Unlike many of the country music greats that have passed away recently or even in the more distant past, Waylon Jennings never really got the opportunity to enjoy a true victory lap. Succumbing to diabetes complications on February 13th, 2002 at the age of 64, and ailing for a few years before, the once high-flying country music Outlaw rode off into the sunset without an official farewell tour or a whole lot of fanfare.
But there was a moment that if you look back in history, it did constitute a proper final bow. On January 6th, 2000, Waylon Jennings played what many consider was his final major concert, and it was one for the ages. The second night of a two-night residency at the The Ryman Auditorium in Nashville—a.k.a the “Mother Church of Country Music”—Waylon Jennings held court with a now legendary band, and numerous special guests. Though it wasn’t necessarily meant to be a farewell concert at the time, it ultimately became one. And lucky for all of us, there were both film and audio crews on hand to capture it all.
In the middle of 1999, it became obvious to Waylon and his closest friends and family that his health was failing and was unlikely to improve, even though he kept that information mostly close to the vest, and kept battling. Years of abusing his body with cocaine, and then bad eating habits after he’d weened himself off had taken its toll. Though the last thing Waylon would do is stage a farewell tour, he did assemble what he called his “hand-picked dream team” of musicians that he named The Waymore Blues Band, and began booking shows.
Waylon took long-time members from his original backing band The Waylors—including his legendary right-hand man and drummer Richie Albright—and adding other ringers to the mix such as the steel-guitar and mandolin/acoustic player Robby Turner and legendary session guitarist Reggie Young, Waylon also conscripted a complete horn section to back him up. In total, there were 13 players in the Waymore Blues Band. It was ambitious, and defiant.
Only appropriate Waylon opened the final Ryman show with the song “Never Say Die”—a song Waylon wrote, which would go on to become the name of a 2-CD and DVD set that was released from the performance in 2007, dubbed “The Final Concert.” Waylon was ailing, and had to sit as opposed to stand to perform, but his voice and his attitude was as strong as ever.
“I guess y’all noticed I’m sittin’ on this chair,” Waylon said to the crowd after the second song. “And that ain’t all old age. I kinda hurt my back and my legs. But I’m gettin’ around. Y’all don’t worry about me. I can still kick ass. You’ve just got to bring ’em up here … I don’t want you girls worrying about me either, ’cause once you’ve had a cripple, you never go back.”
During the evening, Waylon ran through some of his most memorable hits like “Good Hearted Woman” and “Amanda.” But at the time, Waylon was also very much playing music for himself with a hot shot band behind him, and he performed a large handful of cover songs, from “Suspicious Minds,” to “I’ve Never Been to Spain,” to “The Weight,” and one of his favorite songs to play live, Toy Caldwell’s “Can’t You See.”
Also joining Waylon on stage during the two night stint at the Ryman were his wife Jessi Colter who sang her signature song “I’m Not Lisa,” along some of the hottest names in popular traditional country at that time, including John Anderson who joined Waylon for “Waymore’s Blues,” Travis Tritt who traded lines on “I’ve Always Been Crazy,” and Montgomery Gentry who joined Waylon on “I’m a Ramblin’ Man.”
Waylon would go on to play some more shows after his January 6th, 2000 appearance at the Ryman Auditorium, but not many, and perhaps none more memorable. He underwent surgery later in the year to help improve the circulation in his legs, and then in 2001, had his left foot amputated due to diabetes.
Waylon was never one to make a big “to do” about himself. He skipped his own Country Music Hall of Fame induction in October of 2001, saying the distinction meant “absolutely nothing, if you want to know the truth about it,” sending his son Buddy to accept the award on his behalf. But at the time, Waylon’s health was in such serious decline, perhaps he was in an ornery mood, or didn’t want to be seen in public, or couldn’t make the trip from Arizona.
But the late-era Waylon Jennings his fans will always remember is the one captured on the Ryman stage on those two dates in early January of 2000, even if he was sitting down instead of standing at center stage. Still defiant, still making country his way, Waylon went out in style.
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Purchase Never Say Die: The Complete Final Concert