Twang, and the Undying Friendship of Waylon Jennings & Duane Eddy

Duane Eddy died on Wednesday, May 1st after leaving behind a legacy that undoubtedly stands as one of the most influential in the realm of electric guitar in the instrument’s history. Most notably, Duane Eddy is given credit for inventing the guitar tone known as “twang.”

Before there were spring reverb setups in guitar amplifiers, or reverb and echo pedals and effects for players to switch on and off—let alone electronic filters to imitate all of this by a keystroke in the digital realm—it was Duane Eddy and his producer Lee Hazelwood who had to harness this watery, reverberative effect mechanically, improvising the sound from scratch.

Using the tremolo bar on his signature Gretsch hollow body guitar, picking way back on the first pickup to get a unique tone, and taking an old 2,000-gallon water tank out of a junk yard to use as an echo chamber, Duane Eddy created “twang” out of whole cloth, and it became his signature. American music would never be the same.

Through immediately recognizable songs from the 1950s like “Rebel Rouser” and “Peter Gunn,” Eddy revolutionized the sound of electric guitar from the bright and precise playing of the time to something with more body, boldness, and a faraway feel.

“Twang” soon became Duane Eddy’s calling card. His first album from 1958 was called Have “Twangy” Guitar, Will Travel, followed by The “Twangs” the Thang in 1959. Throughout Eddy’s heyday, “Twang” would make an appearance in the title of many of his releases, with instrumental tracks becoming hits right beside the singles of guys like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. In fact in many parts of Europe, Duane Eddy was considered bigger than Elvis.

The term “twang” deserves some disambiguation. It’s usually used to identify the signature sound of a country song, often indicative of things like bending steel guitar notes, or a B-bender guitar like Marty Stuart plays, or a banjo tuner on a Telecaster like Waylon Jennings had set up, and the similar sound of a singer sliding between pitches with sharp or flat tones, often to squeeze the emotion out of the lyrics.

Though Duane Eddy definitely influenced many country guitar players too, the “twang” we refer to today is somewhat of a different thing, though similar. It’s utilizing the sharp and flat space between notes to enhance the sound.

Duane Eddy was seen mostly as a rock and roller though, and arguably influenced the surf and rock realm significantly more than country. But in 1963, Eddy released the album “Twang” a Country Song where he played recognizable country tunes like “Wildwood Flower” and “Crazy Arms” with his signature “twang” guitar sound. He’d dabble on other country tunes throughout his career.

But perhaps the most intriguing nexus between Duane Eddy and country music was his long friendship and working relationship with Waylon Jennings.

One of the similarities between the two men of music was the city of Phoenix, AZ, where the both spent time early in their careers. In fact, one of Duane Eddy’s first standing gigs was playing guitar in a country band called the Western Melody Boys led by Buddy Long. Meanwhile Waylon got his start at the Scottsdale club JDs where he played a residency and opened for the Nashville acts touring through town.

Most notably though, both men were married to country legend Jessi Colter. One might think that a woman coming between Duane and Waylon would result in bad blood, but it was Jessi that in many ways bound these two men together. The fact that were able to remain friends throughout the years speaks to the character of all three.

One of the first places Waylon ever recorded was the Audio Recorders studio in Phoenix, which was famous for being the place Duane Eddy cut many of his early songs. At the time, Jennings was married to Lynne Jones, who Eddy once offered some sage marriage advice to. As Waylon Jennings recalled in his autobiography,

“All of my ex-wives hated what I did. They were so jealous of my music. It was like another woman. They kept hoping I would give it up for them … I remember Duane Eddy talking to Lynne, telling her she would have to grow with me in order for it to ever work. She had flat out told him she did not want me to be a star. [She] knew that music, the real Other Woman, was taking me away.”

Duane Eddy knew how hard it was to balance marriage and music because he’d married promising singer and songwriter Mirriam Johnson in 1961, who later changed her name to Mirriam Eddy, and eventually, Jessi Colter. The key was that Colter was a musician too, so she better understood the push and pull on the business and personal life. Before becoming well-known as a singer, Colter wrote songs for Dottie West, Don Gibson, and others. The way Waylon Jennings met Jessi is when they recorded the demo track for her duet “Living Proof” together.

Waylon showed up to the studio as a favor to Duane Eddy, and though Waylon was still married to Lynne, and Jessi to Duane, both Waylon and Jessi says that’s when they first felt a connection, singing “Living Proof” into two sides of the same microphone. Six months later as things between Jessi and Duane were going south, Jessi Colter jumped up on stage to sing a duet with Waylon.

“Hey, little girl … want to run off with me?” Waylon asked Jessi as she exited the stage.

“Call me in six months,” was Jessi’s reply.

By the time that Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter were first linked romantically, Jessi was officially divorced from Duane Eddy, and Waylon was also divorced from Lynne. Waylon divorced in 1967, and Colter in 1968. Waylon was able to make off with Duane Eddy’s bride, but somewhat inexplicably, maintain his friendship with the guitar legend because there was never any cheating involved. Both Waylon and Jessi waited for the right time, and respectful.

It turns out that “twang” isn’t the only influence that Duane Eddy had on country music. One of the inspirations for the “Outlaw” movement of the ’70s was seeing the autonomy and freedom rock performers like Duane Eddy enjoyed when recording albums, while country acts were put under tight budgetary restrictions, often told what songs to record by producers like Chet Atkins, and were also forced to work with session musicians.

Waylon Jennings recalls, “Jessi had seen Duane Eddy treated with respect and admiration when he came to Nashville to record the Twang Country album. I knew that rock acts on RCA got huge budgets to record, with promotion to match, while we were expected to make our albums in a few days … Nashville was just too insular, too caught up in itself.”

As many country fans know, Waylon took that inspiration from rock musicians and fought for his creative freedom from RCA, eventually winning it, and being put in charge of making his own music. Though Waylon’s famous album Honky Tonk Heroes (1973) was the first official album he recorded after winning his freedom from RCA, it was 1974’s This Time where Waylon recorded at the renegade Hillbilly Central studio operated by Tompall Glaser, and truly had 100% freedom. He co-produced the album with Willie Nelson.

Later editions of This Time include five bonus tracks of Waylon singing songs from Buddy Holly, who Waylon came up playing bass for. The tracks are recorded with Buddy Holly’s backing band The Crickets. They also happen to be produced by Duane Eddy. In 1977, Duane Eddy recorded a version of “You Are My Sunshine.” He drafted Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and his then wife Deed Abate Eddy to sing on the track.

It wasn’t just the professional relationship of Jennings and Eddy that stayed strong throughout the years. Duane Eddy and Jessi Colter had a daughter during their marriage named Jennifer. Though Jennifer would go on to be “thick as mud” with Waylon, that’s not how it started. She felt guilty about finding a fatherly love in Waylon when Eddy was her real father.

Waylon recalls, “Finally, I had to call Duane, and tell him that I respected his friendship, but that Jennifer was so loyal to him that she believed she couldn’t have feeling for both of us. ‘I want you to know that I will never allow anybody to say anything bad about you in front of her, and you have to tell her it’s okay to love me, too.’ From then on, she called him Daddy Duane and me Daddy Waylon.”

This double father, and double grandfather aspect has remained within the Jennings and Eddy clan throughout the years. Jennifer Eddy performed for a while as a backup singer in Waylon’s band. Performer Struggle Jennings (William Curtis Harness Jr.) is the son of Jennifer Eddy and the grandson of Duane Eddy, but Waylon adopted Struggle like a grandson of his own.

However unlikely the friendship between Duane Eddy and Waylon Jennings was, a mutual admiration between the two endured, as did an understanding eventually that above all else, family comes first.

Tracing back the very foundation of both country and rock, you will find the presence of Duane Eddy and Waylon Jennings—Duane with his “twangy” guitar, Waylon playing for Buddy Holly, and eventually bringing to the Outlaw revolution to the country world with Jessi Colter. It’s hard to imagine American music without them.

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