Waylon Jennings: ‘I’m allergic to bullshit’

There it was in the news, like a welcome blast from a long-ago past: Waylon Jennings Walks Off CBS Talk Show. For an instant, it was the ’70s again, when Waylon refused to play on the CMA broadcast because they wanted him to shorten his song; it was the ’80s, when Waylon stomped out of the We Are the World recording session because Michael Jackson had asked him to sing in Swahili.

Stubbornness and insubordination, any old decade – hell, it has to be Waylon, a man who’s made a career out of speaking his mind, of not taking any guff, of doing things whichever way he pleased. Today, when its artists come stamped from a cookie cutter, smiling and kissing babies on command, country music sure could use a rugged individualist like Waylon, one of Nashville’s first “outlaws,” and subsequently the first to dare wonder out loud, “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand?”

Like Jones, Haggard, Cash and the rest of the grizzled old guard, however, Waylon is considered old news in Nashville. Those who have written him off, however, probably haven’t heard Closing In On the Fire, his latest album on the independent Ark 21 label, or Old Dogs, his sublimely stupid collection of country comedy bits with Bobby Bare, Jerry Reed, Shel Silverstein and Mel Tillis.

Waylon Jennings is 61 years old, and although he’s starting to slow down, the life ain’t been squeezed out of him yet. Hell, just ask Tom Snyder.

BDY: OK, why did you walk off the Tom Snyder show?

Waylon Jennings: I had turned that show down twice because there were two guests on it. If you count the commercials and everything, there’s about 40 minutes of the entire thing. Well, they said ‘She’ll do six to eight minutes,’ the lady psychiatrist or whatever she was, ‘we’ll go to a break and then we’ll come back with you.’ That was the agreement I had with them.

I got there, and 30 minutes into the show I’m still sitting there. And that’s when I told them, you got 10 more minutes and then I’m leaving. I told everybody in the room to be ready, and 10 more minutes, it still didn’t look anything was gonna happen. And so I left.

You know, if I had it to do over, I’d do it again. It kind of turned into Keystone Cops there for a little bit, they were trying to get me back. They even demanded I be brought back by the driver. He said ‘They’ve ordered me back,’ and I said you think about the here and now, not about what’s gonna happen later. Because if you turn this car around, something’s gonna happen here.


It reminded me of ‘We Are the World.’ You walked out of that, too.

I got tired of everybody pattin’ everybody on the back. And here they come in with all these ideas, wantin’ to sing part of it in Swahili. I just got tired of all the bullshit, and I’m allergic to bullshit, so I left.

It was the same thing with Tom Snyder. I shouldn’t have been on the Tom Snyder show anyway, because we have nothing whatsoever in common.


Whose idea was the Old Dogs project?

That was Bobby Bare’s idea. Him and Shel Silverstein got together. Bobby’s the guy who kept callin’ Chet Atkins years ago, until he signed me. Chet signed me without even knowing what I looked like.


Maybe he wouldn’t have signed you if he knew.

Shit, no! Ugly is ugly. Anyway, I’ve known Shel for 30 years … but I was really sick at the time we started that project. The way we did the songs, every once in a while I’d call and say ‘Look, I guess I can come in and see if I can do a track.’ I could do maybe half a track, then go in and do the rest of it later.


Did you have the flu, or what?

I had a stroke. Some plaque came off in my bloodstream, and it went into my brain. Anybody could’ve had it.

But I went ahead and did it because Bobby asked me, and he’s a dear friend. For him to ask me, I’ll do it.


Are you feeling all right now?

I feel great now. I completely recovered from all of that. I went into congestive heart failure. I went out to Arizona for a while and kind of just worked at gettin’ back on my feet. And I did.

I had actually run into the wall, though, traveling and touring, so I’ve been off for about a year and a half. So I’m doin’ better now.


You said at one point you had thought about quitting, because radio was ignoring artists such as yourself. Had you really considered it?

You know what, I did. But then all of a sudden I started writing again, and I picked up the guitar and started tryin’ to play again. So as long as I feel like playing, as long as I like it, as long as I’m having a good time with it, then I’ll do it.

But they’re not going to dictate to me when I quit. Or how long I can stay in this business. The business is not going to dictate that to me.

I just read your new album reached Number One on the Americana chart. And then I heard it was your 72nd! How does that make you feel?

You know what? I don’t keep score. I appreciate anything good that happens to an album, but I think I’ll know when I’m over the hill. I can still sing, and I can still write good. And as long as that happens, as long as there are people out there who want to hear it, I’ll probably do something.


Is it frustrating to not get on the radio any more?

With the music that’s on the radio now, I do not want to be mixed up with that. I want nothing to do with that, and I don’t want to be known to be from this era. These tight Levis and these hats … I’ll tell you who are wonderful, and that’s the girls. The girls are gettin’ better material, and they’re workin’ harder at it. And I think they’re cuttin’ better records than the men.


I wonder if you ever regretted coming out clean on your drug problems?

No, I don’t worry about that. Because somebody might see it and maybe it’ll help ’em. That’s not a good thing. I did it, and there’s nothing I can do to change that. I wish I hadn’t. It’s just part of my life—if you take me, you have to take that too.

@1998 Bill DeYoung