Jimmy Rabbitt Turned The World Onto Outlaw Country (RIP)

If you’re an actual country music fan, you will immediately recognize the name “Jimmy Rabbitt.” You just may not know exactly why he was so important. But when you’re co-writing with David Allan Coe and getting named dropped in his songs, and Waylon Jennings once produced an album for you, your fair to characterize as an Outlaw country legend.

But Jimmy Rabbitt’s legacy wasn’t primarily forged as a performer or a songwriter. Though he did that as well—which is one of the many things that gave him the skins on the wall to be respected by so many artists—it was his work as a DJ that made Jimmy Rabbitt so integral to the formation and popularization of Outlaw country music.

“She said Jimmy Rabbitt turned her on to my last album” is the line from David Allan Coe’s infamous song “Longhaired Redneck” where many got clued into this man’s importance, though folks in the greater Los Angeles metropolitan region needed no name drop. Jimmy Rabbitt was the man bringing guys like Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and David Allan Coe to them on a daily basis, eventually turning on the entirety of California and the West Coast onto this rising tide of renegade country performers when playlists and formats would otherwise not allow it.

No different than the Outlaw musicians themselves, Jimmy Rabbitt marched to the beat of his own drum. This also meant that he was a bit of a vagabond on the airwaves, pinballing from one local station to another for much of his career, leaving a line of angry program directors in his wake since he wouldn’t color between the lines. Starting at KCBQ in San Diego in 1968 as a rock DJ, he then landed at KRLA in Los Angeles, where he soon became one of the city’s most popular DJs, and soon was syndicated through ABC’s national radio network.

But when Rabbitt started mixing Outlaw country songs into the rock format, he began to run afoul of the powers that be. He moved from station to station, from KMET, to KLAC, and to KBBQ throughout the 70’s—the whole time his dedicated listeners following his every step as he helped form the Outlaw music format, while also becoming friends with many of the artists he helped open the West Coast to.

And this whole time, Jimmy Rabbitt would moonlight as a performer at places like North Hollywood’s famous Palomino Club. He played in a band he simply called “Texas” that he later revamped into Jimmy Rabbitt and the Renegade, who released a self-titled album in 1976 on Capitol Records, produced by Waylon Jennings. The record didn’t go very far, but that same year David Allan Coe took “Longhaired Redneck” to #17 on the country charts, and folks far beyond the West Coast began recognizing the name “Jimmy Rabbitt.”

But many people in Texas needed no introduction. Before heading to California, the Holdenville, Oklahoma native first attended the American University in Washington D.C. where he got kicked off the airwaves for playing Little Richard—a similar resume point to Waylon Jennings, who faced the same fate as a DJ early in his career. So Jimmy moved to Texas and attended college in Tyler as a broadcast major. He got his big break when he was selling shoes, and the wife of a program director heard Jimmy’s voice, and insisted he needed to be on the radio.

And of course his real name wasn’t Jimmy Rabbitt. He was born Dale Payne, first adopted the on-air name Fast Eddie Payne, and then when he got his first big radio job at KLIF in Dallas, TX, he became Jimmy Rabbitt since the general manager at the time—Charter Payne (no relation)—didn’t want to share the same last name with their new star DJ. It’s here where Jimmy Rabbitt developed his on-air personality. In a promotional bit, the radio station positioned overturned cars around the city, and painted them up saying, “I flipped for Jimmy Rabbitt.” Soon he was a local celebrity, and introduced The Beatles on stage when they played Dallas in 1964.

Jimmy Rabbitt was also a writer, working as the country editor and regular contributor to Radio Report. He continued to DJ in various locations, including in Southern California and Colorado throughout his life. He was one of the first DJs on satellite radio when that became a thing, beaming his signal to a bigger national audience. According to Stephen Thomas Earlewine of the LA Times, Jimmy Rabbitt died on November 25th from natural causes at the age of 79.

When it came to approaching country music in an Outlaw manner, unless there were individuals willing to put their asses on the line, take chances, buck the system, and suffer the consequences, it may have never happened like it did. Similar to writer Chet Flippo, Rabbitt helped open the music up to millions. Similar to publicist Hazel Smith, Rabbitt helped forge the term “Outlaw” in the country music and popular culture lexicon. From the DJ booth, to behind the pen, and to the stage itself, Jimmy Rabbitt was one of those tireless champions of the music, and leaves a large legacy behind.

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