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Waylon Jennings made an outlaw out of me

Country Musings by Robert Loy, May 2002

The little town in North Carolina where I grew up was so small it had only one radio station - well, only one radio station that any kid would be caught dead listening to. And I listened to it around the clock and loved everything they played - Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Monkees, The Archies.

Funny thing though. Sometime in the middle of the night this station switched formats and went from pop to country. Many nights I fell asleep to Herman's Hermits and woke up with Buck Owens' Buckaroos. This programming quirk was universally derided among my classmates, who all claimed to snap the radio off as soon as anything remotely twangy issued forth.

Although it took me a while to summon up enough courage to admit it, I did not turn my radio off in the morning. I kinda liked this country music stuff. I liked Bill Anderson and Conway Twitty. And I really liked the man who sang such sweet songs in such a gruff, whiskey-marinated voice, Waylon Jennings.

That's right, sweet songs. Those of you who knew the Wailer only from his later outlaw days may be surprised to know that he put out a string of albums in the '60s and early '70s (many of them showing him lighting a cigarette on the cover) that frequently showed a softer side of this rough-looking character: Beatle covers, folk tunes, love songs.

The first Waylon song I ever heard was "Days of Sand and Shovels" with its ultra-romantic chorus beginning "And I've loved her since every doll was Shirley Temple/Soda pop was still a nickel."

After Jennings died, I listened to this song again for the first time a couple of decades and realized something that I had missed or forgotten when I was a lad - the reason for the end of this idyllic love was because the singer could not give the woman a child; which makes it all the more poignant when at the end he walks in the rain past her house where his ex's daughter sits with her noise pressed up against the windowpane the way her mother did she was a girl. Forget all that crying in your beer crap; this has got to be the saddest song ever written.

A lot of the self-aggrandizement of the later Waylon left me cold, songs like "Are You Ready For the Country" and "Are You Sure Hank Done it This Way," but even then I admired Ol' Waylon's willingness to take a position he knew would be unpopular, as with the plea for amnesty in the song "America." Waylon also did some acting; his role as a bootlegger in 1974's "Moonrunners" is worth seeking out. He also did, for my money, the best version of "MacArthur Park" ever, edging out such heavyweights as Richard Harris, Donna Summer, Frank Sinatra and many others.

A truly versatile performer. It'll be a shame if he's remembered mostly for doing the theme from "Dukes of Hazzard."