He was a pioneer in the country music genre and never seemed to be afraid to speak his mind and say whatever he felt. He was driven by a single-minded purpose, to make good country music, and if something got in the way of that, he’d figure out a way to get around it.
He was interviewed years ago on Nashville Public Television in promotion of his book which was released in 1996, Waylon: An Autobiography. They dove deep into some of the elements that made Jennings a country music icon, and he also tells a few stories that personify his infamous outlaw spirit.
John Seigenthaler, who conducted interview, pressed him on where he got his relentless drive and motivation from:
“Everything [my grandpa] did was against the grain. And I more or less did that, too.
But since the day I can remember the only thing, you know, I never liked to be told what to do. I just didn’t like to be told what to do. And I didn’t like for people to do things wrong.
But as far as the drive I had for that, it was just something that was born in me and it’s still there. They called it outlaw, they called it all kinds of things, and all it was, was I tried to do right by people. I was taught that.”
They go on to talk about a story in the book where Waylon tagged along to the studio for a meeting with executives at the label regarding Willie Nelson’s now-iconic 1975 album, Red Headed Stranger.
And how he was the one who got is released…
Waylon Saves The Album
Waylon and Willie shared a manager, Neil Reshen, and he was the one who’d invited Waylon to the New York Columbia Records office to come listen in on the conversation.
When Willie turned the project in, the record label, as well as their manager Neil, thought it was pretty thin and under-produced. There just wasn’t a lot of flash to it, minimal acoustic instrumentation, and at the end of the day, it pretty much just sounded like a demo that was ready to be taken into the studio… which is exactly what Willie Nelson was going for (and wasn’t going to change).
However, the executives at Columbia decided they wanted to bring in the famous producer, Billy Sherrill, who most notably worked alongside George Jones and Tammy Wynette, to help ‘fix’ the sound of the album.
That’s when Waylon chimed in on behalf of Willie in the most badass way possible, calling Columbia Records president Bruce Lundvall a “tin-eared, tone-deaf son of a bitch.”
He explains the how the scene unfolded in that New York office:
“Bruce Lundvall, he’s quite a man, but I said, ‘take that tape off or you won’t be my manager or Willie’s, either.’
And I called him a bad name. I don’t know what he’s doing and he has not a clue about this music, and I said ‘get it off.’
So I got up and I said ‘I know I’m in your office, and I’m getting out. That’s it.'”
And luckily, Bruce wanted to know why and told Waylon to sit down and explain what he was missing with the music:
“I told him, ‘all of it. You’re missing the whole thing. You’re missing what 70,000 people came to Dripping Springs to hear.'”
Bruce listened again and decided to release it, though he made it clear to Waylon he still thought he was dead wrong.
“It wasn’t but about six months later I was coming down the stairs of my office, and I heard somebody say ‘There’s someone here to see you.’
And I said ‘Who is it?’ And he said ‘it’s that stupid…’ and repeated what I said… and he brought me a gold album. It was that ‘Red Headed Stranger’ album.”
As it turns our, Bruce was a good sport about it and the gold record had a note that read:
“This is from that tin-eared tone-deaf son-of-a-bitch. You were right. Here’s your album.”
Waylon had his finger on the pulse and understood what people wanted to listen to and what resonated with them. And while Willie ultimately had creative control over what he produced (which was pretty unheard of at the time), and wasn’t going to let them polish it up. Waylon says they probably would’ve have just shelved it hadn’t he went off on Bruce like that.
In my opinion, what he says next is one of the main reasons he became so influential and important to country music.
He always stood up for what he believed in and never groveled to the powers that be… because as this story clearly points out, sometimes the folks with the blank check have no clue what they’re even talking about.
Sometimes, you just have to trust the artist making the art:
“My problem is keeping my mouth shut. Sometimes it’s not even any of my business, but I can’t help it.
When I think something, like I knew that album was right, and I couldn’t just see it die like that. And it would have. It would’ve never happened.”