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With the Hall of Fame-caliber legacy Waylon Jennings left behind, with all the noise still made about him by traditional and Outlaw performers and their fans, and even by modern-day mainstream performers looking to lend a bit of country cred to their otherwise flimsy country music resumes, you would think the final resting place of Waylon would be a bigger deal, and not necessarily a hard-earned objective for a grave hunting excursion.
But unless you possess a strong inclination, a set of reliable instructions, decent orientation skills, and easy access to the greater Phoenix area, finding yourself at the foot of the final resting place of Waylon Jennings to pay respects and reflect on the legacy of a titan of country music just may remain unresolved on your country music bucket list.
Most of the grave sites of country music greats are more than just final resting places, they’re memorials to the men and women who helped forge the legacy of the music of rural people. The grave of Hank Williams in Alabama might be the most hallowed in country music (and one of the easiest to find). Johnny Cash and June Carter’s grave in Hendersonville, TN, just outside of Nashville is another notable and often-visited destination for any serious country music fan. And the George Jones Monument in the Berry Hill portion of Nashville is certainly something fans of The Possum and country music in general can’t miss.
When it comes to Waylon though, a little more effort must be exerted. I had found myself in Phoenix on a number of occasions previously, and whether I was running late on a road trip, stuck at the Phoenix airport on a long layover, but no logistical way to make it out to the location, visiting the Waylon grave site had always remained elusive.
Though Waylon’s history is mostly attributed to Texas and Tennessee, it was in Arizona where he first got his big start as a solo artist. He moved to the Southwest because his first wife Maxine had family there. A new club built in Scottsdale called JD’s was looking for a talented performer to pattern the club around, and Waylon became the guy. It was at JD’s where Jennings forged his sound and style that he’d later become known for, and a sound that would revolutionize country music. After Waylon moved to Nashville and hit the big time, he still kept a primary residence in Chandler, AZ—another suburb of Phoenix. Arizona is also where Waylon retired to get clean from drugs, and where he died on February, 13th, 2002.
Because Waylon passed away right as hostilities were leading up to the Iraq War, and continued hostilities in Afghanistan stemming from the 9/11 attacks were dominating the news cycle, there wasn’t a lot of press coverage, or the national recognition that you would expect from the passing of someone of Waylon’s stature. Even today, some music fans are not sure if Waylon is still alive or not because they don’t remember the news of his passing. And since Waylon passed at the age of 64, he never had the chance to benefit from a legacy era like Johnny Cash, George Jones, and others did, and performers like Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard enjoy today. Waylon was never recognized by the Kennedy City Honors. Waylon skipped his Country Music Hall of Fame induction. And despite being a popular name to drop in country songs, Waylon’s legacy still seems under-represented.
When Waylon was buried at the Mesa Cemetery in Mesa, AZ, the grave remained unmarked for the first year. Fans from around the country and world would come to the City of Mesa Cemetery just east of Phoenix on a country music pilgrimage to pay their respects, but some never found Waylon’s final resting place. The Mesa Cemetery is massive—the size of many city blocks—and is made up of 1st through 12th streets, intersected by cross streets A through D. It could take someone days to find the grave if they didn’t know where to look, and some left never finding it.
Then on February 15th, 2003—three days after the 1 year anniversary of Waylon’s passing—a headstone was finally placed on the grave. It includes a visual depiction of Waylon, his famous “Flying “W” emblem, and two inscriptions: “A vagabond dreamer, a rhymer and a singer of songs, a revolutionary in country music, beloved by the world,” and “I am my beloved’s. My beloved is mine. A loving son, husband, father and grandfather.”
Even with the marker, the gravestone lays flat to the ground, and there’s no signs to point you to where it is, no mention at the cemetery entrance that it’s the final resting place of the famous Waylon Jennings. And if you don’t know exactly where to look, you could walk right past and miss it.
Luckily I had the instructions in hand: Plot 766 – in the 4th row east of 9th Street, south of “B” Street, behind the 6th tree. Even then I walked past it once and had to check the directions again and orientate myself to make sure I was looking in the right place. Then I found it—a black polished granite stone, and the final resting place of Waylon Jennings.
I always like to note the mementos people leave near the graves of country greats. Left for Waylon was a set of red rosary beads, an automobile cigarette lighter, and someone’s Alcoholics Anonymous 3 months sober token—a reminder of the role drugs played in Waylon’s life, his early passing, and the inspiration he’s given to many to get clean.
Humble as the gravesite may be compared to his contemporaries, the weight of standing in the presence of Waylon is no less cumbersome and moving. All of the music, all of the moments and memories Waylon has forged for millions of people, and will continue to forge for future generations, hangs in the air around that place, and it should be considered no less than sacred country music ground, regardless of its remote location from the rest of country music’s venerated places.
In some ways it’s fitting not a lot of fuss is made of Waylon’s final resting place. He regularly skipped award shows, and showed little interest in his trophy-adorned accolades. That’s not what Waylon was about. Making a big fanfare of his legacy seemed superfluous to him. It was a waste; an embarrassment. Maybe its better that he was buried off the beaten path of country music, way off in a suburb of Phoenix, and folks must make an effort if they want to come and see him. Waylon wasn’t much for being bothered, or doted upon.
Hopefully he didn’t mind my little visit….