Waylon Jennings, outlaw country star
Hazzard County, Georgia, Fall 1984
Series: The Dukes of Hazzard
Episode: “Welcome, Waylon Jennings” (Episode 7.02)
Air Date: September 28, 1984
Director: Bob Sweeney
Creator: Gy Waldron
Costume Supervisor: Bob Christenson
After six seasons as Hazzard County’s official off-screen “balladeer”, country legend Waylon Jennings finally showed more than just his hands on the long-running series about those two celebrated good ol’ boys.
Born 84 years ago today on June 15, 1937, in the small cotton town of Littlefield, Texas, Waylon Jennings began playing music after he left high school at the age of 16. While performing and DJing at local radio stations in Texas, his talent eventually gained the attention of his fellow Texan rocker Buddy Holly—already an established star—who hired Jennings as a bassist and also arranged his first recording session. In fact, Jennings had gotten so close to Holly that he was meant to join him and Ritchie Valens on their ill-fated flight that crashed in February 1959, “the day the music died”, but he gave us his seat for J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, who was fighting the flu.
“I hope your ol’ bus freezes up,” Holly quipped to Jennings before the flight, who responded with “Well, I hope your ol’ plane crashes,” a joke that would haunt Waylon for the rest of his life.
Waylon honed his talent in Phoenix, between gigs at J.D.’s and his contract with Herb Alpert, before he was recruited to Nashville to record for RCA by the “Country Gentleman” himself, Chet Atkins. He cultivated his early career in late ’60s Nashville, developing friendships with peers like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson—the foursome that would eventually form the outlaw supergroup The Highwaymen—as well as starring in his first acting role with the budget drive-in flick Nashville Rebel, and marrying the love of his life, Phoenix-born singer-songwriter Jessi Colter.
To experience Waylon during the height of this early fame, check out this fun clip from his and Jessi’s appearance on The Johnny Cash Show in March 1970:
By 1972, Waylon’s resentment of the Nashville establishment boiled over just as he and his new manager Neil Reshen were renegotiating his deal with RCA. In his memoir, Waylon recounts the climactic meeting where both teams sat in silence until Jennings got up to use the restroom, returning to find that his bio break had been interpreted as a tactic and was praised by Reshen as a “$25,000 piss” that increased the singer’s earnings while also allowing him the creative control he desired in the studio.
Waylon’s new deal lit the spark for what would become known as the “outlaw country” movement, characterized by returning to country’s rawer roots in blues, honky tonk, and rockabilly while also providing artists with the opportunity to record with the talent of their choosing. As opposed to the “rhinestone suits and new shiny cars” of Nashville’s mainstream stars, Waylon’s tougher-living crew had long hair and beards and wore what they pleased (“here I am in my damn Levis and leather jacket, hair slicked back, all cigarettes and drugs,” he wrote in his autobiography), consistent with their celebration of individual freedom.
“To us, Outlaw meant standing up for your rights, your own way of doing things,” Waylon explained in his autobiography, explaining that the description better fit the influence of unapologetic musical forebears like Hank Williams rather than actual criminals. In early ’70s Nashville, it was outside the accepted musical law for an artist to record with their own band or record music by a three-fingered drifter no one had ever heard of. Waylon and guys like Willie Nelson and Tompall Glaser changed everything.
The spark Waylon had lit when negotiating his new contract exploded into a four-alarm fire with his 1973 album Honky Tonk Heroes, almost exclusively written by the then-unknown Billy Joe Shaver. Waylon had first heard Billy Joe singing “Willy the Wandering Gypsy and Me” during Willie’s Fourth of July picnic in Dripping Springs the previous year, telling him he would be interested in more of his songs. Not one to ignore the opportunity, Billy Joe tracked Waylon down to Nashville—in the middle of a recording session with Atkins—and threatened to fight him if he wouldn’t listen to more of his songs. Given the ten-track masterpiece in July, kicked off my the rough-rocking leading title track (a particular favorite of mine), it’s safe to assume that Waylon and Billy Joe reached an understanding.
Despite Atkins’ obvious reluctance to putting out an album that contrasted so significantly from his cultivated and overly produced “Nashville Sound” meant to appeal to mainstream audiences, the rawness of Honky Tonk Heroes ironically impressed both pop and country audiences who appreciated what a reviewer for the Kansas City Star called “straight C&W minus the show biz pretension.”
The ’70s would be Waylon’s arguably most successful period, with eleven of his singles rising to the #1 spot on the Billboard U.S. country charts. By decade’s end, he began reaching even wider audiences as The Dukes of Hazzard‘s credited balladeer, providing folksy narration and a country soundtrack for the Duke boys’ hot-rodding adventures against the corrupt—and hopelessly incompetent—forces helming the fictional Hazzard County. His theme song, “Good Ol’ Boys”, easily glided to the top of the country charts and even marked Waylon’s career high on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #21.
The extended version of “Good Ol’ Boys” includes a verse of Waylon bemoaning that he only shows his hands and not his face on TV, referencing the shot of him strumming his Fender that opened the credits for every episode from the start of the series. Viewers may not have realized that, behind the scenes of the show, their beloved balladeer was fighting an addiction to cocaine and pills that was quickly draining his finances and health. Waylon resolved to give up drugs in the spring of 1984 and, by the time he finally appeared on screen when “Welcome, Waylon Jennings,” aired in late September, the singer was nearly six months clean.
If weakly plotted (not that The Dukes of Hazzard was ever Hitchcock), the episode provided more than just the usual excuse to ogle Catherine Bach in her Daisy Dukes or see how high Paul Baxley’s team could jump that ’69 Dodge Charger this week, as it concludes with Watasha serenading the Boar’s Nest audience with “Never Could Toe the Mark”, a single from his latest album of the same name. (Though we can’t be sure where that full band sound comes from since we only see Waylon and his guitar—and mandolin!—on stage.)
There’s some substantial retconning here, as now the Duke family evidently goes way back with Waylon to his early days as a singer to the degree that he evidently owes the success of his career to Uncle Jesse’s kindness. Luckily, that’s enough built-up goodwill that Waylon is willing to give the Dukes the benefit of the doubt when they’re framed as prime suspects in the theft of Waylon’s mobile museum full of country and western music memorabilia from Buddy Holly’s motorcycle to Willie Nelson’s ponytail.
What’d He Wear?
Like his pal and fellow Highwayman Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings frequently dressed in black as part of his on- and off-stage look, though he was more prone to incorporating color than the famous “Man in Black”.
“If we took on the guise of cowboys, it was because we couldn’t escape the pioneer spirit, the restlessness that forces you to keep pushing at the horizon, seeing what’s over the next ridge,” Waylon wrote. “When I put the black hat on and walked to the stage, carrying my Telecaster, I was staking my own piece of land where the buffalo roam. Don’t fuck with me, was what we were saying.”
His cowboy image firmly established, Waylon also describes an instance of wearing “my regulation black hat and vest and boots,” often contrasting his outlaw garb with the rhinestone-clad stars of Nashville establishment, a dichotomy masterfully explored in his 1975 hit single “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?”
Aside from Nashville Rebel, produced during his “clean-cut” RCA era in the ’60s, Hoss never saw much prominent time on screen in scripted movies or TV. Naturally, it was The Dukes of Hazzard that allowed Waylon to showcase his personality and appearance as he cameoed as himself across an entire episode dedicated to his guest-starring role. For six seasons leading up to the episode, viewers who didn’t know better only saw his mid-section as he strummed his Fender, seeing only the rolled-up sleeves of his burgundy shirt, a black leather vest, and blue jeans.
When Waylon Jennings was finally welcomed to Hazzard County behind the wheel of his mobile museum, he was intentionally dressed more to match his black-on-black image (coincidentally, he also cut an album titled Black on Black in 1982) as seen on the cover of albums like Are You Ready for the Country? and Waylon and Company.
The black long-sleeved shirt is the same snap-button style that’s been long associated with cowboys since the snap-closure was developed by Rockmount Ranchwear founder Jack Weil in the early 20th century to allow riders’ shirts to easily break away rather than tearing or snagging should their wearer get caught on a fence or other obstacle (per Blue Owl). Waylon recounts in his memoir how he had already started replacing drugs with food as his overindulgence of choice, so the already tight-fitting shirt seems to be pulled a little tighter against the 47-year-old star’s midsection.
Consistent with the classic snap-front “cowboy shirt”, Waylon’s black shirt has the reinforced shoulder yokes with Western-style points. He keeps the top three black-finished snaps undone on the front placket, and the triple-snap cuffs are also undone and rolled up his sleeves. There are presumably two chest pockets that each close with a snap-down flap, though they’d be positioned to remain covered by Waymore’s vest.
Waylon’s black leather vest was established as an essential element of his outlaw image a decade earlier during the Honky Tonk Heroes days, echoing the fashions of motorcycle gangs like the Hell’s Angels members who provided security during his concerts. The five-button vest he wears to Hazzard County is detailed with rust-colored tooling and has two welted pockets.
“Now I’m over 30, still wearin’ jeans,” Waylon sang on “Amanda”, the final track of his 1974 album Ramblin’ Man. A decade later and nearly 50, Hoss was still clad in denim, driving into Hazzard County with a pair of dark indigo blue jeans. Based on how frequently he mentions the brand name as part of his image in his autobiography, we can safely assume Waylon’s wearing a pair of Levi’s, even if the angles on screen never clearly indicate the signature details of the San Francisco-based outfitter such as the arcuate stitch across the back pockets or the red tag sewn against the inner seam of the back right pocket.
Waylon holds up his jeans with a black edge-stitched leather belt connected at the front through a large gold oval buckle embossed with the relief of an eagle in flight.
Waylon’s penchant for cowboy boots may have stood out anywhere else, but they’re not an unusual sight in Hazzard County, where the Duke boys mastered climbing in through the windows of their ’69 Charger with cowboy boots on. Waylon wears a pair of plain black leather cowboy boots with pointed toes and raised heels.
“A hat isn’t just something you wear on your head. It’s your halo,” Waylon wrote in one of the concluding paragraphs of his autobiography. He describes it further—”Black, creased Texas-style, with a silver belt around the crown”—though, aside from its color, the wide-brimmed cowboy hat he wears on The Dukes of Hazzard doesn’t quite fit this description.
Waylon’s Hazzard hat has a rounded telescope crown, which reportedly originated among cowboys working in the arid southwestern heat but would also be associated with the era’s infamous gamblers. The band is black braided leather, with a flat silver buckle on the left side and a pair of gilt crossed revolvers on the front communicating his outlaw image.
Strung around his neck, Waylon wears a pair of thin gold necklaces, one with a flat pendant and the other rigged a little higher with a filigreed cowboy boot.
Waylon wears a gold ring on each hand, a band on his right pinky and a larger diamond ring on the ring finger of his left hand. Neither appears to be the ring that Waylon recalled blues legend Jimmy Reed admiring at a party, which had been “a horseshoe ring on my finger that George Jones had given me, with a big diamond in the middle.”
On his left wrist, Waylon wears a flashy watch that appears to be the same 14-karat yellow gold Baume & Mercier quartz timepiece that he received as a gift from a friend and wore regularly until Jessi gifted him a stainless Rolex Submariner. This Baume & Mercier watch, with its gold square dial and tapered, uniquely textured link bracelet, was sold in October 2014 as part of Guernsey’s “Remembering Waylon” auction, per Invaluable and SavingCountryMusic.com.
For his Boar’s Nest performance that closes out the episode, Waylon swaps out his black tooled leather vest for a lighter slate-blue vest made from a soft sueded leather and also detailed with some Western-motif etchwork. (In fact, it’s nearly the same outfit that Waymore wore when recording the official music video for “Never Could Toe the Mark” earlier that year.)
Though he never wears it, Waylon gives the Duke boys a mesh-backed black trucker cap, which Boss Hogg then steals to try to frame them (as he always does.) “I only gave ’em one hat, that gave ’em somethin’ to fight over,” Waylon recalls in his narration of the black cap emblazoned with his name and the famous “Flying W” logo on the front.
Since the beginning of his outlaw period in the early ’70s, Waylon had branded himself with this “Flying W”, obviously representing his famous first name but also signifying the outlaw movement that allowed he and his colleagues to fly free.
How to Get the Look
“Though he wore a black hat, he was truly one of music’s good guys,” described Rolling Stone of Waylon Jennings, the hard-living maverick who took inspiration from his friend Johnny Cash—and western star Lash LaRue—by dressing in black, appointing his look with eagle imagery and cowboy garb that established his image as the ultimate country outlaw.
- Black Western-style snap shirt with pointed yokes, front placket, two snap-down flapped chest pockets, and triple-snap cuffs
- Black rust-tooled leather 5-button vest with two welted pockets
- Dark indigo selvedge denim jeans
- Black edge-stitched leather belt with gold oval eagle-embossed buckle
- Black leather cowboy boots
- Black felt telescope-crown cowboy hat with black braided leather band (with gilt crossed revolvers and silver side buckle)
- Thin gold necklace with cowboy boot pendant
- Thin gold necklace with round flat pendant
- Gold band pinky ring
- Gold ring with diamond setting
- Baume & Mercier 14-karat gold quartz watch with square gold dial on cut-textured link bracelet
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Definitely check out Waylon’s discography. As I mentioned, Honky Tonk Heroes is great—probably one of my favorite albums of all time—but, for beginners, there’s nothing wrong with starting with Waylon’s Greatest Hits, an LP in frequent rotation on my and my fiancee’s turntable.
You can also work through what a Rolling Stone readers’ poll deemed the 10 best Waylon Jennings songs… though I think the list gives “Good Ol; Boys” a little too much credit when I would’ve liked to have seen Ray Pennington’s “I’m a Ramblin’ Man” or the Jimmie Rodgers-inspired “Waymore’s Blues” ranked.
Check out Waylon slowing down the latter as he sings—and attempts to explain—it to Jessi!
If you’re in the mood, you can also check out the series. If you’re curious about The Dukes of Hazzard‘s origins, you should also try to track down Moonrunners, the low-budget 1975 B-movie starring Kiel Martin and James Mitchum as two hot-rodding cousins in the deep South running moonshine for their uncle Jesse while ducking the law in the form of Sheriff Rosco Coltrane and a portly politician… if that doesn’t already sound familiar enough, it’s also narrated and primarily scored by Waylon Jennings.
I also highly recommend Jennings’ candid 1996 autobiography, Waylon: An Autobiography, which I recently reread and served as a great resource while penning this tribute to one of my favorite artists.
Well, doesn’t that just blow your hat in the creek?