ODE TO AN OUTLAW
The larger-than-life renegade spirit of the late Waylon Jennings attracts a host of stars -- country and otherwise -- to sing his praises
When Waylon Jennings died last year, he left behind a wide-ranging musical legacy and a legion of mourning fans.
A new album, I've Always Been Crazy: A Tribute to Waylon Jennings, features Brooks & Dunn, Dwight Yoakam, Hank Williams Jr., Travis Tritt and others paying tribute to his outlaw spirit.
But behind Waylon's rowdy image was a kind, sensitive man who loved his family and friends as much as he loved music. Andy Griggs, who's often cited Waylon as one of his heroes, frequently saw his softer side.
"People looked at his outlaw image and they forgot what a gentle giant he was," says Andy, who stands out on the album with his version of Waylon's first No. 1 hit, 1974's "This Time." He and Waylon became friends as Andy was preparing material for his 1999 debut album.
"I remember one time we were sitting in his living room and he said, 'Come over here tomorrow.' I said, 'I can't, I'm going out of town early in the morning.' He said, 'Well, come over about dinnertime,' and we laughed. I said, 'I'll be out of town for a week on my radio tour.' He put his arm around me and said, 'Son, I like you. I wish there was a way you could leave a little at a time.' When he said that, it was just like a grandfather.
"I remember the way he would hold Jessi," adds Andy of Waylon's widow, Jessi Colter. "He'd just grab her, and then he'd look at me and say, 'Boy, this old man's on fire.' He was a romantic."
Jessi sings "Storms Never Last" on the record. It's a song she and Waylon performed together many times in concert. "It was a major step to go in the studio where I'd not been before without Waylon's presence in some way, in all these years," she admits.
Jessi and Waylon were married for 33 years, and their relationship gave Jessi the opportunity to see things about her husband that remained largely hidden from the rest of the world.
"Waylon was very vulnerable and sensitive," she explains. "He really didn't have an ego. He was always surprised when the rockers, like Mick Jagger, would send word to him. He'd say, 'God, he likes me?' And I'd say, 'Of course he likes you! Why wouldn't he -- you're incredible!'
"He was a great guy," adds Jessi. "You just wanted to do things for him, with him. You wanted to please him. He just made you want to."
"Waylon had a lot of songs that connected with people in a lot of ways," declares Kenny Chesney, who duets with Kid Rock on "Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)."
"That's the sign of a true artist," adds Kenny.
" 'Luckenbach' was one of the first songs I remember loving as a little kid. I didn't know what it meant then -- I just knew I loved it."
Rock 'n' roller John Mellencamp kicks off the record with Waylon's 1975 No. 1, "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way." Though he didn't know him personally, John worked alongside Waylon several times at Farm Aid, the ongoing fundraising concerts championed by longtime Waylon pal Willie Nelson. His favorite memory of the superstar? "How tall he was!" reveals John, smiling. "I never knew the guy was so big. You know, some people put down a big footprint and say, 'Fill it.' Waylon was able to do that."
James Hetfield of the heavy-metal band Metallica happened to be a good friend of Waylon. The two met at a college radio station interview in the late '80s and immediately found the humor in their media-hyped "outlaw" personas.
"My dad was a big fan of Waylon," recalls James. "When we were doing that interview, I brought my Waylon CDs for him to sign for my dad. Waylon brought his son Shooter's Metallica CDs for me to sign for him. It was a pretty cool kind of father-son crossing there.
"During that time my dad was ill," recalls James, "and Waylon actually called him a couple of times and they got to chat. That opened my eyes to a whole other side of the influence of your inspiration. It's beyond music -- you're touching souls. That phone call meant so much to me and my dad."
Deana Carter and Sara Evans put a unique spin on "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys."
"Waylon was a rebel," says Deana, "and rebels pave roads. It's sad to see people like Waylon go away. We need more road pavers."
Other artists on the album include blues rocker Ben Harper, Pinmonkey, Alison Krauss and Waylon's son, Shooter. The album fittingly closes with a track of Waylon himself singing the last song he ever recorded, "The Dream."
"I consider this a master tribute album," declares Jessi approvingly. "All of the artists got to pick the song they recorded. That artistic freedom mattered a lot to Waylon, and he would've loved that."
-- Wendy Newcomer