An Outlaw's Last Stand
Not that the man behind 16 No. 1 country singles (including the theme from the '70s TV hit The Dukes of Hazzard) didn't sometimes kick up some dust. He once pulled a gun on a producer he claimed monkeyed too much with his music, and his insistence on making records his way in the 1970s broke ground for a new breed of country singer-songwriters.
In recent years the singer's battles were closer to home. Diagnosed with diabetes about a decade ago, the heavy-smoking, hard-drinking Jennings had endured heart surgery, a stroke and, in December, the amputation of his left foot. Still, "he was filled with creativity and joy," says Waylon Albright "Shooter" Jennings, 22, his son with Colter. "Anytime my mom did the laundry she'd find little scraps of paper in his pockets with parts of songs written on them."
Then, on Feb.13, Jennings took a nap in his family room lined with gold records and never woke up. On Feb. 15 about 40 friends, including country stars Hank Williams Jr. and Travis Tritt, gathered for a private service at Arizona's City of Mesa Cemetery. There Colter, 58, sang "Storms Never Last," a tune she often performed with her husband. "She told me she had grieved for Waylon for a year," says friend Edith Kunz, "and now he is at peace."
He had earned it. The son of farm laborers in Littlefield, Texas, he grew up sharing a two-room, dirt-floored house with 11 relatives. Marrying for the first time at 18 (he had three wives and five children before marrying Colter in 1969), the self-taught guitar player was working as a deejay at a Lubbock radio station when he met rocker Buddy Holly in 1955. Holly hired the 21-year-old to play bass for his 1959 tour. That Feb. 3, after a show in Iowa, Jennings gave up his seat on a flight to Fargo, N.Dak., to tourmate J.P. "the Big Bopper" Richardson, who was nursing the flu. The plane crashed, killing Holly, Richardson and Ritchie Valens. Jennings was devastated. "I didn't want to sing; I didn't want to play guitar. I had no interest in anything," he wrote in his 1996 autobiography.
Five years later Jennings was spotted playing in a Phoenix club and signed by RCA. He quickly forged a reputation for stubbornness. "When you would say, 'I don't hear a radio hit,' he would say, 'Hoss, I don't really care,'" recalls RCA Nashville chairman Joe Galante. But audiences heard something. Armed with a contract that gave him unprecedented creative freedom, Jennings became one of the top country artists of the '70s, drawing in even rock fans with songs such as "Luckenbach, Texas" and "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," a duet with pal Willie Nelson.
But by the '80s Jennings had racked up more than $2.5 million in debts, in no small part due to a $l,500-a-day cocaine habit. In 1984 he quit cold turkey. "He realized how much it would mean to my mother and me for him not to do drugs," says Shooter, who sings with the L.A. band Stargunn.
Even as his health deteriorated Jennings continued with concert dates, performing from a chair onstage. "My dad would talk about retiring, but he never could," says Shooter. "He said the road just keeps calling you back. Sharing his music was what he loved."
Beverly Keel in Nashville, Eileen Bailey in Phoenix and Frank Swertlow in Los Angeles