Those that know Waylon Jennings know that one of the primary contributions he brought to country music was importing a little bit of across-the-tracks rock ‘n’ roll influence into the genre. Unlike many modern country performers, Waylon did it with a respect for the original roots of country music, but he undoubtedly did it.
Though criticized himself in his time for being too rock and roll, Waylon satisfied many of those concerns every time he opened his mouth and sang in that inescapable West Texas drawl. He later brought the legendary steel guitar player Ralph Mooney out on the road with him to underscore his country sound. But the hard-pounding bass drum in synchronous rhythm with the bass guitar was something that hadn’t been implemented in country music before.
You can’t hardly blame Waylon for bringing a little rock ‘n’ roll to country since he came up playing bass in Buddy Holly’s band. As some may know (and others may not), Waylon was supposed to be on that fateful plane ride in 1959 that took the life of Buddy Holly and resulted in the legend of “The Day The Music Died,” but Waylon gave his seat up to The Big Bopper.
Waylon also lost his first real job for playing Little Richard. Radio station KVOW AM 1490 in Waylon’s hometown of Littlefield, Texas (located just north of Lubbock) hired Waylon on as a teenager and aspiring musician, and by 1956, he was the voice of the station. Along with ample amounts of country music, and even performing live on-air when he had the opportunity, Waylon would play a little rock ‘n’ roll too.
In his autobiography Waylon (cir. 1996), the country legend explains how Littlefield and Lubbock weren’t segregated like certain parts of the South and Texas, but it was seriously frowned upon for the white and black populations to intersect. Waylon recalled asking his daddy, “What if they mixed black music with the white music? Country music and blues?” His dad replied, “That might be something,” and went back to pulling transmissions.
Waylon also recalled sneaking to the black side of town to hear the blues and early rock bands play. He also would play African American performers on Littlefield’s KVOW, 1490.
“On my radio show we’d do some of the rock ‘n’ roll things: Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Little Richard. Every time I played a Little Richard record the owner would come all the way back to the station from home. He wouldn’t even call. He’d just cuss me, until one night I played two of them in a row and he fired me.”
Later in Waylon’s career, it would be his long-time drummer Richie Albright who would suggest to a frustrated Waylon who was tired of being under the oppressive thumb of producer Chet Atkins, “There’s another way of doing things, and that is rock ‘n’ roll.” Richie Albright didn’t only mean adding his now signature pounding bass drum to the mix, it also meant taking cues from rock artists who had won the creative freedom to write and perform their own songs. Soon, the Outlaw era in country music was born.
It was Richie Albright who made the suggestion. But it was artists like Little Richard who inspired the move. Little Richard was one of the origination points for the raw abandon that would turn rock ‘n’ roll into a revolutionary influence in society, rattling cages, breaking down barriers, and rewriting norms. He was cool before we knew what cool was. And as the station manager for KVOW, AM 1490, Littlefield, TX found out, you can’t hold that level of coolness back forever. You also can’t tell Waylon Arnold Watasha Jennings what to do.
In 1983, Waylon covered Little Richard’s song “Lucille” as “Lucille (Why Won’t You Do Your Daddy’s Will)” for his album It’s Only Rock and Roll. The song went to #1.
There are some people who say I use too heavy of a beat and too many instruments…but if instruments and beats made our music then we’d be in trouble anyway. The soul of the music is in the singer and I don’t believe anybody can really sing country as well as the old boy who’s lived it. Country music is like black man’s blues. They are only a beat apart. It’s the same man, singing the same song, about the same problems, and his loves, his losses, the good and the bad times.