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Country great Waylon Jennings dies at 64

'American archetype' defined music outlaw movement

Country great Waylon Jennings dies at 64

NASHVILLE, Tennessee (CNN) -- He looked like an outlaw, with the black hat and a bearded, sometimes scowling face. And his music brooked no argument.

But Waylon Jennings transcended the simple, two-dimensional image of the roving loner. In country music, he was an original. As fellow singer Kris Kristofferson put it, he "was an American archetype, the bad guy with the big heart."

Waylon Jennings, the Texan whose long-haired, outlaw image helped define country music with hits such as "I'm a Ramblin' Man" and "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," died Wednesday at his Arizona home. He was 64.

Publicist Schatzi Hageman said Jennings died peacefully in his sleep. Jennings had been battling diabetes and had to have part of his foot amputated because of the disease last year.

The country music superstar known for his outspoken ways and colorful lifestyle died at his home in Arizona. WKRN's Melissa Penry reports (February 14)

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Jennings is survived by his wife, singer Jessi Colter, and seven children. The family was planning a private funeral, Hageman said.

In the early 1970s, Jennings began to develop a harder-edged style and was booked into mainstream rock clubs, according to The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll.

His 1976 album, "Wanted: The Outlaws," which also featured Colter, Willie Nelson and singer-producer Tompall Glaser, was the first country album to be certified platinum. He also wrote the popular theme to the 1970s television series "The Dukes of Hazzard."

Jennings recorded dozens of albums, had 16 No. 1 country singles in a career spanning five decades and won two Grammys. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001.

"For Waylon, it was always about the music," Joe Galante, chairman of the RCA Label Group/Nashville -- Jennings' recording home for many years -- told Reuters. "The only spotlight he ever cared about was the one on him while he was onstage. It wasn't about the awards or events. He was an original and a pioneer in terms of creating his own sound. This is a great loss for the music world."

Learning from Buddy Holly

Born June 15, 1937, in Littlefield, Texas, Jennings grew up listening to folk singers and the music of artists ranging from Jimmie Rodgers to B.B. King. He had formed his own band by age 12 and met pop singer Buddy Holly in 1955. Jennings became a disc jockey at 14.

"Mainly what I learned from Buddy," Jennings once said, "was an attitude. He loved music, and he taught me that it shouldn't have any barriers to it."

Holly produced Jennings' first record and used him as a bass player, taking him on the 1959 Winter Dance Party tour of the Midwest and Plains states. After a February 2 show in Clear Lake, Iowa, an exhausted Holly chartered a small plane to get to the next gig. Jennings gave up his seat to the Big Bopper, who was suffering from the flu and did not want to ride in the bus. Also on the plane was Ritchie Valens.

The plane crashed soon after takeoff in the early hours of February 3, killing Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper. For years Jennings was haunted by a joking exchange he had had with Holly -- as he recalled on VH1's "Behind the Music," Reuters noted.

"Buddy was leaning back against the wall in this cane-bottom chair laughing at me. He says, 'You're not going on the plane tonight, huh?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'Well, I hope your bus freezes up.' And I said, 'Well, I hope your plane crashes.' I was awful young, and it took me a long time to get over that."

Jennings formed his own group, the Waylors, in 1963, and developed his own style by merging a soulful vocal with an eclectic repertoire. Chet Atkins signed him to RCA Records, and he had Top Five hits in 1968 with "The Only Daddy That'll Walk the Line" and "Walk Out on My Mind."

A wit with a rugged image

Jennings lived a wild life in his younger days. In the 1960s, he shared an apartment in Nashville with Johnny Cash after their respective marriages had broken up, and the duo lived high on methamphetamines and general destruction. After Cash remarried and got sober, Jennings complained in 1974 that Cash had "sold out to religion."

Jennings also eventually gave up drugs, but he never was sold on religion.

In the mid-1980s, he and Nelson formed the Highwaymen, a "superstar" quartet that also included Cash and Kristofferson.

Aside from Jennings' rugged image, the country music star was known for his wit.

"I may be crazy, but it keeps me from going insane," he once said in a song.

'You'd know it was Waylon Jennings'

The "outlaw" form of progressive country music expanded the market for the genre and sowed the seeds for the country megastars who would burst onto the scene two decades later.

By that stage, however, country legends such as Jennings and Cash were out of favor on country music radio as the genre reverted to its slick stylings. Jennings' later albums were inconsistent. His most recent album was titled "Never Say Die, Live."

Singer and friend Glen Campbell, who met Jennings in the early 1960s, called him "incredible."

"I miss him already. He was a unique person and a dear friend," Campbell said. "If a record came on the radio, you'd know it was Waylon Jennings."

Which is exactly how Jennings liked it. Though he was widely known as a nice guy beneath all the black, he wouldn't tolerate his music being anything but true to his heart.

"You start messin' with my music, and I get mean," he told The Associated Press in a 1992 interview. "As long as you are honest and upfront with me, I will be the same with you. But I still do things my way."


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