`I tell you what, if it's OK with Buddy, it's OK with me'

Jasper Rees meets Waylon Jennings, a thorn in the side of executive Nashville
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The Independent Culture
Waylon Jennings is talking on the 36th anniversary of the day the music died and he survived. As Buddy Holly's recently recruited bass player, he was meant to be on the ill-starred plane on 3 February 1959, but surrendered his seat to the Big Bopper, who was down with flu and needed medical attention. "He asked me if it was all right if he could have my seat on the plane. I said, `I tell you what, if it's OK with Buddy it's OK with me.' Unknowingly, Holly's last creative act was to preserve his protg's career.

The legacy can be quantified in numbers. Jennings met Holly, nine months his senior, 40 years ago on a local radio show in Lubbock, Texas. The rescued career has yielded "close to 70 albums, if my memory serves" and "about 700 songs", of which he wrote "about 40 per cent". In 1979 his Greatest Hits was the first country album to go quadruple platinum. He's an amiable, generous interviewee, but you don't need to be a shrink to conclude that Jennings inherited something else from that day: an anger that sits oddly with a wheezy, fragile undertow in a voice famously welling up from his cowboy boots. It is an anger that 20 years on drugs, detoxification, seven packs a day, cardiac surgery, marriage and seven children have done nothing to alleviate.

After the crash, the promoters running the tour implored Jennings and others to carry on performing. They promised to fly them back to the funeral, but didn't - "I thought if I ever get off of this I'll never mess with music again. I took my guitar over to my mother's house and just dropped it. It's like snakes in the grass. It seems like a business that's supposed to be so happy, and bring so much joy to people, can draw more bad people than anything I ever saw."

Jennings lay low in Arizona for two years, then started performing again. At one show, Herb Alpert saw him and signed him to A&M. Then Chet Atkins took him to RCA. He moved to Nashville in the mid-Sixties and "walked right into a wasps' nest. They had such a nice system that worked for everybody, but it didn't work for me. You'd take four songs and do 'em in three hours. You had to use their producer, musicians they picked, the songs they picked, and they expected you to dress like they wanted." This might explain the searing turquoise shirt he's wearing now: it's probably a protest garment.

The hits - including daring covers of the Beatles, Jimmy Webb and Dylan - accumulated, but the rage remained. In 1974 he founded the Outlaw movement with fellow square peg Willie Nelson and entered his most fruitful period. Nelson moved back to Texas, but believing that "it weren't no way to win if you move away", Jennings "stayed right in their face until they gave up".

Even today, he's a thorn in the side of executive Nashville. The Highwaymen, the splendid troubadour supergroup also starring Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, and whose third album is released next month, pitch themselves as the bad ole boys in an industry interested only in printing money. "My last day," he says, "I'll have to cause them some kind of problem."

After they lovingly produced a boxed set of his best work, Jennings agreed to re-join RCA to record his latest album, on condition that they let him do things his way. He hired Don Was, who helped revive Nelson's career, as producer; but it was Was's pedigree as a bass player that recommended him. "He and Buddy are the two guys I've met in my life that live in the pocket. Buddy was a rhythm man: once he got in that thing, you were locked in. Don Was, too."

For Waymore's Blues (Part II), Jennings assembled a set of his own wise, witty songs and briefed his session musicians: "You've heard my records. Try to forget all of that. I'll sing and play my guitar and you follow me, but you play what you've always thought you wanted to hear. If you want to try something you've always wanted to try, now's your chance. Don't think country, don't think rock 'n' roll, don't think pop, don't think nothing. Just think music."

Recording was over in four days, and the magnificent result is proof that marketable country doesn't have to be sung by overproduced young guns. Some songs were caught in one take, most others in two. "If we'd have done 'em again we would have slicked it. But it's raw, it's like really raw and it's ragged. And that's what I am: I look that way and I am that way."