Billy Ray Reynolds – Remembering Waylon
Billy Ray shares his memories of Waylon.
Billy Ray Reynolds met Waylon Jennings in 1966. Immediately he knew he’d stumbled across a country singer, unlike any other. Already fascinated by, and equipped with a well developed love and respect for history of all kinds, Billy Ray was intrigued by the man and his music. “The first songs I heard him sing were Norwegian Wood and Scarborough Fair and it just knocked me out to hear a country singer not afraid to sing these songs that country music wasn’t touching.”
“He was a genius. The great thing about Waylon is that he was such a teacher, and he didn’t even know it himself. Here was a guy with a telecaster guitar playing ‘Yesterday.’ I had never been a big fan of the Beatles until I heard Waylon doing ‘Yesterday.’ I had never been a big a fan of Roy Orbison like everyone else until I heard him do the Pretty Woman and Crying, and Neil Diamond’s Kentucky Woman.”
“I think Waylon stepped across that boundary and kind of merged it all. Johnny Cash has an awesome tendency to pull people together, Waylon kind of welded the vast differences in music together. When he did McArthur’s Park kind of an orchestra type situation he brought something to country music that added a lot of class to it. I just got lucky by being there.”
His admiration for Waylon Jennings is deep and sincere. He recalls the the moments fondly, pulling them easily from the recesses of his memory. He understands the very essence of what made Waylon Jennings a legend. He was a man who lived for the moment, lived for his music, compromising it for no one. He knew the rules and he knew how to find his way around them.
The history making moments spent with the country music legend were overlooked in the day to day life of surviving in a business where very few rise to the top of the heap. “We didn’t know that we were making history then, we were just trying to figure out how to get into the business. The trials and the tribulations that went with that were the things that I remember now, more than the good times. There was a definite purpose because we had to be there and we were always conscious, one of the things Waylon was always great about, he would never let the people down.”
“I remember us playing Calgary once and we had to go over to Victoria and Vancouver, we got up in Banff and we had to turn around and go back to Calgary and catch a plane because of the avalanches. We flew across and the driver had to bring the bus back down into seems like Montana so he could go around the mountains and meet us on the other side.”
As awed as he was by the creative genius that was Waylon Jennings, it’s Waylon, the man and friend that has the strongest hold on Billy Ray’s memory. Underneath the gruff, rugged exterior was a man with a wicked sense of humor and a compassionate heart that always succeeded, and somehow defied anything that was thrown his way.
Billy recalls a gig in Calgary, Alberta at the Royal Jubilee Theatre. The band entire band had quit on him and Waylon had talked Billy Ray into flying up to Canada with him and then into performing with him that night. “He got me this 12 string guitar which was the worst piece of junk you ever saw. He always insisted we attend to his tuner. We weren’t great musicians but we were always in tune. I was tuning this one key and it sounded great. I would try to play another chord and it would sound awful. I was real nervous. The theatre was packed and the announcer was in front of the curtains, announcing that we were coming on. He said “Now ladies and gentlemen, Waylon Jennings’, and the curtains started to open up. Waylon was walking around on stage and he knows how nervous I get, he walked over to me and said ‘Your pants are unzipped’ and I almost fell through the stage! I said ‘Oh no, I’m concentrating on tuning this doggone guitar!’ It took me about five minutes to check and it wasn’t. He’d lied to me, but he just died laughing at me. He was always a great practical joker and his timing was impeccable about things like that. He was a joy to work with, and to just be around.”
“He loved people.” he continues “You would not believe how much he loved people. There was only one rule. I don’t think he ever had another other than ‘be nice to the people.’ I never saw him when he wouldn’t sign an autograph.”
“We were in Hollywood at a place called the Troubadour once. We had just finished a set and he was up in a little small room. It must have been 100 degrees there, sweat was pouring off of him. He was in a chair, autographing for kids. Two people he would drop everything for was kids first and foremost, and handicapped persons. This guy came in on hand crutches and I could tell he was really intent on getting to see Waylon. I spoke to him. He said I’d sure like to see Waylon. I said he’d sure love to see you too. We worked through the people and I got him upstairs, took five minutes to get up there. Got through the crowd and I got to the door and I said Waylon, when you get through this man would here would like to talk to you a second, to say hello to you. He reached his hand through the other people and kind of got the guy by the hand and pulled him on through. When he got him through he reached into his shirt and pulled out a subpoena. He was from the sheriff’s department. From then on I was really cautious about who I took back. It just floored me and it just floored him. He said to me, you don’t have to feel guilty about it, it wasn’t your fault. It was for late child support. There were times the IRS would be there and take the bus and everything and we’d come out and talk them into letting us take the instruments so we could play the club and come out and give them the money, and then try to figure out how to get to the next town.”
Despite the difficulties life on the road presented, it also became the place Waylon and the band would find the greatest inspiration for their music. “We knew that what we felt out there on the road, in front of the people was not what we were getting to hear on the records in town, and it was really frustrating when they would be telling us what we needed to be doing. We were out there and the people were telling us every night what they liked. We would try to bring that back in here and they would laugh at us. The people were telling us what they wanted to hear, they didn’t hear anything but what we were. What we really were. They never failed to tell us when we were good and they also never failed to tell us when we were not good.”
“At that time the whole culture was changing our hair was long and we were called outlaws. Later it became the outlaw movement, but actually we thought we were outcasts. We weren’t from wealthy backgrounds, we were all from working class people. I think that’s what we brought to it, was the working class music that we’d grown up with. Hank Williams, Marty Robbins, Lefty Frizzell, and Bob Wills. How could we be wrong when they were so right? We were trying to grow from maybe what we had grown up with.”
In the end it was the label of outlaw that ultimately prevailed. Coming along with it was a place in country music history and an image of long haired, rebellious, hard living musicians. After listening to the stories that come from a front row vantage point, it becomes clearly evident that the outlaw movement was more about creative freedom than it was about the image and all it’s trappings. “We never rebelled on purpose, what we rebelled against was being told what to do.”
He recalls the very moments when the history was made. “We were in the studio and Waylon was recording ‘Atlanta’s Burning Down’ and they came into the studio and told us we were cutting bigoted music. It made Waylon and the whole band mad. It made me mad, of course because it was my song, and Waylon loved the song. I never wrote it with any ill intentions towards anybody, it was just a love ballad to me. They said nobody wants to hear more about that dang war.”
“I said ‘Waylon let’s go somewhere else and record this.’
‘I can’t Billy’.
I said Why?’ and he said ‘Because it’s in my contract. I have to record my records at RCA’.
“Does it say anything about doing demos?”
He said ‘What are you talkin’ about?”
I said, ‘Does it say in your contract you can’t write a song and go demo it wherever you want to?’
He said, ‘No it doesn’t say that.’
So I said ‘Let’s go cut some demos. That’s when we went to see Tompall.”
“Tompall Glaser had started what was called Hillbilly Central which was one of the better studio’s in town, as good as RCA. Probably beside Bradley’s Barn it was the only other good studio here at the time. We went to London and played the Wimbledon Festival and we got to talking about what needed to be done and I said Tompall has got one of the greatest studio’s in the country, you should talk to him about going over there. I was kind of partying and rambling around and so they sat on the couch in the lobby of the hotel and I rambled around for a couple of hours and I came back a couple or three hours later. I had never seen Waylon sit still that long. He had always busy moving, and kind of hyper and they were still sitting on the couch talking.” On return to Nashville Waylon and the band went in and recorded Dreamin’ My Dreams, a landmark album that easily still stands as one of the most definitive country music records of all time.
The rest, as they say, is history.
The life of an intricate part of the history of country music came to end February 13th, 2002. Waylon Jennings passed away quietly in his sleep at home in Arizona. The news of his passing, although in retrospect seemingly inevitable, came as a shock.
“I was out at John Hartford’s house.” he says, recalling the day as if it were yesterday. “John had passed away six months before and his wife had passed away six months later. Marie who was John’s wife was like my sister. I was helping the kids do some things out there and we were going to eat. He loved Sherry, that was Marie’s daughter. She had just come from a week or so of taking care of him. She loved him, we all did and he loved her almost like a little sister. He had called and we were just heading out the door to eat and they said ‘Waylon called, will you call him back.’ She said, okay we’re going to eat right now but I’ll call him as soon as I get back. We went to eat and we were gone not more than an hour. When we got back and we walked into the house and the phone call came. Needless to say it floored us all.”
He hesitates a moment and then shares the memory of the last moments spent with his friend. “I wound up carrying him to his grave. His manager and a friend of mine had flown out there with me and we were going out to check on the gravesite. I was looking for breakfast and told him so. He said ‘come ride out to the cemetery with me to check on a few things and then we’ll go get some breakfast’. Well, we got almost to the cemetery when he realized he didn’t have enough cars to bring everyone from the hotel to the site. I suggested to Tom, ‘why don’t you leave Wes with me at the cemetery. It’s only an hour and that will make two more seats.’ He said ‘if you do that, that’ll make it work out.’ So Wes and I stayed at the cemetery. About that time the National Enquirer helicopter was circling, and there were girls behind tombstones with long-neck telescopic lenses on cameras. The police started circling telling them to get the cameras out. We were about 100 yards from where the hearse was sitting with the body in it. I saw the funeral director coming across the cemetery toward us. I thought he’s probably going to ask us to leave. He came up and he said ‘Are you guys family?’ And I said no, I used to play in the band for a long time and he said they getting ready to bring the body over to the gravesite and there were only four of them, and Jesse wanted him at the site before she and the family gets here and I was wondering if you would like to help bring the body over. I said, I know this doesn’t sound right but nothing would please me more.”
“We wound up carrying him across the gravesite and I flash back, and I’m going to tell you something I don’t tell everybody, but I imagined he spoke to me and it was almost like I could hear him and he said “Now Billy don’t you drop me, you son of a bitch.” It was almost like I heard him and it was the only thing that kind of relieved me a little bit but that was the hardest couple of hundred feet I’ve ever carried.”
“It was like the hand of fate had something to do with it. It was not planned. I didn’t go out to do that and Jessi didn’t know it was going to happen. Nobody knew it was going to happen. I understand that she was pleased when she heard it later because she knew how much he meant to me, to all of us.” he says quietly.
Waylon himself could have probably predicted the industry’s reaction to his passing. A man and his music that mainstream radio had long forgotten was suddenly in vogue, but alas only for a short period of time. “Radio wouldn’t even play his music a month before he died. And then they jumped all over him and talked about what a great man he was,” Billy Ray recalls “and he didn’t even hear a note of it.”
The stats can be almost recited rotely: His 1976 album, “Wanted: The Outlaws” was the first country album to be certified platinum. He had 16 No.1 country singles in a career that spanned five decades. He won two Grammys and was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001. But now, as the tributes fade and the dusty record sleeves are returned to the backroom shelves, the true legacy of Waylon Jennings life is what remains. His family, his friends and his music.
“He gave us a lot. He did what he intended to do. It maybe kind of corny, but he really did what he intended to do and that was to leave us something for us to remember him by. And when I hear his music I just think how could he have been so right. How can one man know that far ahead or have that much instinct about what he’s doing? He was good boy.” he pauses and then adds, “He’s okay. Let me tell you his soul is alright. In my heart I know that, beyond a shadow of a doubt.”
Laurie Joulie Take Country Back