a country boy; I’m a hillbilly…. They talk about the Nashville Sound, y’know. My music ain’t no Nashville Sound. It’s my kind of country. It’s not Western. It’s Waylon.”
Waylon Jennings at J.D.’s, Sound Limited, 1964.
Folk Country, RCA, 1965.
Leavin’ Town, RCA, 1966.
Nashville Rebel, RCA, 1966.
Waylon Jennings Sings 01’ Harlan, RCA, 1966.
Love of the Common People, RCA, 1967.
The One and Only Waylon Jennings, RCA, 1967.
Hankin On, RCA, 1968.
Only the Greatest, RCA, 1968.
Jewels, RCA, 1969.
Country Folk: Waylon and the Kimberleys, RCA, 1969.
Just To Satisfy You, RCA, 1969.
Waylon Jennings, Vocalion, 1969.
Don’t Think Twice, A&M, 1969.
Best of Waylon Jennings, RCA, 1970.
Waylon, RCA, 1970.
Singer of Sad Songs, RCA, 1970.
The Country Style of Waylon Jennings, A&M, 1970.
The Taker, RCA, 1970.
Cedartown, Georgia, RCA, 1970.
Ladies Love Outlaws, RCA, 1971.
Good Hearted Woman, RCA, 1972.
Heartaches by the Number, RCA, 1972.
Lonesome, On’ry, and Mean, RCA, 1972.
The Taker/Tulsa, RCA, 1972.
Honky Tonk Heroes, RCA, 1973.
Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town, RCA, 1973.
This Time, RCA, 1974.
Ramblin’ Man, RCA, 1974.
Ned Kelly, United Artists, 1975.
Dreaming My Dreams, RCA, 1975.
(With Jessi Colter, Willie Nelson, and Tompall Glaser) Wanted— The Outlaws, RCA, 1976.
Are You Ready for the Country? RCA, 1976.
Waylon Jennings Live, RCA, 1976.
Mackintosh & TJ, RCA, 1976.
Hits of Waylon Jennings, RCA, 1977.
OI’ Waylon, RCA, 1977.
(With Nelson) Waylon & Willie, RCA, 1978.
I’ve Always Been Crazy, RCA, 1978.
Music Man, RCA, 1980.
WWII, RCA, 1982.
It’s Only Rock ’N ’ Roll, RCA, 1983.
Waylon and Company, RCA, 1983.
Never Could Toe the Mark, RCA, 1984.
Turn the Page, RCA, 1985.
Collector’s Series, RCA, 1985.
Will the Wolf Survive, MCA, 1986.
A Couple More Years, RCA, 1986.
Sweet Mother Texas, RCA, 1986.
Waylon! RCA, 1986.
(With Johnny Cash) Heroes, Columbia, 1986.
Hangin’ Tough, MCA, 1987.
The Best of Waylon, RCA, 1987.
(With Nelson) Take It to the Limit, CBS, 1987.
Full Circle, MCA, 1988.
A Man Called Hoss, MCA, 1988.
Waylon Jennings: The Early Years (1965-1968), RCA, 1989.
New Classic Waylon, MCA, 1989.
(With Nelson, Cash, and Kris Kristofferson) Highwayman, Columbia.
(With Nelson, Cash, and Kristofferson) Highwayman II, Columbia, 1990.
The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, Harmony, 1977.
Malone, Bill C., Country Music U.S.A., revised edition, University of Texas Press, 1985.
Shestack, Melvin, The Country Music Encyclopedia, Crowell, 1974.
Stambler, Irwin and Grelun Landon, The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country, and Western Music, St. Martin’s, 1969.
After Dark, March 31, 1973.
Country Music, April, 1981.
Cue, February 24, 1975.
Newsday, January 22, 1978.
Newsweek, August 26, 1974.
New Times, February 20, 1978.
New York Daily News, May 31, 1981.
Penthouse, September, 1981.
People, October 22, 1984.
Stereo Review, August, 1983.
—Anne Janette Johnson
In 1971 Sammi Smith was propelled into the spotlight when her rendition of Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It through The Night" became a megahit. Although she was a country artist, the song climbed to number eight on the Billboard pop chart where it remained for eleven weeks. The song helped Smith win a Grammy as Best Female Country Vocalist for 1971, but the attention was short-lived, leading many to forget her earlier accomplishments and ignore her productive career throughout the 1970s. Smith's eclecticism, ranging between the outlaw country of Waylon Jennings and the crossover country of Dolly Parton, likewise left her without an identifiable niche. "Arguably, Sammi Smith is one of the most underrated country music artists of all time," wrote Michael D'Arcy for the Countrypolitan website.
Jewel Fay Smith was born on August 5, 1943, in Orange, California. Her father was in the military and the family moved frequently, living for short periods in Texas, Colorado, and Arizona. They settled in Oklahoma, and Smith entered show business as a young girl. "I don't know how I got started," she told Irwin Stambler in the Encyclopedia of Folk, Country & Western Music, "but I was working at a club called Someplace Else [in Oklahoma City] six nights a week when I was eleven." She sang rock 'n' roll and pop, and only later drifted toward country music. She left school at eleven, worked professionally in nightclubs at 12, and married at 15.
In 1967 Smith gave Johnny Cash's bass player, Marshall Grant, a performance tape, and he helped her sign with Columbia Records. She moved to Nashville the same year following a divorce, and recorded "So Long Charlie Brown, Don't Look for Me Around" in 1968 and "Brownsville Lumberyard" in 1970. Although both songs became minor hits, Columbia dropped her contract three years later. She then signed with Mega, an independent label, and reached the top 30 with "He's Everywhere." It was during this time that she recorded a number of demos written by a Columbia studios janitor named Kris Kristofferson. Smith and Mega recorded and released Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It through the Night," which quickly rose to number one on the country music chart.
As David Cantwell noted in Heartaches by the Number: Country Music's 500 Greatest Singles, the song expressed a direct sexuality that was unusual for its time, with Smith singing: "Take the ribbon from my hair." This stood in stark contrast to the original, sung from the male point of view, which read: "Take the ribbon from your hair." The budding feminist movement also gave the song a broader social importance.
Unfortunately, Mega was too small to promote Smith's follow-up singles properly, and her star rose and fell with "Help Me Make It through the Night." She continued to record solid material nonetheless, and placed a number of singles on the country charts during the remainder of the 1970s. Between 1972 and 1976 she charted 16 times, reaching number 13 with "I've Got to Have You," 16 with "The Rainbow in Daddy's Eyes," nine with "Today I Started Loving You Again," and ten with "Then You Walk In."
Smith also wrote a number of songs that became hits for others, including "Cedartown, Georgia" for Waylon Jennings, and "Sand-Covered Angels" for Conway Twitty. She also wrote "When Michael Calls," which she recorded on the B-side of "Help Me Make It through the Night." Unfortunately, Mega's fortunes declined rapidly, and the company folded in 1976. Although Smith remained an active performer, the loss of her label, combined with the desire to spend more time with her children (four of her own, and two adopted), led her to take her career at a slower pace.
In 1973 Smith moved to Dallas, Texas, the home of her close friends Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. Her new home was also close to the burgeoning Austin music scene, leading many to see her as part of the outlaw country insurrection. She moved to Globe, Arizona, a few years later, where she became involved with programs benefiting the San Carlos Apache Reservation (she was part Kiowa-Apache, and both of her adoptive children were Apache). Her involvement led to the organization of a country music program to benefit the reservation, which led in turn to the construction of a new school. A number of well-known country artists, including Johnny Cash, Mickey Newbury, and Johnny Rodriguez, performed at the school's first charity event. Following Mega's collapse, Smith signed with Elektra and recorded As Long as There's a Sunday in 1976 and Mixed Emotions in 1977. "Her husky, sultry voice showed to good advantage in all," wrote Stambler, "and her career began to pick up momentum." The title track reached the country top 50, followed by "Loving Arms" and "Days That End in Y." Smith recorded New Winds—All Quadrents in 1978, an album that included "Norma Jean (Marilyn Monroe)," "I Ain't Got No Time to Rock No Babies," and "Lookin' for Lovin'." Stambler wrote, "The 1978 success … was the most interesting since her 1971 blockbuster." By the end of the 1970s, however, her deal with Elektra had fallen apart. Smith signed to the Sound Factory, and hit the charts in 1980 with "I Just Want to Be With You" and with "Cheatin's a Two-Way Street" the following year. Although she recorded less frequently during the 1980s, she charted one last time with "Love Me All Over" in 1986, before dropping out of the music business.
In retrospect, Smith is primarily remembered for "Help Me Make It through the Night," an assessment that downplays her songwriting, well-recorded albums, and advances in an industry dominated by male singers. These slights were partially rectified in 1996 when Varese released Best of Sammi Smith, a 16-song collection beginning with her most familiar song before offering a broader survey of her talent. These songs reveal a fresh take on familiar classics like "City of New Orleans," "Long Black Veil," and "Today I Started Loving You Again." "The collection restores her reputation by putting those Mega sides back in print…," wrote Stephen Thomas Erlewine in All Music Guide, "proving that Smith was one of the most interesting female country voices of the '70s."
For the Record …
Born Jewel Fay Smith on August 5, 1943, in Orange, CA; divorced; children: six.
Arrived in Nashville, TN, 1967; signed with Columbia Records, 1967; signed with Mega, 1970; released "Help Me Make It through the Night," 1971; charted 16 times between 1972 and 1976, including "As Long as There's a Sunday" and "Days That End in Y"; signed with Elektra Records, mid-1970s; recorded for Cyclone and Sound Factory, and charted with "Love Me All Over," 1986.
Awards: Grammy Award, Best Country Vocal Performance, Female, for "Help Me Make It through the Night."
Addresses: Record company— Varese Sarabande Records, 11846 Ventura Blvd., Ste.… 130 Studio City, CA 91604, website: http://www.VareseSarabande.com/.
Lonesome, Capital, 1971.
Something Old, Something New, Something Blue, Mega, 1972.
Toast of '45, Mega, 1973.
Today I Started Loving You Again, Mega, 1975.
As Long as There's a Sunday, Elektra, 1976.
Mixed Emotions, Elektra, 1977.
New Winds—All Quadrents, Elektra, 1978.
Girl Hero, Cyclone, 1979.
Best of Sammi Smith, Varese, 1996.
Stambler, Irwin and Grelun Landon, Encyclopedia of Folk, Country & Western Music, St. Martin's Press, 1983.
"Best of Sammi Smith," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (February 26, 2004).
"Sammi Smith," Countrypolitan, http://www.countrypolitan.com/prof0501.php (February 26, 2004).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
Jennings, Waylon, baritone-voiced singer and leader of the 1970s outlaw movement in country music, b. Littlefield, Tex., June 15, 1937. Along with singer/songwriters Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, Jennings expanded the subject matter of country music, while returning to a more primal, stripped-down recording sound that honored the roots of the great honky-tonk records of the 1950s.
Jennings came from a musical family, and was already performing over local radio when he was 12 years old. He got his first work as a deejay at the radio station in nearby Lubbock, Tex., where he met pop-rocker Buddy Holly. Holly produced his first single, a cover of Harry Choates’s Cajun classic, “Jole Blon,” and invited the young singer to be his bass player on what would turn out to be his last tour. Following Holly’s death, Jenning’s continued to work as a deejay and recorded rockabilly for the small Tex. label, Trend.
In the mid-1960s, Waylon hooked up with Chet Atkins at RCA records, where he was initially packaged as a folk singer. Although he had some minor country hits, he was unhappy with the way RCA was handling him, and began introducing different material into his recordings. In 1970, he recorded a couple of songs by a then-unknown writer named Kris Kristofferson including “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” and a year later released an album titled Ladies Love Outlaws, featuring more contemporary songs by Hoyt Axton and Alex Harvey. In 1972, he renegotiated with RCA, gaining artistic freedom over his recordings. The first album made under this new contract was 1973’s Honky Tonk Heroes, featuring Waylon’s road band, The Waylors, on a set of hard-driving songs mostly written by Billy Joe Shaver. In 1976, RCA released an anthology album featuring Jennings and his wife, Jessi Colter, along with Willie Nelson and Tompall Glaser, called The Outlaws, which became the definitive collection for this new style of music. In 1978, he recorded the classic album of duets with Nelson called Willie and Waylon.
Although Jennings continued to produce hits well into the 1980s, he was starting to sound like a parody of himself. He recorded the theme song for TV’s redneck comedy The Dukes of Hazard in the early 1980s, followed by a lackluster album of rock oldies. In the mid-1980s, he reunited with Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, and Nelson for the concept LP The Highwaymen, which showed how all four of these formally innovative performers had gotten awfully long-in-the-tooth. The group nonetheless toured and then reunited for a third album in 1995. Meanwhile Jennings left RCA for MCA in the late 1980s, but the quality of his recordings continued to drop.
At his best, Jennings embodied both physically and aurally the outlaw image. His accompaniment was tough, bass-driven, and reduced to the bare essentials, the perfect compliment to his rough baritone. In choosing to perform songs by then-innovative, younger Nashville songwriters, Jennings championed songs that went beyond the pop-schlock posturing that was then being produced by Nashville’s establishment. And, in relocating to Austin, Tex., with his buddy Willie Nelson in the mid-1970s, he helped establish an alternative center for country music, paving the way for the new country revival of a decade later.
Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line (ree. 1965-84; rel.1993). Glaser, Light, and Mansfield: Honky Tonk Heroes (1973). Dreaming My Dreams (1975). Nelson, Colter, and Tompall Glaser: Wanted: The Outlaws (1976). Willie Nelson: Waylon & Willie (1978); Clean Shirt (1991). The Highwaymen (1985); Will the Wolf Survive (1986); Ol’ Waylon (1977); Waylon (1982); Heroes (with Johnny Cash; 1986); A Man Called Hoss (1988); New Classic Waylon (1989); The Eagle (1990); The Highwayman: No. 2 (1990); Too Dumb for New York City, Too Ugly for L.A. (1992); Thanks to Buddy (1994); Waymore’s Blues (1994); The Road Goes on Forever (1995); Right for the Time (1996).