Waylon Jennings Is Not Done Adding to His Legacy Just Yet

photo: Jim McGuire

Every genre of music shows respect to their elders and the artists that came before. It just happens to be that in country music, that respect is taken to another level. Since country music is like a continuum with the intent to preserve the musical traditions of the past, paying respects to previous greats and preserving the legacy of performers takes on a greater level of importance. Another reason for this insistence from country music is that good country music never goes out of style.

In many respects, the passing of a country artist is not where their career and legacy ends. It’s just the beginning. Near the end of their career and especially after their death is when the real work starts to understand, encapsulate, and preserve an artist’s contributions, and beat back the corrosive sands of time that work to erode the legacy and memories of everything in the past tense.

In some respects, the legacy of Waylon Jennings is one that has needed a bit more effort to preserve since he died relatively young (64), and never had the opportunity to take a victory lap or have a “Golden Era” in his career. He went from relevant, to pushed aside by the “Class of ’89” artists, to in the grave. His fellow Highwaymen (Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson) all had the opportunity to enjoy a victory lap.

That said, Waylon was never one for making a big stink about his “legacy.” He passed on his own Hall of Fame induction. Instead of a garish headstone at his grave in Mesa, Arizona, it sits flush with the ground, and was dedicated in a private ceremony. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be vigilant to make sure Waylon’s memory doesn’t go by the wayside.

In many respects, working to preserve the legacy of Waylon Jennings is a lot easier than with some other artists. It’s aided by the fact that he was such a badass. His legacy and all of his contributions during the Outlaw era make for such intriguing stories to tell. He played for Buddy Holly, and was supposed to be on the fateful plane that inspired “The Day The Music Died.” Waylon stood up for all the other artists in country music, and their creative freedom. He had a #1 with “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?”

And besides, the Flyin’ ‘W’ looks great on a T-shirt or trucker hat.

On Sunday, June 16th, Shooter Jennings posted the following note on social media.

So today, on Father’s Day, on the day after his birthday (and Nate Haessly’s birthday as well), I want to take a moment to make a very special announcement:

I’m in possession of [a] treasure trove of previously unheard full band Waylon Jennings multi-track recordings from the 70’s and early 80’s and I have begun preparing the material to be mixed right here at Snake Mountain on this beautiful 1976 Demedio Custom API console. These are not demos. These are not unfinished, but, they will take some time to explore, prepare and mix … but you’ve got something to look forward to:

There will be new, classic Waylon Jennings music in 2025 … Stay tuned …

FYI, “Snake Mountain” is Sunset Sound Studio 3 in Los Angeles that Shooter currently leases, and Nate Haessly is a Los Angeles-based engineer that often works at the studio.

This certainly gives Waylon Jennings fans something to look forward to, and will help keep Waylon’s name alive in conversations. Of course, you always have to take into consideration whenever talking about unreleased recordings that there might be a reason they never saw the light of day when the artist was living. But you never know what treasures might lurk in the archives that for whatever reason never were released.

It also is heartening to hear that the music is complete. You always run into a bit of a moral dilemma when you have others completing an artist’s previous work, hoping it would be something they would approve of if they were still alive.

– – – – – – – –

On the same day that Shooter made the announcement (and the day after Waylon’s birthday), I was in Waylon’s hometown of Littlefield in West Texas. I stayed at the free Waylon Jennings RV park (yes, it’s really free). The previous year I stayed there and wrote an article about the experience that ended up going viral for weeks. Folks can’t get enough of Waylon Jennings. We saw that when Shooter made his announcement and it went viral on social media.

I was worried, though, that the secret was out about the Waylon Jennings Free RV Park, and it would be packed for the indefinite future. Last year when I stayed there, I took the final spot. But this year, strangely, I was only one of two RVs in the park.

The next morning I went by the Waymore’s liquor store right down the road, owned and operated by Waylon’s brother and last surviving sibling, James. It also includes a little Waylon Jennings museum, which at this point passes for the one place where you can go and see the legacy of Waylon Jennings preserved in physical form, aside from perhaps his grave in Mesa.

James opened Waymore’s about 15 years ago, converting it from a gas station into a liquor store. The biggest artifacts are one of Waylon’s first guitars along with a photo of him holding it, and a Manuel coat owned by Johnny Cash. There are also lots of cool pictures, and if you catch James when he’s behind the cash register, he will talk your ear off about Waylon, which he did when I was there.

We also talked about Charley Crockett’s recent visit to Waymore’s that is featured in the video for his recent song “Solitary Road.” Charley had left an autographed photo and “thank you” note behind.

One of the frustrating parts about trying to preserve the legacy of Waylon Jennings is a lot of the biggest artifacts from his estate were sold in an auction in 2014, creating sort of a diaspora of his physical legacy. The auction went to benefit a children’s hospital, so it’s hard to criticize Waylon’s widow Jessi Colter who probably just wanted rid of the stuff. Some of the items ended up in the right place, like the 1959 Ariel Cyclone motorcycle that Buddy Holly bought for Waylon. It’s now in the Buddy Holly Museum in Lubbock.

In 2012, Shooter Jennings and the estate made a renewed push to preserve Waylon’s legacy, including launching an official merch line after years of bootleg merch being the only thing out there. There was also talk about a biopic in the works, similar to Johnny Cash’s Walk The Line. That hasn’t materialized yet, but that’s often what happens with these biopics. One of the remarkable things about the George & Tammy series from late 2022 is that it even came about at all. Often these film projects don’t get out of the planning phase.

Merle Haggard was supposed to have a couple of biopic films in the works as well. One had the rights acquired by Amazon in 2020, but since then there have been no updates. Merle’s also supposed to have 300-400 unreleased recordings sitting in an archive. When we will get to hear some or all of them remains to be seen.

At one point, there was supposed to be a Merle Haggard Museum in Nashville on the same property as the Johnny Cash Museum. But the idea was ultimately scrapped, and they opened a restaurant in the space instead. Though some love to complain about how “hip” it is to wear Cash T-shirts even if you’re not a fan, nobody will ever claim that Cash’s legacy is going unpreserved.

Sturgill Simpson once told me that Merle told him that he dreaded what would happen after he died, and that they’d cut open his chest and turn it into a gift shop. You can’t take it for granted that the estates of country legends don’t want to overly commercialize their legacies, and would rather let the music speak for itself. This is one of the reasons some estates may be cautious of going big with legacy preservation. Going big is what resulted in the gaudy headstone for George Jones, and his museum/restaurant going belly up.

It was Conan O’Brien who once said, “Eventually, all our graves go unattended.” It’s a sad, but strikingly true statement. Even Johnny Cash’s “House of Cash” went abandoned, and made for the creey setting for his iconic “Hurt” video.

It’s unlikely Waylon Jennings would have wanted a palatial museum in his honor, or for his legacy to be foisted onto any kind of pedestal. In 1984, he did show off many of the artifacts that were in his private collection in a display in the upstairs of the wax museum that used to be on Music Row in Nashville. But that was meant to be a temporary, one-off exhibition.

Waylon probably would just want the music to speak for itself. Lucky for him and the rest of us, it still does. Even more lucky for us, there is even more music we’ve never heard before in the offing. Hopefully, it will add to his legacy yet again.

© 2024 Saving Country Music