WAYLON ARNOLD JENNINGS
(born June 15, 1937 – died February 13, 2002)
As the world paid tribute to the late, great Waylon Jennings celebrating his 75th birthday on the weekend of June 15th, 2012 with social media posts professing their love of the man called “Hoss” with shared stories, favorite songs, videos, radio specials, benefit concerts and such, I sat back and reflected on who Waylon was and what he meant to me personally.
Waylon Jennings represents everything I love about music all rolled into one beautiful song. The freedom, the soul, the disregard for labels, the passion for doing it your own way, the Rock & Roll, the traditional Country, that heavy kick drum and phase-shifting guitar sound are all what called to me as a child the first time I heard “I’m A Ramblin’ Man”. After that, it was just reinforced with each and every song that I not only heard, but felt. I now feel it coming out of my own music. For that, I will always be grateful to Waylon.
Diabetes took my musical hero Waylon Jennings’ life on February 13, 2002 which sadly enough is also my birthday. What a hell of a thing. To lose your hero on your birthday hurts, but in some senses it feels like maybe a torch was passed. Not only do I feel obligated to make sure his music, spirit and legacy lives on, I also feel the need to help end diabetes for good. And to know that proceeds from the 2012 Waylon Jennings Birthday Bash would benefit the Waylon Fund to end diabetes, it only seems fitting that God led me to this.
As my band and I traveled from our show in Amarillo the night before down to Whiteface, Texas on June 16th, I was filled with anticipation and disbelief that the Good Lord had blessed me with an unbelievable opportunity to stand on stage paying tribute to my musical hero, Waylon Jennings in front of so many die hard Waylon fans and numerous members of the Jennings family. I also knew my wife and kids would be there waiting to share the experience with me. Being asked by the Jennings family personally to come out and play such an event was an honor and one I didn’t take lightly. With so many amazing artists wanting to play Waylon’s Birthday Bash, many of whom were much more accomplished than me and the rest of the Rowdy Johnson Band, I felt the need to show the world that we belonged.
In the months leading up to June 16th, 2012, I received calls from Waylon’s family asking if my band and I would be interested in backing fellow performers Tommy Jennings (Waylon’s brother) and Dave Slater of England. As we gladly accepted the challenge, I knew the stars were lining up for a day that would change my life. As the date grew closer, I began to find myself on the phone with Tommy Jennings talking over set lists and arrangements with those conversations quickly turning to colorful stories from Tommy about the life and struggles of our hero and his brother, Waylon. I found myself getting a look behind the curtain at a man that I never met, but feel such a love and connection to. Words can’t express what it’s like getting a phone call hearing that warm, deep voice say “How’s it going, Hoss?”. Still gives me goose bumps every time even though I know Waylon’s gone. Tommy just has a way of talking that gets right in your soul. That’s what Waylon’s music has done to me and countless others worldwide for many years and will continue to do until the end of time.
June 16th, 2012 – As my band, family and I arrived at the Whiteface, Texas venue known as the “Old Cotton Gin”, I have to admit that it was not what I expected. I saw a muddy field with very little, if any accommodations and several West Texas storm clouds rolling in. I thought to myself, this can’t be good. Boy was I ever wrong. As me and the rest of the Rowdy Johnson Band waited backstage for our turn, fellow performers Sergio & the Outta Luck Band and Jimmy Miles kicked it off loud and proud. As the crowd continued to file in, it began to look like a Texas version of Woodstock. Magic was in the air. When the great David Slater took the stage with my band backing him up, I felt like a proud Papa watching from backstage. The sounds of Buddy Holly were in the air of West Texas again. The crowd was twisting away to the rockabilly sounds of “Peggy Sue” and “That’ll Be the Day”. It was easy to see why Waylon and Buddy were kindred spirits. It was a feeling of being free.
I then had the honor of introducing the great Tommy Jennings as he walked onstage playing my prized Telecaster named after my favorite Waylon song “Clyde”. I again felt like a proud Papa as I watched my band backing up Tommy as he played several of Waylon’s greatest hits and some he wrote in honor of his late brother. As his set was coming to an end, I couldn’t resist the urge to get up and sing “Good Ol’ Boys (Dukes of Hazzard Theme)” with him to a standing ovation with Waylon’s family and my wife and kids watching. I have since found myself at a loss of words trying to explain how amazing that felt. A childhood dream of mine was realized. As Tommy left the stage and I felt my heart thumping through my chest, it was then time for me and the Rowdy Johnson Band to play the show I’ve dreamed about for so long.
From the first song to the last, I felt like the king of the world up there on that massive stage. While the crowds cheered and danced to our original songs, I thought this is the best day of my life. It got better as we played a song I wrote especially for that day called “Waylon’s Still the King”. Just as Waylon paid tribute to Bob Wills, I did it for Waylon to an ovation that took my breath away. While singing that song and looking out over the crowd, I saw a LOT of Waylon shirts and fans singing along to a song they never heard. They just felt it. It was a magical moment. Then it got even better. I chose to close our set the best way I knew how and that was playing the song that started it all for me, “Haunted Guitar”. That song about finding Waylon’s guitar in a pawn shop and having him pass the torch to me was MEANT to be played on that stage, on that day. The sound of Waylon’s guitar could be heard for a country mile or more and the look on the faces of the Jennings family said it all. We did what we came to do; we paid the ultimate tribute to the greatest outlaw of them all, Waylon Jennings, and planted our own flag declaring RJB was here to stay. As we exited the stage, we were met by family, friends, fans, members of the other bands and the Jennings family as well to congratulate us for an amazing show. Words can’t do it justice.
While the other bands continued to play, you could feel the love for Waylon and you could hear his influence. Some through musical similarity and some through that never say die spirit that Waylon exuded. From traditional Country, Red Dirt, to Southern Rock, it was a gathering of talent the likes of which hadn’t been seen in those parts since Waylon & Willie rode high on their Silver Eagles.
Performers that day included Sergio & the Outta Luck Band, Jimmy Miles, David Slater, Tommy Jennings, Charla Corn, Rowdy Johnson Band, William Clark Green, Jackson Taylor & the Sinners, Whiskey Myers and ultimately Shooter Jennings.
While William Clark Green performed a crowd pleasing set, I had the pleasure of walking through the crowd to sign autographs and take pictures with fans. In talking to them, I asked what Waylon meant to them and what they thought of the performance. The overwhelming sentiment was that they felt Waylon was one of them. They absolutely loved him. The women adored him and the guys wanted to be him. It was also clear that they were so proud that this rock concert like circus had come to town. It was a spectacle for sure. They felt privileged to be there and I have to say that I whole heartedly agree. It was an honor.
After heading backstage again, I spent the rest of the evening with my 16 year old son Gavin. I introduced him to all the bands and found myself talking to fellow performer Jackson Taylor for quite a while about life on the road and playing with great musicians. He complimented me on my band, especially pedal steel player Dan Showalter (aka Steely Daniels) and asked if I would mind if he sat in on his set. Steely being the professional he is, smiled, agreed and blew their doors off playing an entire set of songs he had never heard. I again felt like a proud Papa and soon found myself called up by Jackson to sing a Waylon favorite of mine, “Ain’t Living Long Like This”. Two Waylon geeks out there singing our hearts out with big ol’ smiles on our faces doing what we were born to do. A friendship was formed on that stage and if the Good Lord’s willing, I’m sure that we will find a way to tour together next year and beyond.
Next came Whiskey Myers with their Southern Rock barrage and by that time it was a full blown party. Shooter Jennings had just arrived and the backstage meet & greet was getting underway. In talking to Shooter, it was easy to see what the event meant to him as he was surrounded by family and friends. This was a chance for him to stand where his Daddy stood and declare his own independence. As Whiskey Myers finished up, the rain had set in including some pretty nasty thunder & lightning. You could feel the tension backstage wondering if it was going to clear in time for Shooter to go on. When show time finally came, it was clear the rain was not going to let up. There was concern from the band members about playing in the rain and rightfully so. But in the spirit of the show, guys stepped up including me and my band offering to back Shooter if he liked. It was clear there would be no shortage of musicians wanting to end the show with a bang. But as the sound production crew begged against it, Shooter bowed up, grabbed his guitar and hit the stage solo to give the fans what they came for. Somehow I felt Waylon up there smiling down as the crowd roared.
Through the torrential downpour, Shooter belted out his songs until a stage hand from the sound production crew interrupted him in the middle of his song to tell him it’s over, the rain had won. But like his Daddy, Shooter did his own thing and kept playing with a fierceness I’ve never seen from him before. It was like he was possessed. As he sang his heart out starting what would be his final song, the production crew shut the sound down as if to say once again with authority, the show is OVER! That’s when the magic happened. Shooter continued to play & sing even though he couldn’t be heard over the rowdy crowd. As the rain drenched him and crowd chanted his name, Shooter finished his song, thanked the crowd and exited the stage a lot taller than when he arrived. A legend was born and those rain drenched fans in Whiteface, Texas that night saw it.
Backstage there was a line of performers waiting to shake his hand and congratulate him for an amazing performance and to say thank you for the privilege. My son and I were among them. We left not wanting the night to end. I can honestly say it was the best day of my life outside of my wedding day and the birth of my children. As long as there’s a breath in me and as long as the Waylon Birthday Bash continues, you can always count me in.
Thank you to everyone involved in putting on this amazing show. From Justin Jennings, to the entire Jennings family, promoter Jim Hix, all the many people manning the booths, security, sound, lights and so on, it was truly a class act. God bless you all and thank you to the FANS! Without you there would be no show. You are why we do this. See you next year and long live Waylon!!!
~ Rowdy Johnson
All Photos Courtesy of Gray Beard Records
Rowdy Johnson is a singer/songwriter from Tombstone, AZ and the leader of the Rowdy Johnson Band. His debut album, Outlaws Today, is available from all digital retailers. Visit www.rowdyjohnsonband.com for his full tour schedule and additional information.
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