If there ever was a person who would call something exactly how they saw it, Waylon Jennings was the man for the job — always, without fail, you could count on him to tell the truth.
He stated in multiple interviews that the “outlaw” movement of the 1970’s, that he pioneered alongside Willie Nelson and others, was nothing more than a marketing ploy by the labels to get people to buy their music.
He’s also stated that the most outlaw thing Willie Nelson did was “come to town and double-park on Music Row.” But in terms of classic country artists who most fans would certainly put in the “badass, outlaw” box, if you will, I think Waylon, Willie and Johnny Cash.would be at the top of most of those lists.
According to Waylon though, once again, that wasn’t really the case.
At the beginning of his career, Waylon was roommates with Cash, and they remained friends for decades, eventually forming a band together with the aforementioned Willie, and Kris Kristofferson, you may have heard of before called The Highwaymen.
All of that to say, they had a deep friendship and love for each other, so I think anything he said about Johnny was out of love and respect, and vice versa.
That brings me to a fascinating 1998 interview Waylon did with the late DJ Johnson for Cosmik Debris (Johnson’s online magazine started in the mid-90’s).
Johnson was interested in talking about how Waylon and his friends Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash lived outside of the “Nashville parameters,” and Waylon set him straight.
He explained that Johnny was “so inside you wouldn’t believe it,” adding that he used to “do everything they wanted.”
By “they,” I’m assuming he means the record label, management and things of that nature, and while it definitely was not aimed as an insult, it kind of goes against everything Cash was marketed as being the “Man in Black”:
“John’s inside. John’s so inside you wouldn’t believe it. He used to do everything they wanted.”
Johnson seemed as surprised to hear this as I was reading it, questioning how that could be true with the “rebel image” Cash had in the public. Waylon says he tried to be that way, but he really didn’t know how:
“Trying to. I don’t think he knows how.
I love Johnny Cash, and I respect Johnny Cash. He’s the biggest. He’s like an Elvis in this business, but no, he’s never been the rebel.”
Of course, the whole going along with everything his label wanted was probably early on when he was a young artist, but it kind of shocked me to hear Waylon say that, especially as someone who had a very intimate and up close look at every aspect of Johnny’s career.
I think likening him to an “Elvis” level success in the business is completely accurate, and goes to show how much Waylon still respected him and everything Johnny Cash became.
Waylon went on to say that they all had their own ways of doing things, and even Willie “ran to Austin” when he realized things probably weren’t going to work out for him as an artist in Nashville.
In terms of his own career, Waylon admittedly stayed in Music City and played the game to a certain extent, though he also said that he was confident in knowing that what he had was right and he wasn’t willing to bend to what Nashville producers and executives wanted:
“Now, Willie, he ran to Austin. He did pretty good. You know, he just said ‘to hell with it.’ And that’s what I said. To hell with it.
We were the ones that they were trying to destroy. Willie just went back to Austin, but I didn’t go anywhere. I stayed here and faced up to it.
I knew I had something that was right, and I knew they [Nashville] didn’t.”
I think if everyone just had a quarter of Waylon Jennings’ conviction and confidence, the world would be a much better place…
Possibly the most intriguing part of the interview came immediately after that, where Waylon says that the system almost destroyed itself while it was “goin’ on trying to destroy us”:
“But you know, the system almost destroyed itself while it was goin’ on trying to destroy us.”
Every artist in this post spent much of their career fighting tooth and nail to get the opportunity to write and record the music that they wanted to, and in the end, it was a worthy battle, because as far as I’m concerned, all three of them deserve a spot on the Mount Rushmore of country music.
In their own way, Waylon, Willie and Johnny all ultimately earned their titles as icons by doing things their way and not apologizing for it.
I don’t know how it gets anymore outlaw than that, no matter what Waylon says about liking that title or not…
And speaking of The Highwaymen, I’m just gonna leave this here because the performances from their Live at Nassau concert never get old: