Near to the Maddening Crowd

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 hail 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 to bask in his glow if only for a moment.

Francie, however, had a faster race in mind. She was well known to state-door guards throughout the South as the smoothest-working circuit rider of them all. She has an uncanny ability to predict a country singer’s whereabouts at any time of the day or night and it may well be, as one jealous rival charged, that she has cultivated her own intelligence network of motel clerks, limousine drivers, and backstage guards. She invariably has a half-hour head start on the other snuff queens working the same circuit, which enabled her to maintain supremacy.

Jennings steeled himself momentarily before entering the motel restaurant but, before he could spot Francie, she glided up behind him and guided him to a secluded table.

Defeated, he nonetheless upheld the C&W code of ethics, an unspoken rule that country singers cannot be rude to their fans. Unlike the rock stars, country performers depend heavily for their income on playing small clubs and the patrons in those clubs will tolerate any sort of behavior from their stars—drunkenness, adultery, cruelty to animals—but they will not stand for a personal rebuke. Word travels quickly of any insult to a fan and that spells trouble at the box office. So, Jennings picked at his chicken-fried steak and listened for half an hour as she talked—“Waylon, did yew know, ah was the queen of the Swingles paper after ah was in Hew-ston just a week?”—until he mumbled an apology and half-ran from the room.

“Man,” he said, “people like that bug the hell out of me. They just slide right in and take over.”

Things became more chaotic after he gained his dressing room at Armadillo World Headquarters, the Austin rock-country hall. Out front, there was already a standing-room-only crowd of 1800 and the hangers-on in his dressing room were four deep: “Hey, Waylon, yew ‘member me?” He remembered them and satisfied them with autographs and then retired to the cool darkness of the backstage area. The thin stage partition was already beginning to buckle under the crush of Austin’s “hip redneck” audience: three parts young longhairs in Western dress and on part older, moneyed shorthairs. All of them were fueled on pitchers of Lone Star and Shiner beer and they were impatient.

Jennings and his band hit the stage and surged into a full-blown version of “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean” and the drunken cheers were heard at the state capitol a mile distant. Jennings seemed almost frightened by the intensity of the crowd response, by the ripples in the crowd that matched his body movements. A fight broke out at stage right between a bantam truck driver and a long-haired youth. They bumped into each other, neither would back down or apologize, and they started throwing beer bottles.

Bystanders joined in—“Who yew pushin’, hippie?” “Up yours, redneck mutha”—until several metal scaffoldings were knocked over and the cataclysmic crash stayed the battle momentarily. Jennings’ eyes widened as he dodged a full can of beer that was hurled at his head but he and the band played on.

Half-time mercifully came and Armadillo manager Eddie Wilson led the procession to the dressing room. He was shaking his head: “I’ve never seen anything like it. Bobby was just out in the parkin’ lot tryin’ to get some drunks up off the ground and they all swung at him.”

Well, said an onlooker patronizingly, that’s the way these cowboys get with a beer or two in ‘em.

“Cowboys, hell!” said Wilson. “It was hippies and cowboys. All of ’em on wine and reds and all of the sudden they were brothers, passin’ out together and getting’ up and fightin’ together. Whew!”

If possible, the backstage scene was even more deranged. Jennings, University of Texas football coach Darrell Royal, songwriter Billy Joe Shaver, and Armadillo artist Jim Franklin posed for photographs while holding up a giant Texas flag. Royal began expounding on the virtues of a brand of wristwatch that he apparently held a vested interest in. Commander Cody came up on bowlegs to pay respects to Jennings: “Hi, I’m Cody. Freaky tonight, ain’t it?”

Suddenly, a cowboy stiff-armed half the persons in the room to get to Jennings. “Hey Waylon!” he whooped. “’Member when we won district? Whoo-weee! Now there was a by-God football team!”

A sedate middle-aged couple from Waco—the male in red and white striped pants, white loafers, and a red sportcoat; the female in floor-length gown and unswept blue hair—gingerly drew close to Jennings, turning up their noses at the marijuana smokers seated on the floor.

The male half thrust his warm paw into Jennings’ hand “Hel-lo, Waylon. I’m Williom R—- of the radio station. We came down here to hear Willie Nelson. Is he gonna be on?”

“No,” came the short reply.

Warm Paw persisted: “Well, you know, that drummer boy you had up there tonight, well, we saw him wunst with Willie and he just passed out somethin’. “

Jennings took a sip of coffee before answering. “That was Paul Enlish. He’s Willie’s drummer. His wife just died here recently.”

The female half of Warm Paw nodded and beamed at that. She and Warm Paw suddenly found themselves gently shoved toward the door by a statuesque woman in pink hotpants. Francie, having finally caught up with her quarry, wanted him to herself and she was clearing the room: “Please, Waylon needs to rest just a teeny bit, yew know?”

Jennings rolled his eyes and decided it was time to roll out for the second act. He and the Waylors surpassed themselves. Ralph Mooney, who had spent intermission sipping straight gin in a hallway, unleashed a volley of steel guitar notes that had even Mr. and Mrs. Warm Paw swaying, if not actually dancing. Jennings reached into his West Texas past for a churning rockabilly set, capped with the Buddy Holly classic, “Peggy Sue.” Partitions at stage front wavered, but held as the crowd surged against them. Those “hip rednecks” would not let Jennings off the stage. Neither would Francie, who found a chair onstage, next to Darrell Royal. There were limpid lovelights in her eyes, brighter than the spotlights that followed Jennings.

He finally escaped the stage, leaving a trail of sweat to the dressing room. There, he found a chorus of drunks who told him to do an encore, any encore. A short drunk, who had suddenly forged an alliance with Francie, was shouting, “Hot damn, Waylon, yew gotta do an encore, yew just gotta!” Francie closed in on him and Jennings headed for the stage, his only escape. He laid out a blistering version of “Lonely Weekends,” ignored the deafening call of the crowd, and sprinted for the exit. A friend at Jennings’ request, had a car waiting there on the sidewalk.

Francie was close behind, but Jennings made it into the car just ahead of her. As the Chevy pulled out, it hit a section of curb and lost a muffler. The resultant din caused a certain concern, inasmuch as the car sounded like a Sherman tank bulldozing through the Ardennes.

Jennings, nonetheless, heaved a sigh of relief. “Francie’s a good old girl, she is. But it gets down to where it puts me in a bad mental frame of mind, her chasin’ me around. But that was one helluva show. That was the hardest workin’ sumbitch tonight I’ve ever worked.”

A fan, who had crawled into the back seat, simpered that as far as she was concerned, Jennings was better than Mick Jagger.

Jennings laughed a whiskey rumble. “Well I dug it. I got off tonight. Man, I am soakin’ wet.”

The Chevy roared on, its harried driver seeking back streets and looking out for the blue-and-white Austin police cars.

“Hey,” said Jennings. “remember them Smitties? This sounds just like ’em back in Littlefield, Mama could hear me plumb down on Main Street and that was twenty blocks away. She’d say, ‘Boy, I heard you down there and I heard the siren too and me up walkin’ the floor waitin’ on you. I heard you go plumb outta town.’ You bet your sweet ass I run out of town.”

He found a cigarette and rolled the window down to let the sweet night air rush in. “Damn, I feel good tonight. We took it in just right. Hey, let’s get something to eat I’m hungry.”

Austin not being noted for after-hour eateries and the possibility of imminent apprehension by police weighing heavily on everyone’s mind, Waylon pointed to a row of vending machines at a closed Texaco station. Pull in there, hoss,” he directed. The Chevy rumbled as he loped across the dark concrete. The machines spurned Jennings’ quarters and he began kicking them and anyone passing the station at 2 a.m. would have been treated to the sight of the leading contender for the title of the “World’s Greatest Country Singer” with hair and shirttails flying attacking a row of mute machines. “C’mon, you sumbutch, give, damn you!” A few more kicks from those needle-toed black boots and the machines poured an avalanche of chips and nuts and candy. He growled triumphantly, “That’ll teach the bastards.”

But he was strangely silent as the car pulled into the Holiday Inn and the headlights picked up a solitary figure in pink hotpants waiting in front of the lobby. Francie was tapping her toes impatiently and she wanted to know why the hell she had been kept waiting.