Music News
2:42 pm
Tue October 2, 2012

Waylon Jennings: The 'Last Recordings' Of A Dreamer

Originally published on Tue October 2, 2012 5:14 pm

Known for his gritty baritone, Waylon Jennings embodied the outlaw side of country music. He was 64 when he died of complications from diabetes, leaving behind a collection of vocal tracks that remained unfinished until now.

"It was almost shocking when I first heard it," says the singer Jessi Colter, who was married to Jennings for more than 30 years. "It took me several times to be able to listen to it. It sounded like he was there, that he's opening his heart to you, and he's telling you how he feels."

Colter gave her blessing to her husband's longtime producer and friend Robby Turner to add instruments and finish the songs. The result is Goin' Down Rockin': The Last Recordings. The album sounds like classic Jennings, with a voice that's sometimes a little rough, a little ragged, but never false. Jennings had a lot of physical troubles at the time.

"He wasn't the kind of guy that let on about his pains," Turner tells NPR's Melissa Block. "I remember one time, I said something about redoing one of the takes of the song, and he said, 'I don't think I can get through it, hoss.' And I realized then: That's enough said, right there. Because he wouldn't say that if he didn't mean it. But it was relaxing to him, because we had fun; we sat around and talked. It wasn't like another session for me at all. It was just like spending time with my best friend and my dad.

"We were so much like family that it wasn't a lot of questions asked by me. He started doing these songs, and when he started doing each one, I realized, 'Well, there's 'Belle of the Ball,' so that's one he's recorded before. It's not new. Then he told me to finish them one day, but the conversations that we had were sometimes totally off subject. I mean, he was sitting there one time and listening to the playback of a song, and he hit stop on the 24-track machine, looked at me and said, 'I can almost hear the part you're playing, and you're sounding great.' "

'A Vagabond, A Dreamer And A Rhymer'

"Belle of the Ball" was originally released in 1977 as the B-side to Jennings' hit "Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)." Jennings once told Colter that "Belle of the Ball" was his favorite song he ever wrote.

"It's really about his love for the music industry, his trip of life," Colter says. "And his imagery, when you really look into it and listen to it, is stunning, because he could see so far ahead on some things that it would aggravate me. But in this, he came here just a vagabond, dreamer and a rhymer, and a singer of songs. And he's leaving. It's his leaving song."

Waylon Jennings died in 2002, and Turner held on to these last recordings for many years, until he recorded the other parts along with some of Jennings' longtime players. The guiding principle to finish the record, according to Turner, was "What would Waylon do? W.W.W.D.?"

"That was the whole thing; that was what I had written down on all my notes," Turner says. "You know, Waylon didn't really tell people; he took control and commanded his style of music. But he did that with hiring the right players. He would give us the layout of a song and how he wanted it to go, but we would play until he smiled. And that was our thing: playing until Waylon smiled."

"I think y'all were, too," Colter says, laughing. "If he was smiling, you were smiling."

'It Was All Worth It'

There were tears, too.

"There were moments when a song would finish, and he'd say something, or [I'd] just hear him play the tail piece of 'Belle of the Ball,' that I would tear up while recording my steel parts," Turner says. "I remember looking down at my steel guitar and seeing the teardrop fall. And I said, 'That'd be a great picture, but I would never let anybody see it but Jessi.' "

Turner says he'd never told that to anybody, not even Colter. After a pause, Turner adds, "But it was all worth it."

"I Do Believe" is a confessional song about man and his troubles with faith. Raised in the Church of Christ, Jennings had a conflict with the church not appreciating music, Colter says.

"I think mainly what he wanted to say was, 'I do believe, and this is what I believe,' " Colter says.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

With new sounds from a singer who died a decade ago, Waylon Jennings.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

WAYLON JENNINGS: (Singing) When it comes to our love, all hope is gone.

BLOCK: Known for his gritty baritone, Jennings embodied the outlaw movement in country music. He was 64 when he died of complications from diabetes. He left behind a set of vocal tracks that were unfinished until now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

JENNINGS: (Singing) I just can't find the right touch for turning you on.

JESSI COLTER: It was almost shocking when I first heard it. It took me several times to be able to listen to it. It sounded like he was there that he's opening his heart to you, and he's telling you how he feels.

BLOCK: That's Jennings' widow, the singer Jessi Colter. She gave her blessing to her husband's longtime producer and friend Robby Turner to add instruments and finish the songs. The result is the album "Goin' Down Rockin': The Last Recordings of Waylon Jennings." And it is classic Jennings with a voice that is sometimes a little rough, a little ragged but never false.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

JENNINGS: (Singing) The ways of this whole world are not always fair.

BLOCK: Robby, were the sessions hard on Waylon Jennings? He had a lot of physical troubles at the time. Was it physically taxing for him?

ROBBY TURNER: I'm sure it was. He did - he wasn't the kind of guy that let on about his pains. I remember one time, I said something about redoing one of the takes of the song, and he said, I don't think I can get through it, hoss. And I realized then: That's enough said, right there. Because he wouldn't say that if he didn't mean it. But it was relaxing to him, because we had fun; we sat around and talked. And, you know, it wasn't like another session for me at all. It was just like spending time with my best friend and my dad.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

TURNER: We were so much like family that it wasn't a lot of questions asked by me. He started doing these songs, and when he started doing each one, I realized, well, there's "Belle of the Ball," so that's one he's recorded before. It's not new. Then he told me to finish them one day, but our conversation that we had was, you know, sometimes off - totally off subject. I mean, he's sitting there one time and listening to the playback of a song, and he hit stop on the 24-track machine, looked at me and said, I can almost hear the part you're playing, and you're sounding great.

BLOCK: You mentioned the song "Belle of the Ball," which is a song that Waylon Jennings had recorded in the 1970s, right? It was the B-side of his big hit "Luckenbach, Texas."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BELLE OF THE BALL")

JENNINGS: (Singing) A vagabond dreamer, a rhymer and singer of songs, singing to no one and nowhere to really belong.

BLOCK: Why do you think he went back to that song, Robby?

TURNER: I think that he just wanted to say it one more time, and he wanted to, I think, each choice of these songs were things that he wanted to say at the moment and, you know, have a new sound to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BELLE OF THE BALL")

JENNINGS: (Singing) A vagabond dreamer, a rhymer and singer of songs, singing to no one and nowhere to really belong. I met a beautiful lady, a pure Southern belle of the ball. Like Scarlet O'Hara loved no one but wanted them all.

BLOCK: Jessi Colter, what are you thinking as you hear this song of your husband towards the end of his life?

COLTER: Well, first of all, he told me that this was his most favorite song he had wrote. Secondly, it's really about his love for the music industry, his trip of life. And his imagery in this, when you really look into it and listen to it, is stunning, because he could see so far ahead on some things that it would aggravate me. But in this, he came here just a vagabond, dreamer and a rhymer, and a singer of songs. And he's leaving. It's his leaving song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BELLE OF THE BALL")

JENNINGS: (Singing) And I did a new dance, and you did your Tennessee waltz. But the party's all over I came uninvited. I'm leaving and taking the belle of the ball.

BLOCK: See, I thought this song was all about you.

COLTER: Well, of course, I was in there, you know?

BLOCK: Uh-huh.

(LAUGHTER)

COLTER: I would hope.

BLOCK: Robby, you held on to these recordings for so long. Waylon Jennings died in 2002. You finally did go ahead and add these parts and finish the record. What was the guiding principle behind how you approached it? What were you thinking?

TURNER: What would Waylon do, WWWD?

(LAUGHTER)

TURNER: That was the whole thing; that was what I had written down on all my notes. You know, Waylon didn't really tell people; he took control and commanded his style of music. But he did that with hiring the right players. He would give us the layout of a song and how he wanted it to go, but we would play until he smiled. And that was our thing, was playing until Waylon smiled.

BLOCK: If he's smiling, you know you've got it.

TURNER: That's right, and I think he was smiling.

COLTER: I think you all were, too...

(LAUGHTER)

TURNER: We were smiling and crying.

COLTER: ...because you were a corporate group. I mean, you know, if he was smiling, you were smiling.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BELLE OF THE BALL")

JENNINGS: (Singing) And I did a new dance, and you did your Tennessee waltz.

BLOCK: Robby, did I hear you say you weren't just smiling, you were crying too?

TURNER: Oh, yes. There was moments when I would - the song would finish, and he'd say something or just hear him play the tailpiece of "Belle of the Ball" that I would tear up while recording my steel parts. And I remember looking down at my steel guitar and seeing the teardrop fall. And I said, that'd be a great picture, but I would never let anybody see it but Jessi.

BLOCK: Jessi, did you know that?

COLTER: No. This is the first time I've heard that.

TURNER: I've never told that to anybody.

COLTER: Yeah.

TURNER: But it was all worth it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BELLE OF THE BALL")

BLOCK: I'm talking to producer Robby Turner and Waylon Jennings' widow, Jessi Colter, about the last recordings of Waylon Jennings. The song that I keep coming back to over and over is the song "I Do Believe."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I DO BELIEVE")

JENNINGS: (Singing) In my own way, I'm a believer. In my own way right or wrong.

BLOCK: It's a song all about a man and his troubles with faith and sort of faith as a work in progress, I think, almost a confessional song. Jessi, is that how it sounds to you?

COLTER: I don't know. When he wrote it, I was surprised. He was raised Church of Christ, and, you know, the fact that they don't appreciate music, he had a conflict with that, and that shows in this. But I think mainly what he wanted to say was I do believe, and this is what I believe.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I DO BELIEVE")

JENNINGS: (Singing) I believe in a loving father, one I never have to fear, that I should live life at its fullest just as long as I am here.

BLOCK: Well, Jessi Colter and Robby Turner, it's been great to talk to you. Thank you so much.

COLTER: Thank you.

TURNER: Thank you.

BLOCK: Jessi Colter is the widow of Waylon Jennings, and Robby Turner is the producer of the new release "Goin' Down Rockin': The Last Recordings of Waylon Jennings."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I DO BELIEVE")

BLOCK: You were listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.