Interview with Waylon Jennings (1998)


Waylon’s World of Wisdom – An Interview with Waylon Jennings

Interviewed by DJ Johnson
Originally published on Cosmic Debris

What a life! Waylon Jennings didn’t become a top-pedestal hero of country AND rock and roll without having navigated some dangerous rapids. At the tender age of 19, his good friend Buddy Holly recruited him to play bass on the infamous Winter Caravan tour that ended with the tragic plane crash in which Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper lost their lives. To make matters worse, Waylon had been scheduled to fly on that plane, but fate was on his side and he was safe but freezing on the tour bus that night instead. After a long period of soul searching, Waylon stepped back into the music world, armed with plenty of Holly’s good advice.

Arriving in Nashville with a head full of music and a pretty clear idea of how to get it onto tape, Jennings ran head first into the country music establishment. They tried to make his music for him. Waylon was not amused. His only ally was another legend, guitarist and producer Chet Atkins, who was able to see the potential in Waylon and, for the most part, allow him to make his own thing happen. When the Nashville brass tightened their grip, Jennings sidestepped them and did it his way. The line was drawn in the sand, and the battle began. Nashville versus the outlaw.

That battle became a big part of the legend of Waylon Jennings. He gravitated toward others fighting the same battle, forging friendships that last to this day. His most visible allegiance, with Willie Nelson, has produced some of Country’s most enduring classic records. While the Nashville machine turned out throwaway after throwaway that touched the charts and vanished, Waylon and Willie seemed to be leading a musical Hole-In-The-Wall gang that forged meaningful, memorable tunes without anyone having to grovel in any Nashville office or labor in Nashville studios that felt all wrong. And they were breaking other rules, as well, incorporating rhythm and blues and even straight ahead rock and roll into their music. A high crime, by the Nashville standards of that era.

For Waylon Jennings, it obviously worked. You don’t get to make 72 albums if you’re doing it all wrong. Write that down, Nashville.

Waylon has survived everything from drug abuse to bypass heart surgery, and here he is today with a brand new album on a new label. Closing In On The Fire has the blues, it has rockabilly, it has country, it has Sting, Sheryl Crow, Michael Henderson… It’s the album Waylon wanted to make. His wife, Jesse Colter, appears with him on a very personal track called “Just Watch Your Mama And Me,” a particularly satisfying moment in his long and storied career. Yeah, Ol’ Waylon tells some of the stories of his life on this album, and he stretches out with a great band in the process. What more could this good ol’ boy want? In his own words, “that just about does it.”

But in truth, there’s always another battle to fight, and Waylon has never backed down from a battle. No longer putting himself through grueling tours, he concentrates on creating music and getting it to tape the way he hears it in his head. He’s done everything else already. And he’s done it so well and for so long that everyone knows his name. Few artists reach the point of popularity where only the first name is needed. Waylon may just top that list.

Cosmik: I’m a late convert to country, but I really only love honest country. Today’s Nashville seems to be totally hung up on fads and fast bucks and it seems to have turned its back on tradition. It’s all demographic reports now. Would a young Waylon Jennings have a chance in this business today?

Waylon: Ya know what, I wonder. I don’t know. If he was LIKE me, no, he wouldn’t. Because if anybody tells me what kind of hat to wear and what kind of jeans to wear and… to wiggle… (laughs) Cuz I was never pretty anyway and never cared anything about that. You know what’s happened to country music? Jessi [Colter], my wife, she was a late convert to country music. At first she thought Hank Williams was awful, and George Jones. And all of a sudden she just fell in love with what they did. She thought I was crazy listening to Jimmy Reed, you know, the old blues singer. Then I went off on tour one time and I’d left that album out, and I came back and her eyes were dilated and she had written a song to that beat. She’s kind of like you, though, in that things like Buck Owens were new to her when we first got married. She’d say “listen to this new song! And this one!” and we’d be sayin’ “we wore that out in 1952. What are you talkin’ about?” (Laughs.) But she said the best thing, just about a year ago, and nailed it better than anybody ever did. I said “I don’t know what’s happened to country music,” and she says “you know what’s happened? They gave up the song for the show.” I said “Jessi, you really got it right.”

Cosmik: That’s spot-on. They’d started that process with the Opry years ago, but at least they were still reflecting the music. The songs.

Waylon: Yeah, they at least still played the music, but now they gave up the music for the show. The funny thing about nailing that is it probably took someone who WAS a late convert to country to do it. We did an album one time called White Mansions, about the civil war, but it was written by a guy from England. His looking at it from over there and it not being a part of his history made it so he could be objective.

Cosmik: So a Nashville outsider sees Nashville clearly.

Waylon: You know, I feel sorry for the young artists. Especially the boys. I was talking to one just recently, and they was mad because he’d grown a beard. Just a little bitty one, you know? They were blaming that and the hat he was wearing on him not selling now. I said “let me talk to ya, now. This is going to get you in a lot of trouble, but I’m gonna tell you something right now. Who are these people?” Well, it was his manager and his record company, and all of ‘em had gotten together and jumped on him. I said “now let me tell you a little secret. All a record company has is the money. Your job is to cut the record. You have the talent. You have the big end of this thing. Any way you look at it, without you, nothing happens. Ain’t no wheels gonna roll. Now all they got is the money to promote it. If they DON’T, and they don’t sell it, that’s not your fault.” And I said “you know, a lot of people haven’t heard this last record you did, but it’s because somebody fell down. One of the links in the chain was broke. Don’t let ‘em do that to you. And another thing, the way you dress and the way you look is none of their business.”

Cosmik: I don’t suppose you’d be willing to say who that was, would you?

Waylon: No, I won’t do that. He’s still locked into all of that, and he can’t get out of it yet. I told him another thing, I said “when your manager’s on the record company’s side, somethin’s goin’ on.”

Cosmik: I interviewed Wayne “The Train” Hancock a little while back. He reminds me of you. He goes against the grain and bucks the traditions, too, and kind of thumbs his nose at the whole CMA thing.

Waylon: You know, one of my best friends is Carl Smith. Now, he was almost like Elvis in the early days of country music. They never mentioned him. I’ve always known that the CMA was a rotten organization and that they cared nothing about country music. It was a money-making organization. It had permanent members for no reason. When Dottie West died, they had the CMA show just afterwards, and it took the President of the United States [George Bush] to mention her. They didn’t even have any kind of tribute to her, any kind of mention of her at all. He got up to say something about country music, and when he did he mentioned that Dottie West had died that year. They have yet to do anything. And they won’t do anything. They don’t do anything to promote country music! They say “well, we put on the show.” No, the country entertainers put on that show, and you reap all the benefits from it. So I’m not very popular here with those inside the system, as you might guess. I never wanted to be.

[Pictured: Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings.]

Cosmik: You and Willie and Johnny Cash and a few others that live outside the Nashville system….

Waylon: John’s inside. John’s so inside you wouldn’t believe it. He used to do everything they wanted.

Cosmik: He’s really inside? I guess this is part of being a late convert. My impression was that he had the outlaw rebel thing going, you know… that he’s playing outside the Nashville parameters.

Waylon: Trying to. I don’t think he knows how. I love Johnny Cash, and I respect Johnny Cash. He’s the biggest. He’s like an Elvis in this business, but no, he’s never been the rebel.

Cosmik: Well, that kills THIS line of questioning. (Laughs)

Waylon: (Laughs) Now, Willie, he ran to Austin. He did pretty good. You know, he just said “to hell with it.” And that’s what I said. To hell with it. We were the ones that they were trying to destroy. Willie just went back to Austin, but I didn’t go anywhere. I stayed here and faced up to it. I knew I had something that was right, and I knew they [Nashville] didn’t. But you know, the system almost destroyed itself while it was goin’ on trying to destroy us.

Cosmik: Can you give some examples of things they did to destroy you?

Waylon: One thing is that I wasn’t getting booked that well, and they had control over who got the awards, they had control over who sold. And they really did not want Willie or me, either one, to have a hit record. They wanted the money, but they didn’t want us to be the ones. Like I told ‘em one time, and I guess it was kind of conceited to say it, but I said “you know what, I was a legend before I was ever a hit.” Which meant that inside the business, meaning my fellow entertainers, everyone thought I was right, and they liked what I did, but outside, nobody had heard.

Cosmik: How do they hold artists back?

Waylon: I’ll tell you the things that were bad. When I came here, you had to use their studios, their producers, and you got four percent. What they did was they gave you five percent up at the top, and then down at the bottom they’d over-charge you so much you wouldn’t have hardly anything left. And then they’d keep fifty percent of that. They’d just keep it. It was just stealing is all it was, by the record companies. And if you audited them, which I finally did and they owed me quite a bit of money, they said “well, we got enough lawyers to keep this in the courts for years. Now, we’ll settle with you for half.” That was one of the things you had to deal with. They had a thing called “control composition.” Say you and I wrote a song, and I recorded it, I would get seventy-five percent for my part of the song, and you would get a hundred percent for your part, you know, on a fifty-fifty basis. And they thought that was right. You had no artistic control or freedom in any way. I was the first to get that, and I always insist on it. I might give it away to someone who is producing me, but basically that’s mine. And the whole thing is that you’re treated like a step-child. Here it was down here, everything in the black, because they were stealing, basically. Stealing from us old country boys down here.

Cosmik: And they got that control because you had to record at their place.

Waylon: You had to use their studio. Finally, my manager negotiated a deal where I got to produce my own records. I’d just hand them a record. But I still had to use their studios. Well, I’m in the studio recording, and they’re on the phone upstairs tellin’ on me, tellin’ everything I did, and I probably did a lot wrong. Like the kick drum, I like that heavy, you know?

Cosmik: Like rock and roll.

Waylon: Yeah, and they said “that’s rock and roll. Can’t do that. It’ll make the record skip,” and all that stuff. (Laughs.) Finally, I just went over to another studio and cut an album and I said “this is it.” They said “well, you gotta come over here to RCA and the studios here and do it over here, because if we release that album, all the studios in town will lose their engineers. Because we have a deal with the engineers union.” I said “well, that’s your problem, cos this is all you get. I’m not gonna do any more.” They said “well you promised to cut in our studios,” and I said “yeah, but I lied.” So that’s how that happened. They knew that was a hit record. It was called “This Time,” and it WAS my first number one album, and they didn’t want to lose that. They had to sell the studios, and I tried to buy one of them, but somebody over at RCA said “man, you’ve got the nerve of Hitler. You’re the reason we’re having to sell them, and you’re wanting to buy one of them!”

Cosmik: Serves them right for trying to tell you when to breathe.

Waylon: Well that’s the way it was. A lot of times the A&R man did most of the picking of the material. Chet [Atkins] always let you have your say, but it was a whole [control] thing. They dressed you a certain way, and if you didn’t dress that way, they looked at you funny.

Cosmik: But Chet Atkins gave you room?

[Pictured: Chet Atkins.]

Waylon: Chet was great. If an artist had ideas, he liked to see ‘em in there. But he didn’t know, at that time, what all the company was doing wrong. He learned through the years, too, but he was just a good man, and he worked under another good man by the name of Steve Schultz. He began to find these things out after Steve died. Chet and I are good friends now, but we had some real battles-of-the-wills at one time.

Cosmik: Chet was known for going into the studio knowing exactly what sounds he wanted from the artist. How did you deal with that when you knew what sounds YOU wanted?

Waylon: You know what? Chet was good at getting the best out of the artist. He let me try things. He realized I did have an idea. The trouble was I was using musicians who didn’t understand me, you know? Chet understood what I was doing, he knew I had my own ideas, and he would let me try to get ‘em. If I couldn’t, he’d try to help me. That’s the way Chet was. But then he put me with some producers who were just unbelievable. Bad. We didn’t get along. It was like oil and water. Danny Davis, Ronnie Light. It got real bad until I had to get my own deal and use my own producers.

Cosmik: I’m glad to hear this about Chet. I grew up with his records, not ever realizing I was listening to country at all.

Waylon: He is a genius on the guitar. He’s wonderful. You know, in the days when I started, if you had Chet Atkins’ name on your record as a producer and it was on RCA, you could work the road. It didn’t have to be a big hit record, it just had to have that on it.

Cosmik: But it probably guaranteed sales, too.

Waylon: It did. Very much so.

Cosmik: He played on some of your records, too.

Waylon: Oh yeah. I even made him play my guitar one time. He was very conservative, but you had to figure him out. I figured him out, I think, the first session I ever did with him. He would say “that sounds good.” That means, well, it’s probably a chart record. “That sounds pretty good.” That means it’s gonna be in the top fifty. If he said “I think that’s great,” well, it was just a smash. You could take it to the bank.

Cosmik: The man had high standards, huh?

Waylon: (Laughs) He did. He didn’t give you any real big booming appraisals of things.

Cosmik: It’s good to know he wasn’t part of the problem.

Waylon: No, I’ll tell ya what, Chet loved artists. He did. But he was caught up in the system. He had two hats. He had to have ‘em because he did two things: he was an artist, and he was an executive. One time we kind of got into a little argument about stuff, and I turned to him and said “Chet, you got two hats. From now on you better tell me which one you’re wearin’.” And he laughed. He thought it was funny, but he knew what I was sayin’, and I think it kind of made him realize, too. I told him “one of ‘em you’re a good friend and a musician, and the other one you’re a record executive.” I said “I don’t like that record executive.” But he is such a genius as a musician. Chet heard things over all. He could hear over all. One of the greatest things he did, as a producer, was the things he DIDN’T do. He would stand back and let the artists try to do it. Now, I saw some artists that he had when he was producing where he had to do it all, but I never went into the studio with a song that I didn’t know how [I wanted it]. This is a corny way to say it, but I could sing that song and tell you what I wanted it to sound like when it was finished. I had that in my brain. He loved writers, and I was a writer.

Cosmik: He wouldn’t try to change that outcome?

Waylon: No, no. He would work with me to try to get what I wanted out of it. The only problem was I needed to use my own group, and things didn’t happen until I did. It wasn’t a real country sound, what I did. I’ve listened to it, and I think it was more a west coast rock thing, you know? But it fit. It was country, but it was my own interpretation of country.

Cosmik: I’ve been listening to a lot of your early records, and I’m a fan of Buck Owens and the whole Bakersfield thing, too, and I recognize that same spirit in all of this.

Waylon: The rock and roll spirit. I learned a lot of that because I worked with Buddy Holly. I played bass with him, and he taught me a lot about that. He said “you know, the difference in country music and pop and rock music is the feel. They depend on the singer to do all the feeling.” But he said “you get your tracks right, and you should get that feeling where it inspires you to sing to ‘em.” Now, those are his exact words as he told them to me in 1958 or 59. Do the time to get the track right. A lot of times, on these big hit country records, they’ll take off and keep getting faster and faster until they’re almost twice the speed. But the singer was great, you know?

Cosmik: So Buddy knew what he was doing. His success wasn’t an accident, was it.

Waylon: No. No accident. I’ve often thought about it, you know? He would have always dabbled in his own music on record, but I think he would have been a big, strong part of the music industry, period. I think he would have been more into the… like Neil Diamond with a little more edge to it. He had some wonderful ideas that he was gonna do, but I think he would have probably owned a record label.

Cosmik: Didn’t he have plans for a label called Tope?

Waylon: Yeah. I was gonna be his first artist on there.

Cosmik: Besides all the obvious things that you had to deal with over his death, that must have been rough, too.

Waylon: It was all devastating. I’d never dealt with losing anyone close to me, and I didn’t know where to put it in my life. I was very young then. Buddy taught me so much in such a short time.

Cosmik: He told you not to let “THEM” dictate your sound, meaning the industry, obviously.

Waylon: He ran into the same thing I ran into. When I got here it was still in place. He had come here years before, and they wouldn’t let him use his band, they did all the arrangements, they wanted him to sound like this, and they said no, more like this, and his ideas were nothin’. When I came here, I had my back up to where they weren’t gonna be able to do that to me. I didn’t get to use my own band… well I did a little bit. I used one or two of them, because Chet knew I was comfortable with them. I didn’t have a hit record for a long time. I had chart records, but nothing big. The first big hit never made number one, it was “Harper Valley PTA.” But my ideas were so new and fresh that Chet knew I was gonna make it. He never had a doubt. Now, I was on drugs, and that didn’t help a whole lot. He hated that. That was part of where Chet and I had problems, so I take complete blame for that. Going back to Buddy, he had run into that. He came here and was on Decca, and he did an album here. It was not anything like he wanted to sound, so he went home. Then he went over to Clovis [New Mexico] and got in that studio where he could work as long as he wanted to.

Cosmik: Buddy told you not to let them label you a hillbilly singer and keep you in a box. From what I’ve read, it seems like Buddy gave you a lot of good advice.

Waylon: He did. He gave me a lot of good advice I still use to this very day.

Cosmik: What else did you learn from him?

Waylon: Don’t over-stay your welcome. He said “quit while you’re ahead.” I used that when I was in the club there in Phoenix, and I said “boys, they’re offering us a chance to come to Nashville, and it’s gonna be hard, but we’re on top here. We’re the hottest thing here, and they’ll exaggerate it to the good. If we wait till it cools off, they’ll exaggerate it to the bad.” And those were the very words of Buddy, too.

Cosmik: I’m sure you’ve seen The Buddy Holly Story…

Waylon: Yeah, that’s… good fiction.

Cosmik: When I first saw it, I was young and impressionable, so for years I thought that was what happened.

Waylon: Buddy wasn’t that way. He had a terrible temper, but… Gary Busey could have learned the songs right. He did pretty good. I’ll tell you, the casting was pretty good. People that looked like The Crickets, and people who looked like his mom and dad and everything, but of course, if they’d just stuck to the straight story, I think they’d have been better off.

Cosmik: It seems to me that Paul McCartney sunk some money into that movie, and then after it came out, he released a special called “The REAL Buddy Holly Story.”

Waylon: Sonny Curtis wrote that.

Cosmik: That was where I finally learned that “okay, so that movie was a lot of fiction.” But what I’m curious about is that final tour. You were there on that bus night after night, surviving that whole experience. Since the movie wasn’t a very good source of information, could you tell us what it was really like?

Waylon: Well, it was terrible. One time the bus froze up goin’ right down the road. We even had one of the boys get his feet frozen. It was unbearably cold, forty below in some of those places. Then they put us in a converted school bus. The night they were killed, we went into the bus and headed on to Moorehead, Minnesota, or Fargo… They’re right across from each other, and the airport’s right in between. We actually played in Moorehead. I didn’t know what to do. There I was, 19 or 20 years old, and like I say, I never had anything like that happen, and all I could think of was Mr. and Mrs. Holly. I wouldn’t go look at the picture. In fact, when they came to the bus and said “Waylon, we’ve got to talk to you,” I wouldn’t go talk to them. I made Tommy Allsup go. I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what it was. You know, it was like they picked the best people out of that tour, the best guys, and just killed ‘em. The people there [in Moorehead] begged us and cried and said they were gonna lose everything if we didn’t play that night. So we went ahead and played there for them, and then the people who booked us tried to dock us for Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper. We’d all gotten pretty drunk, if you want to know the truth about it, and we said “we’ll tear this building up if you don’t pay us.” After that, we were supposed to get money to go home, and they said “if you stay and work the rest of the tour, we’ll fly you home for the funeral, and we’ll fly you back and pay you what Buddy would have normally got.” And I don’t think I ever got paid a dime after that. All they did was feed us so we wouldn’t go home until the funeral was over. So I saw the seedy, rotten, snakey part of the business very young, and for a long time I didn’t want to be in it.

Cosmik: That would do it. And you were trying to deal with grief, too.

Waylon: I didn’t know how to deal with it. Besides that, I felt guilty. I thought for some reason… I was alive, and Buddy and those boys were dead, and I didn’t know how, but somehow I’d caused it.

Cosmik: There are so many music guides and history books and movies with different information. For years, I believed you were standing next to the airplane and lost a coin toss.

Waylon: None of us were around the airplane. The airport came and got ‘em in Clear Lake. Now I don’t know… Tommy and Ritchie Valens may have flipped a coin, but me and The Big Bopper didn’t. He had had the flu, and he couldn’t get any rest, so he asked me if he could go on ahead. I said it if it was okay with Buddy, it was fine with me. We’d been shootin’ dice on [the bus] and I’d been winnin’, so I wanted to keep that up. I didn’t tell anybody for a long time, but the last time I remember seeing Buddy was backstage there at Clear Lake at the Surf Ballroom. Well, he’s leaning against the wall in a chair, and he’d just sent me to get some hotdogs, and I brought him one and me one. I’m sittin’ there leaning against the wall in another chair, and he looks at me and says “so you’re not gonna go on the plane tonight? You let Big Bopper have your seat?” I said “yeah,” and he says “well, I hope that old bus freezes up on ya again.” It had frozen up a night or two before. I said “well, hell, I hope your ol’ plane crashes, then.” And you know, for a guy that was 19, 20 years old, that was pretty hard to deal with. I went around afraid somebody was gonna find out I’d said that, you know? I didn’t tell anyone that until a couple three years later.

Cosmik: You were in a deep depression after that for all that time, not even thinking about the business.

Waylon: Yes, until a guy by the name of High Pockets Duncan said something to me. He said “let me ask you something. If you could bring Buddy Holly back and let ‘em live again, would you do that?” I said “yeah,” and he said “well, do it.” I said “I can’t.” He said “and you couldn’t kill ‘em by saying you hoped their plane crashed.” So I kinda understood that. When Reba McEntire’s band got killed, I called her and said “now, Reba, you’re fixin’ to go through something bad. You paid for that plane, I’m sure.” And I said “you know, you’re gonna blame yourself, but like ol’ High Pockets told me, if you could bring ‘em back, you would, but you can’t because you don’t have that kind of power. So what makes you think you have the power to kill them just by existing.”

Cosmik: How did she take that?

Waylon: Well, I think it helped her.

Cosmik: You’ve been able to take a lot of the good advice that’s been given to you and pass it on to other people. That must feel pretty fine.

Waylon: I have a theory in life: part of the deal, part of the thing you’re supposed to do is pass it on. Any good you receive, you should pass it on. It’s not yours. I’m not good at it always. Sometimes I think “God damn, why didn’t I tell them this,” because it would have saved them a lot of misery. A lot of times they don’t want to hear it. But you know, if some good is done to you, you should pass it on.

Cosmik: I hope this question isn’t terribly imposing, but it’s something I know I would have been feeling if I was in your place. You were feeling bad about what you’d said to Buddy, and just feeling terrible about everything that happened in general. Now you’ve looked down the barrel of death a few times in your life, but here was an occasion where you had no control. It was just luck. The Bopper was sick. Did that fact itself ever haunt you?

Waylon: Let me tell you something… I have no earthly idea how to even talk about that part of it, because I don’t know. I mean, I think we’re put here on earth to make your own destiny, to begin with. I don’t think there’s anything you can do this way or that way to change anything. “If you wouldn’t have done this, this wouldn’t have happened,” you know… There were times that I got on a plane, there were times it was them, and on that one, it crashed. Basically, the way things worked, if you want to think of it as predestination, I wasn’t supposed to be on that plane anyway. I really don’t know how to answer that. I don’t think God reaches down his hand and pulls you away from something like that, because I don’t think he puts you in harm’s way to start with.

Cosmik: Then you never had to deal with that part of it.

Waylon: No, I didn’t. The only time I came close to feeling really guilty about that part of it was when The Big Bopper’s son hopped on my bus, and this is exactly what happened: he said “hi, I’m Big Bopper, Jr., and I want you to tell me about my daddy.” And I knew he knew I had given him my seat. Now, my problem with that was what did HE think, you know? Did he blame me for that? I know that his mother had not let him come out to some of my shows, but I didn’t know that she blamed me or not. You never know how people think. I looked at him, and… you know, in those days, gettin’ on my bus was probably like trying to get into the White House. We kept people pretty well locked out. But he got in there. I said “let me tell you somethin’, you’re daddy was one of the best crap shooters I ever saw in my life, and he was a good ol’ boy. Now how did you get your ass on this bus?” (Laughs.) And we became friends after that.

Cosmik: So he wasn’t thinking what you were afraid he was thinking.

Waylon: Nope. I don’t think he ever had a thought like that. We’ve talked several times since then.

Cosmik: You played behind every performer on that tour, right?

Waylon: Yes, we were the tour band.

[Pictured: Waylon & Ritchie on that final tour.]

Cosmik: Let me ask you about Ritchie Valens. You know, it kind of drives me nuts to see that he’s still not in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. You played with him every night. What’s your opinion? Was he the real deal?

Waylon: He was the real deal. Yes. He was great at what he did. Let me tell ya, he loved music. He was a shy kid. He was young, and I think he was homesick, you know? But we got to be pretty good friends, and we talked a lot. He was a good showman, and he had some wonderful ideas. He took a children’s marching song and made a rock and roll song out of it that would have knocked you out. That’s creative. Now, I don’t know how they judge all that, but if anybody in the world deserves to be in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, Ritchie Valens does. Because Ritchie Valens WAS the real deal. He was only starting, but in the time he spent in the business, he made big impact. I don’t know if anybody could have made a bigger one. Part of it was dying. We give up our heroes slow. But he definitely deserves to be in there for what he did do. If nothing else, honor him with that. His career and life were cut short, but what he did in that short time I’d put up against anybody. I was there. I know.

Cosmik: There ya go, judges. Take it from the man playing bass behind Ritchie.

Waylon: Very BAD bass. (Laughs.)

Cosmik: Oh yeah, you’d only been playing bass for two weeks when the tour started, as I recall.

Waylon: That was it. I memorized it. Shit, I didn’t know how to play the bass.

Cosmik: I’ve never heard first hand. I don’t think any recordings were made during that tour.

Waylon: One of my records is called “Shine,” and I’m playing bass on that so you can see how bad I play. It’s all feel.

Cosmik: Because we know the movie was a farce, what’s the one thing you’d really like people to know about your friend, Buddy Holly?

Waylon: You know, Buddy was music. That WAS Buddy Holly. He thought music all the way around. He didn’t take care of the business like he should have. He left it in the hands of people who didn’t do it right. But you know, I never saw him out of line in all those years. We all do things, I know that, but as I look back on him, and people I’ve known since then, and people I’ve been around, you’re always disappointed about people, you know? But Buddy was an upper. He was happy. He loved music, and he was really happy. I don’t know… I don’t believe in reincarnation at all, but if all that stuff is true, then he might have been on his last time around.

Cosmik: An evolved soul?

Waylon: Yes, exactly.

Cosmik: Thanks for covering that ground for us. I appreciate that. You cleared up a lot of things I’d always been unclear on. Let’s move up a whole lot of years to today and talk about your new album, Closing In On The Fire. New label, new people… How different was the experience of making this album from past albums?

Waylon: I’ll tell you what it was: I was doing everything I could to keep from being anything like what was happening in country music now. I made the deal with the record company, Ark 21, and I said “I don’t want it played on the regular country radio at all, because I don’t want to be remembered from this era.” You know, the way they do things, these kids who can’t sing and they use these machines to raise their voices up to where they’re not flat anymore or down where they’re not sharp, you know? I just don’t want that. Now, I said “you can go the Americana and Europe, and that, I’d be happy about, and the stations who are not reporters [to CMA-type charts]. The whole thing about it is I don’t know what age has to do with not being able to get a record played, and that’s fine with me because you know what? I think they’re stupid anyway. The way the radio is doing things now, letting someone else pick everything for them and program it for ‘em and telling them everyone of 45 years old aren’t commercial. The other day, me and some guys… we’ve got a group called The Old Dogs…

Cosmik: With Jerry Reed!

Waylon: Yeah! Well, you know what, they checked the numbers, and they were tryin’ to get a million people to watch that show, and they got a million and a half, and sixty or seventy percent of them were young women. Now that shoots the hell out of their damned theory. But Ark 21, you know, I had a good time doing this, and I told the producer [Gregg Brown] “let us get in here, me and the band, and let us do this, and you get it on tape.” I told all these guys “you know what, I want you to forget all about everything you ever heard me do, and whatever fits on this record is what we’re gonna play on it. It doesn’t matter. If it doesn’t sound like anything I’ve done before, wonderful.” So that’s what we did, and we got some good things in there. Some things I’m really proud of. A few things are kinda contrived, but that’s okay… I can’t think of the name of that last one…

Cosmik: You mean the last song on the album? “No Expectations,” the old Rolling Stones tune?

Waylon: Yeah, we kinda got lost on that. It’s a little more contrived than I would have liked.

Cosmik: What were some highlights for you?

Waylon: Singing with Carl Smith is one of my greatest things about it, you know? And then I think one of the best songs I ever wrote in my life is on there, “Just Watch Your Mama And Me.” I’ve got wonderful sons and daughters, and you don’t know what to tell them about this day and time. That’s what that song was about. I wrote that song in about half an hour. I just sat down and wrote it and put it away. It was just something that was on my mind, you know?

Cosmik: It felt, to me, like you were saying that no matter how crazy the world around you gets, you can draw strength from your family. I thought it was nice that you had Jessi [Colter, Waylon’s wife] on that song with you, too.

Waylon: Jesse is a great person. She really is. She’s been a friend to me all through all my bad times, and she’s understood what I was doing. She came up with that one saying, which was great.

Cosmik: “They gave up the song for the show.”

Waylon: Yeah. I’d like to take credit for that, but you know, I’ve gotta live with her, too. (Laughs.) Another thing was “Closing In On The Fire.” I wanted to do that song because it’s a well written song, it’s got the groove, it’s got everything, and it’s anything but country. Another thing was working with Sting and Sheryl Crow. Sheryl Crow kills me. I love her. We’re friends. She was in the club one night, I didn’t know she was there, and she sent me a note, so I went up and we talked for quite a while. She’s a doll. When I grow up, I wanna be just like her. And she’s a great artist, too. The thing she did on the album was just wonderful.

Cosmik: “She’s Too Good For Me.” That was an interesting song, too, because Sting was really driving on that bass.

Waylon: Yeah, and I tell ya, it was very autobiographical on his part. He wrote it, you know, and it wasn’t the kind of song that I would have picked. But he wanted to play bass on it, and it was his song, so I did it. And it turned out pretty good.

Cosmik: Were you a fan of Sting’s beforehand?

Waylon: I love what he writes. He writes great things. His writing is almost like opera, changing tempos and things. He’s very creative. I like his singing, and I love The Police thing. Another person who helped me a lot on this album is [executive producer] Anastasia [Pruitt]. She was great in the creative end of it.

Cosmik: Is this really your 72nd album?

Waylon: Yeah, I guess it is.

Cosmik: Geez, how’s a guy like me supposed to BUY all those!?

Waylon: (Laughs) I don’t know!

Cosmik: Is it hard to get enthusiastic after doing that many albums?

Waylon: I never have any problem getting enthusiastic with a good song and a good band.

Cosmik: And the band is very good on this album.

Waylon: Oh, ain’t they great? Those drummers! I’ll tell you what, those drummers {Steve Turner and Greg Morris] are a couple of Memphis guys. But you couldn’t walk in front of them when they were playing. They played so Goddamn loud I couldn’t believe it.

Cosmik: It came through, too. That really helped drive the album. On the title song, there’s nobody credited with harmonica, but the harmonica is just incredible. Is that Michael Henderson?

Waylon: It’s Henderson, yeah! Ain’t he great!? Great artist, great writer, great musician, great harmonica player. I had the best band. Him, Richard Bennett, all of them guys were just great.

Cosmik: Henderson’s solo records are so funny. A lot of humor there. Is he like that to work with, too?

Waylon: Yeah, he’s funny. He’s a good guy.

Cosmik: You give a lot of credit to people who normally don’t get any credit, I’ve noticed.

Waylon: You ain’t nothin’ without that. You know, I’m goin’ in there with just a guitar someday, and I might cut it yet, but those musicians are the ones. I try to inspire them. Now, I can watch them and tell if I’m not doing something right, and I’ll change it. I’ll change the approach to it or try to get it more to where they can feel it. But when they get in there with me, they have a good time. They came to me after the sessions and said “if you ever do anything somewhere, let us work with you, because we had a good time.” You know, those long endings on some of those songs? We didn’t cut those off because that’s great music. I’m not the only one on that record. I’ve never believed that “here I am, the bigshot with the big name on the record.” But ya know what, I am a part of something that happened. I’m a part of the music that happened. My voice is one more instrument, is what it is. So that’s the way I feel about people who play on sessions.

Cosmik: Was this more fun than most albums?

Waylon: Yes, it was. I’ll tell you another one I had fun with, though, was the Don Was album. I had a lot of fun with it, too. The tracking on this last one was fun, too. We got bogged down after that, but the tracking was wonderful.

Cosmik: I wanted to ask about Kelly Willis, too. She’s a personal favorite of mine, and she just doesn’t get the credit for her writing that she deserves. You did her song, “I Know About Me, Don’t Know About You.” How did that song come to you?

Waylon: You know what, it was sent to me by some publishing company. That’s a good song. I think Kelly Willis is a good writer.

Cosmik: If I had to pick one song from this album, I think it’d be “Best Friends Of Mine.” It feels personal, like people you really care about.

Waylon: It is. That guy’s still there. Jim [last name isn’t clear on tape], he’s still in Idaho Falls. We starved together in Phoenix. He’s the one who had me come from Texas to Phoenix, you know. That old Chrysler wouldn’t turn right, so we had to make all lefts, go plumb around the block to get to where we were. We’re still dear friends. And of course, Hank [Williams, Jr.] is like my little brother, and the part about Buddy [Holly] is absolutely true.

Cosmik: Tell me about “Back Home Where I Come From.”

Waylon: That’s a true thing, you know? The way people think back there, everybody does something as wild and crazy as what I’ve done all these years. That song’s just me. My sense of humor. That’s all it is.

Cosmik: Isn’t that pretty much what your life has been? You’ve never been able to step down from a fight.

Waylon: Naw, I never have been able to do that. I ain’t got no reverse. I’ve learned, a little later in life, it works out pretty good to have one every once in a while.

Cosmik: But until that wisdom comes to you, you’re sort of like that Chrysler that can only turn right.

Waylon: {Laughs.) That was it.

Cosmik: “The Blues Don’t Care” is track nine, and by that point, with the undertone of a lot of what had come before, I’m getting the feeling Closing In On The Fire is very close to being a blues record. Do you think there’s anything to that?

Waylon: I didn’t have any idea what any of it was, you know? I didn’t aim at anything except good music. I don’t want to set the world on fire anymore. I’ve had all that I need. I was king of the mountain for a long time, well, I don’t want that no more. I like to perform every once in a while for people who want to see me, and cut albums of music that is what I’m really about.

Cosmik: In your autobiography, you talked about the terrible windstorms that would blow across the desert, leaving you clinging to a pole to keep from blowing away. You also said you sometimes think you made music to shut out the wind and find a place the sands can’t touch. You’ve made a lot of music over the years. Has it always shut out the wind?

Waylon: It’s not only the sand and the wind: it’s hurt. It’s not being accepted. That helped me create whatever I am, you know? Yeah, I’m still fighting that wind. I don’t like wind to this day. But I think everybody has something like that, something in your life that is yours, and yours alone, to fight… Everybody has a battle. People who don’t fight their battles just don’t amount to much.

(C) – DJ Johnson 1998


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