Wednesday, November 19, 2014

TMFW 63 - The Outlaw Who Almost Wasn't

[[NOTE: today's TMFW may fall, like Eli Whitney and his cotton gin, into the category of "Trivia Everybody Knows."  But it's a good enough story to risk it.]]

Waylon Jennings is one of the most famous performers in country music history.  He's a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, a two-time Grammy winner (for his collaboration with the Kimberlys on "MacArthur Park" and his duet with Willie Nelson on "Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow up to be Cowboys"), a singer on the first country album officially certified platinum, and he had 23 records that charted in the country top 10 (and 9 that reached number 1).  Country Music Television ranked him number 5 in their "Greatest Men of Country Music" series, behind only Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, George Jones, and Willie Nelson.

There are lots of things that could be said about Jennings' extraordinary career and his impact on country music:

** He was discovered in Phoenix by Bobby Bare, and was so popular there that a local businessman had designed his music club around Jennings' act.  Bare allegedly phoned Chet Atkins at RCA records in Nashville from a roadside payphone somewhere between Phoenix and Las Vegas to tell him about his discovery and demand that RCA sign Jennings.

**  When he moved to Nashville, Jennings' first roommate, by pure happenstance, was Johnny Cash.  The two became lifelong friends and frequent collaborators, including work with Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson in the country supergroup The Highwaymen.

**  Along with Willie Nelson, Jennings was the face of "Outlaw Country" in the 1960s and 70s.  The outlaw movement - in addition to being a good marketing gimmick - represented a sea change in how country music was written and recorded.  With Jennings and Nelson leading the way, artists took more ownership of their music, dealt with more realistic themes and a less homogenized sound than the whitewashed catalog of the major labels to that point, and enjoyed better control over what musicians played on their albums and how they were recorded.

All of the above are true music facts, but they are not today's True Music Fact.  Here it is: amazingly, Jennings would never have been able to have accomplished any of his remarkable career if The Big Bopper hadn't had the flu.

Jennings' career started as a DJ, and by age 19 he had a six hour afternoon radio show in Lubbock, Texas.  There, he met Buddy Holly, and the two became fast friends.  When Holly needed a backing band for a 1959 "Winter Dance Party" tour of the midwest, he hired Jennings as his bass player and they hit the road.

The tour was disastrous, with the groups traveling in sub-zero weather across Minnesota, Wisconsin, and northern Iowa in a bus without working heat.  By the middle of the second week, the bands had played 11 cities in 11 days and tensions were running high.  The tour had gone almost 400 miles from Green Bay, Wisconsin on February 1 to Clear Lake, Iowa on February 2, and was headed another 400 miles that night for Moorhead, Minnesota.  Holly, hoping to get his band some much-needed rest and a break from the treacherous bus ride, chartered a plane to take them to the next stop.

The flight was to include Holly, Jennings, and their guitarist Tommy Allsup.  But before the plane took off, The Big Bopper, who was a co-headliner on the tour and who was suffering from the flu, asked Jennings for his seat on the flight.  Jennings graciously agreed.  (For his part, Allsup agreed to a coin flip with Ritchie Valens for his spot on the flight, with Valens "winning" and taking the seat.)

When Buddy Holly heard that his friend Waylon Jennings would not join him for the flight, he teased Jennings and said "well I hope your ol' bus freezes up."  Jennings replied in jest "Yeah? Well I hope your ol' plane crashes."  They were the last words Jennings said to Buddy Holly.

The rest, of course, is history: the plane crashed shortly after takeoff, all aboard were killed on impact, and the accident came to be known as "The Day the Music Died."  Jennings suffered a particularly acute case of survivor's guilt about the accident and believed for a long time that his comment somehow caused the crash.  Feeling disillusioned and depressed, he went back to his radio job but did not last long, and he briefly gave up music.  After family circumstances required a move to Arizona, he formed up a new band, caught the attention of Bobby Bare, and started his remarkable career in country music.  

It's amazing to think that, if The Big Bopper hadn't asked and if Jennings had not given up that seat, he likely would have died at age 21. He'd be known today only as a nameless member of "Buddy Holly's band" who went down with the singer, and country music history would likely be very different.


BONUS FACT:  For non-southern men (and women) of a certain age, Jennings is likely most famous as the curves-straightnin', hills-flattenin' writer and performer of the theme to The Dukes of Hazzard.  For good measure, here's six minutes of the General Lee jumping stuff and being awesome.  I loved that show so much when I was a kid.   

BONUS FACT 2: Jennings preached the importance of education to his son, but was a 10th-grade high school dropout himself.  To demonstrate his sincerity, Jennings enrolled in a "GED on TV" course from the State of Kentucky.  After studying tapes on his tour bus and getting help from his son with fractions, he passed the test and earned his GED at the age of 52.  Here's a charming interview with a clearly proud Jennings on the day that he accepted his certificate.

BONUS FACT 3: Before he got clean in the mid-1980s, Jennings had a $1500 per day cocaine habit.

BONUS FACT 4:  You can't write about "The Day the Music Died" without linking Don McLean's "American Pie." 

BONUS FACT 5:  The name "The Beatles" was inspired by Buddy Holly's band the Crickets.

BONUS READING MATERIAL 1: Here's a nice appreciation of Jennings for The Onion's AV Club that I came across while researching today's entry.

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