Near to the Maddening Crowd

Country and western singer Waylon Jennings sometimes feels as if the whole world is in hot pursuit.

 Jack C----, the federal agent stationed at Gate 56 of the Dallas airport, signaled to his partner when he saw the pair coming, The signal meant “search” and that signal was followed by an announcement to the 23 passengers waiting for Texas International Airlines flight 925 to Austin: “TI 925 will be delayed momentarily due to transient passengers.”

Those transient passengers, the suspicious pair, carried no luggage, had paid cash for their tickets, and were similarly attired: rumpled leather suits, scuffed boots, and hair a little longer than is allowed in the VIP lounge just down the corridor.

Cowboy singer Waylon Jennings and the writer with him slowed down their loping run for the plane as Agent Jack stepped in front of them: “Please step this way… gentlemen.” Jennings carried no identification and Agent Jack was summoning his superior when a light bulb went on above his head: “Aren’t you . . . you’re Waylon Jennings , ainchoo? I thought you was an entertainer. Hell, yes, I see you over at Panther Hall. I go over to Panther and get drunk and raise heil ever wunst in a wile. Go right on through, gentlemen.”

Jennings laughed about it all the way to Austin.

“That reminds me,” said the sharp-featured, 37-year-old country singer, “last time we was down here, the whole band went over to Old Mex and on the way across the border the customs agent found a roach on the floorboards. I saw myself doin’ ten to life in Huntsville—and all of the sudden the sumbitch recognized me and he said, ‘I’ll just take care of this for you, Mr. Jennings.’ Whooo! And all it cost me was an autograph and two tickets to my next show.”

Clearly, he had arrived as an entertainer when he could cut through officialdom without even trying.

Jennings had just completed a grueling tour of one-night stands in honky tonks in New Mexico and Colorado, and his return to his native Texas, plus the off-hand tribute of Agent Jack, put him in a good mood as he relaxed for the first time in days. “You know how to find Texas?” he asked the writer. “You just go east till you smell it and south till you step in it!” The bony angles of his face became smooth in laughter. “And you always know when you cross the Texas line ‘cause your wife starts bitchin’ and your kids wanta pee and you feel like goin’ and stealin’ somethin’.”

His laughter died when he checked into the motel in Austin. There was not one, but three out-of-town groupies (“snuff queens” in C&W parlance) waiting for him. For most performers, a phalanx of devoted followers is a welcome sign of success, a solid indication of having Made IT. Jennings, however, shuns the traditional trappings of the music scene: expensive drugs and Sunset Strip parties and chattering sycophants. In many ways, he is still the shy musician from Littlefield who, as a green West Texas kid, learned about music as a member of Buddy Holly’s band. That valuable experience ended abruptly February 3, 1959, when Holly’s plane went down outside Mason City, Iowa. Jennings had given up his plane seat to Jape Richardson (a Texas Disc Jockey known as “The Big Bopper”) and, sobered by a brush with death, he returned to West Texas as a DJ.

After years of knocking around, he moved on to Phoenix where he led a popular local band that was one of the first to mix country music with rock successfully, his days with Holly serving him well. Eventually, he came to RCA’s attention and today, 25 albums later, he’s beginning to become known as the acknowledged leader of country music’s unorthodox set, a loose-knit group of maverick singers who have successfully defied the Nashville system and taken control of their own musical futures. Like Hank Williams two decades before, Jennings does pretty much what he wants, and like Williams, his talent enables him to get away with it. He has easily accepted his role as head maverick; what he seems uncomfortable with is public adulation. Earlier in Albuquerque and Colorado Springs, he had disappeared from the motel when the crush of fans became excessive. Six persons hanging around the motel was excessive.

In Austin, he had told no one where he would stay, but there were Francie, Pam, and Estelle camped out in the lobby of the Holiday Inn. Pam and Estelle were a team, it developed, and they blitz every Jennings appearance within a 500-mile radius of their native Denton. They work in a hospital there and, touchingly, had brought Jennings an offering consisting of massive quantities of cotton balls, baby oil, toothpaste, soap, aspirin, bandages, and first-aid cream. Jennings accepted the gift graciously. Pam and Estelle are neither self-assured nor beautiful and Jennings knew it and invited them to his room to talk.

Francie, however, was more imposing; standing just under six feet, blonde tresses billowing down to her tiny waist. She was dressed in taut pink hotpants and a straining halter and her eyes were fairly dripping with pink and blue make-up.

“Hi, honey,” she breathed. “Ah’ll bet yew didn’t know I just moved from Atlanta to Hew-ston? Well, ah was just sittin’ down theah all alone when ah heard on the radio that yew were in Austin so ah just got my little fanny in geah and heah ah am! She emphasized her speech with flamboyant wriggles of that “little fanny” and Jennings’ brow furrowed. Here was a problem. He wanted to rest before the night’s show and he owed Pan and Estelle a little attention and he wanted to leave immediately after the show to meet his wife Jessi in Dallas. Francie was going to be a large pain, his expression said. He asked her to wait upstairs in the restaurant.

“Damn,” he muttered. “I don’t have no idea what the hell I’m doin’.” He entertained Pam and Estelle briefly and they were grateful

Tags: THE CULTURE

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