A CONVERSATION WITH TERRY JENNINGS
The 1970s and early ‘80s were half-drunk and hollow-eyed. There were wars, rumors of wars, fuel shortages, disco infernos, and acres of corduroy. Everybody looked like Harry Reams (men from the neck up, women from the waist down) and didn’t exactly interpret Sodom and Gomorrah as a cautionary tale. They saw it more as a template or a how-to manual. They put their keys in a bowl next to the door, chain-smoked Camels with no filters, wore tennis headbands, drank a lot of Tab, kept their pinky nails long, and snorted up all the furniture. The raw nihilism of the Sex Pistols co-existed with the falsetto glitz of the Bee Gees. KISS spit fire and blood everywhere. And…you know, Foghat. (Go ahead and Google ‘em. You know you want to.)
How cockeyed did it get? Take a look at the cover of Merle Haggard and George Jones’ 1982 LP A Taste Of Yesterday’s Wine. George, wearing six pieces of manly jewelry and half a gallon of Super-Hold Aqua Net, is leaning on Merle, who apparently just got a perm. I will repeat: The ‘70s and early ‘80s were half-drunk and hollow-eyed. Everything was crazy, but it kept us from going insane.
“Outlaw country”, in particular, looked like the cantina scene from Star Wars riding into Palestine, Texas on a mule—Cosmic Cowboys, Red-Headed Strangers, Silver-Tongued Devils, Old Five And Dimers, Possums, Poets, you name it. But no one exemplified “outlaw” more than Waylon Jennings. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Waylon became a household name, no last name needed. Not only did he release one bonafide classic record after another, he became a cultural icon. He was untouchable. In every sense of the word, Waylon Jennings was riding high. Everybody else was riding a Shetland.
Since Jennings’ death in February 2002, the mythos has grown exponentially. Everybody has a Waylon story. He’s become partly truth and partly fiction because everyone claims him as their own. It’s become increasingly difficult to separate gossip from the gospel.
For instance, did Waylon really say Garth Brooks sounded like Mr. Haney from Green Acres? Was he really a fan of Metallica and Nine Inch Nails? Did he actually compare an up-and-coming superstar’s effect on country music to the impenetrable resilience of panty hose? (Answers: Yes, yes, and the jury is out.)
Whether factual or embellished, the fog of hearsay and legend surrounding Waylon Jennings has created a malleable truth-like substance akin to Jell-O and political promises. Truthiness, if you will. Hit and myth. Close enough for rock ‘n’ roll. And after a while, the sentiment becomes more important than the details. The tale gets bigger and Bigger and BIGGER and before you know it, that outlaw bit done got out of hand.
So if you got a chance to hear the pure unadulterated 200-proof God-as-my-witness truth, wouldn’t you take it? Wouldn’t you like to separate the wheat from the chaff? Of course you would. Don’t be silly. As for me, I squeal like a little school girl just thinking about it.
After all, this is Waylon Jennings we’re talking about here. The man who cheated death on many occasions, whether by aviation misadventure or self-inflicted Peruvian marching powder medication. The man who repeatedly told the Country Music Association to perform sexual relations with itself. A man with DNA so powerful, every time he sent one through the end zone, it came with a coupon for musical talent good for at least two generations. Of course you want to hear about Ol’ Hoss straight from the horse’s mouth.
Well, here’s your chance.
Waylon’s eldest son, Terry Jennings, will appear at Outlaw Fest 2014 in Bowling Green, Kentucky on October 12th (at 11 a.m. Central Time). [Sidebar: For all you musicians out there reading this, that’s one hour before the crack of noon. Please take note and act accordingly.]
For the first time ever, Terry Jennings will present “Between Fathers And Sons: Stories Of The Original Outlaw”. Terry toured with his father in the ‘70s and ‘80s and—as you can imagine—boy does he have a story to tell. Actually, he has a trailer truck load of stories to tell, each one more entertaining and revealing than the last. (As proof, see the Willie Nelson story below.) Trust me, people: you want to hear this. Be there when it happens.
A few days ago, I had the great opportunity to speak with Terry Jennings. He graciously answered my every question and patiently suffered my general foolishness. For that, I offer my eternal thanks.
Michael: When did you realize that your father was a big deal? At what point did it dawn on you that he was famous?
Terry: As a kid, your father is always a big deal. The people I saw as famous back then were either movie stars or football players, so it wasn’t until the movie Nashville Rebel came out that it dawned on me that he may be famous.
Michael: If you had to explain life with Waylon Jennings in just a few words, how would you describe it? The 1970s and 1980s, in particular, must have been wild times.
Terry: Getting on the road, crisscrossing America at high velocity everyday, brought something new. The journey was nuts! As Jimmy Buffett wrote in his song “He Went To Paris”, there was some of it magic and some of it tragic but it was a great ride all the way.
Michael: You toured with your Dad for many years, but are there particular shows or events that stand out in your mind?
Terry: There is one. We were playing a venue in the Midwest and Dad only played for 20 minutes. Everybody looked at me as if to say “go see what’s going on”. I went to the bus and told Dad–I always refer to him as Dad—“Dad, you only played 20 minutes.” He told me he had played for 2 hours. I told him again, “No, you only played 20 minutes.” Then he yelled at me, “I told you I played for 2 hours!” As I turned to walk off the bus, I said, “Whatever you say, Daddy” in a disrespectful tone. He replied, “You ever call me ‘Daddy’ again, I’ll slap the piss out of you.” The next year we were standing behind the curtain and he said, “Terry, isn’t this the place I only played 20 minutes last year?” I peeked out of the curtain and told him, “It sure is.” That night he went out and played a 3-hour-plus show.
Michael: To those who aren’t familiar with touring, how would you describe the whole affair? Some love it, some consider it a necessary evil, some refuse to do it—what’s your take on the touring life?
Terry: It’s a love-hate relationship. When you’re out, you are ready to be back home, but when you are home, you are ready to go back out.
Michael: What led you to stop touring and—pardon the cliché—settle down?
Terry: I felt like I was just spinning my wheels. I was never going to be a singer or musician, but I did enjoy the business side of the music business. So I felt my talents were best used in an office in Nashville, which still left me visiting the road from time to time.
Michael: I don’t want to ruin your speaking engagement at the Outlaw Fest and give away what you’ll be talking about, but would you mind giving us an example of what we have to look forward to? What kinds of stories are you going to tell?
Terry: Expect some stories about a few uneducated hillbillies from west Texas that stumbled into a new world which they knew nothing about.
Michael: Did you ever feel like you wanted to follow in your Dad’s footsteps, musically? You know, strap on a guitar and hit the road? That seems fairly common amongst the Jennings clan, from Shooter to Jennifer to Struggle to Whey.
Terry: I never really wanted to be a musician or singer, and I wasn’t going to force myself to try and do something that I didn’t feel was for me. Through my life, I loved the behind the scenes of the music industry: artist development, producing, publishing, and stuff around that nature.
Michael: Any plans of compiling all your experiences and stories into a book? Considering how obsessive Waylon fans can be (yours truly included), I can only imagine how folks would eat that up like candy.
Terry: Yes, I have been compiling stories for a book that I hope to have published, but telling the stories verbally and writing down on paper are two totally different things, so with the right publisher and co-writer I hope to see this come reality one day soon.
Michael: When I hear Waylon Jennings’ music, I hear honesty. When Waylon sang something, it felt REAL to me. I can feel every word, because he sounds like he means it. There’s nothing artificial to him at ALL. That’s what Waylon is to me. For others, it might be the sense of rebellion that moves them the most. After all these years, why do think people still intently listen to him? His presence still lingers heavy in the air. Why do you think that is?
Terry: One of Dad’s biggest talents was taking a song, whether it was his or someone else’s, and owning it to the fullest. He put his heart into it, which reaches out to people. He can make the sad glad, the mad happy, and the shy people a little more rowdy.
Michael: Since you were on the road for so long, I’m going to assume you’ve had some encounters with folks such as Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash. Care to tell us a tale or two? I can only imagine.
Terry: Yes, I had encounters with Willie and Cash as well as many others. Here’s a Willie Nelson story for ya’ll: In the ‘70s, after a few years of Waylon & Willie shows, we were playing Caesar’s in Vegas without Willie. Willie and his wife Connie walked in the back door. Willie says to me, “Hey boy, you work for Waylon?” I say, “Yep.” He continues, “My car is in the fire lane. Can you park it for me?” I say, “Sure.” I go get his car and park it as far away as I could and take back his keys. At 3:00 a.m., Dad calls my room: “Terry, Willie’s in my room and says someone that works for me parked his car and he can’t find it. The way he described the guy, it sounds like you. Did you park his car?” I say, “Yep.” Dad asked, “Well, where is it?” I told him where it was and Dad asked, “Why did you put it so far away?” I said, “Tell him not to call me BOY!!!” I think Dad laughed for a week!!!
Michael: Do you have a favorite Waylon record? If so, why does that particular record stand out?
Terry: Yes, “Jack Of Diamonds”. Because of all the times he asked my opinion on whether or not to record a song, this is the one song I brought to the table he did record.
Michael: I can imagine that being the son of a famous musician would often be difficult. After all, you have a family of your own. You’re Terry, not Waylon. You’re an individual, too. Do you think sometimes folks forget that?
Terry: Yes, I learned to deal with that a long time ago.
Michael: So how did you end up in Waco, Texas?
Terry: It is in the middle of the state of Texas. That made it easier to go to Austin, Dallas, etc., etc.
Michael: Are you still involved in the music business, in particular Korban Music Group? If so, what projects are you working on right now?
Terry: Korban Music Group is mainly a publishing company for songwriters I have worked with for many years and plan to continue working with them in the future.
Folks, do yourselves a solid and go see Terry Jennings when he speaks at Outlaw Fest 2014. More information can be found here:
Michael Franklin is the Media & Reserves Specialist at Western Kentucky University’s Visual & Performing Arts Library (VPAL). Michael is also a professional musician and sound engineer. He is currently recording his 6th CD with his best friends Screenlast 6.0 and Audacity Sourceforge. He thinks Iggy Pop is the greatest singer in the history of music. If you disagree, you’re wrong. You better ask somebody.
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