Not Fade Away
Can a posthumous release of Waylon Jennings’s last recordings keep his legacy from disappearing?
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When Waylon Jennings pulled up to the home of his longtime bassist and pedal-steel player Robby Turner one November night in 1999, he was in bad shape. Nashville winters made his bones ache. Nerve damage brought on by diabetes and peripheral artery disease made it painful for him to walk. “He wasn’t in a wheelchair yet” is the best face Turner can put on the situation.
Jennings had booked some time in his old friend’s home studio, and as Turner sat inside the supposedly soundproof control room waiting for his boss to show up, he suddenly heard Jennings scream, “Oh God!” from somewhere outside. Turner ran to the door and found the 62-year-old country icon in the driveway, tightly gripping the front-door handle of his car. He had momentarily lost his footing and almost fallen. “I just about bit it in your driveway,” he told Turner. Then he smiled wide and said, “I’d have sued your ass too.”
Turner laughed it off and helped him into the studio, where Jennings had more complaints. He didn’t like that the vocal mike had been set up far from the control room. He didn’t like the low-slung chair he was supposed to sit in—bending down too close to the ground hurt his knees. The chair was replaced by a squeaky wicker stool, which Turner turned into firewood soon after. When the tape was ready to start rolling, Jennings got as close to the control-room glass as possible, presumably to make it clear that he’d be watching. “If I’d have sneezed, he’d have ducked,” Turner says. Then Jennings sat down and played some new songs, as well as old songs he felt he’d never got quite right. He played them alone on an acoustic guitar, using his thumb instead of a pick to pluck out the notes. And he played for an audience of one.
Jennings showed up for two more sessions, and each time Turner was the only person present. There were no engineers or studio techs, no posse of hangers-on gathered near the coffeemaker. This wasn’t the way Jennings usually did things, and the intimacy of the setting let him open up. During one of the sessions he started playing “She Was No Good for Me,” a song he’d penned a decade earlier but never recorded. Turner remembered the first time Jennings had played it for him, just after he wrote it. Turner nearly cried then and told him it was an instant classic. This evening, just as Jennings started in on the song, both men realized his guitar was woefully out of tune. Jennings, who didn’t like to give up without a fight, kept going. When he was done, Turner wanted to tune the instrument and try again. But Jennings was too short of breath. “I don’t think I can get through it, Hoss,” he told Turner. Once again, Turner almost broke into tears. “It was the toughest one for him to sing, and I felt like he chose it just because I loved the song so much,” Turner says.
That version of “She Was No Good for Me”—the wonky guitar track has been deleted, but Waylon’s vocal shines in all its ragged glory—is a highlight of Goin’ Down Rockin’: The Last Recordings of Waylon Jennings (Saguaro Road Records), twelve tracks that document those three nights at Turner’s home. It is, surprisingly, a rare example of a posthumously released Jennings album. Sure, since Jennings died, in 2002, there have been a handful of star-studded tribute records. Spotify lists more than thirty reissues, compilations, and live recordings released in the past decade—a confusing jumble of varied quality and, often, questionable legitimacy. And in 2008 Waylon’s son Shooter Jennings put out Waylon Forever, on which he took vocal tracks that his dad had recorded in 1996 for Fenixon, Shooter’s ill-fated Nine Inch Nails–style industrial project, and gave them a muscular country-rock backing. But that was more or less it.
The fact that nobody has taken Jennings’s masters and turned them into a Sinatra-esque Duets collection suggests that Shooter and his mother, Jessi Colter, have managed Jennings’s estate conservatively. Maybe too conservatively. Every time Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson leave the house, they remind us we breathe the same air as legends. Johnny Cash’s American Recordings and the movie Walk the Line eternally secured his iconic status. But there’s a generation that has no real feel for Jennings’s catalog. And if a crop of do-it-yourself Texas college kids like Pat Green and Jack Ingram hadn’t popped up fifteen years ago to pledge allegiance to the outlaws that came before them, there’d be even fewer Jennings fans.
So the release of Goin’ Down Rockin’ is a significant move. Turner knows you probably have a theory as to why these tapes sat around so long. “When somebody dies, they go and put out all the crap that wasn’t good enough the first time,” he says. But the songs Jennings cut in late 1999 are something different; Jennings wanted the tracks fleshed out with session musicians and released. “Just finish them one day,” he told Turner. “One day” simply took Turner a while to get around to.
It was worth the wait. Jennings may have been out of breath between takes, but when the tape was rolling, he sang just like he did on his legendary seventies sessions. He might even sound better. In the early days, Jennings insisted that his voice be placed in the middle of the mix, along with the rest of the instruments; it made him feel like part of the band. Here, his vocals are placed up front, and they earn that promotion. This is some of the most authoritative singing of Jennings’s career. As for the material, Waylon himself selected these songs—not the Nashville suits he detested and not some carcass-picker sifting through half-finished tapes for half-imagined could-be hits. The result is a set that sounds neither dated nor overwrought, as most posthumously retouched albums do. “Waylon handpicked the songs, and he chose the guy he trusted to finish them,” Turner says. “I know of no other record like this.” If we’re overdue for a Waylon Jennings revival, it probably starts here.
But bringing Waylon to a new audience doesn’t necessarily mean reviving the ethos he was best known for. One surprising thing about Goin’ Down Rockin’ is that it includes no overt references to what Jennings eventually referred to as that “outlaw shit.” By the late seventies, Jennings had grown uncomfortable with the outlaw tag. Real outlaws don’t advertise. They just are. Shooter, who has recently been nudging the Waylon revival along by opening a Waylon Jennings apparel and merchandise business and working on the screenplay for a biopic, thinks that his father resented young Nashville artists working with the music industry machine, not raging against it, and calling themselves outlaws anyway, a process that continues today. “The outlaw thing has been bastardized, tarnished, and corrupted,” he says. “It always bothered my dad. He thought the emphasis on image took away from the music.”
Like Shooter, Turner too has been thinking about Waylon Jennings’s future, though in a very different way. Perhaps the most affecting performance on Goin’ Down Rockin’ is a run-through of “I Do Believe,” a song Jennings wrote in 1993 and recorded with Nelson, Kristofferson, and Cash as part of the Highwaymen. It’s infinitely more moving delivered by a man staring down his own mortality. When Jennings sings, “In my own way, I’m a believer,” it sounds confessional, as if he’s at peace with the last rites that aren’t far off. That line helped Turner, who lists the Bible as his favorite book, grapple with the loss of his friend.
“When he died, I stayed in bed a week,” Turner says. “I canceled everything. I never wanted to play again. What I had to come around to, as a believer, is that Waylon’s in my future, not in my past. I look forward to seeing him again as much as anything in my life. He’s in my future, not my past.”