For a long time I wanted to be Waylon Jennings. This was problematic, primarily because the job was already taken by Jessi Colter’s husband. There was also the issue of not being able to chicken-pick a Telecaster, grow hair on the top of my head, or maintain the straight and narrow while inhaling Willie’s secondhand.
Waylon Jennings is a bridge figure in my life. I was born too late to catch Buddy Holly on the radio but I came to know his music and his story in discovering after the fact that Waylon Jennings toured as Buddy’s bass player and in fact lost the coin flip that put him on a drafty old bus rather than an ill-fated plane headed to ground in Iowa. First time I heard those Buddy Holly songs it was in a medley on the 8-track version of Waylon’s “I’ve Always Been Crazy” album. I discovered the Beatles in parallel manner: When my high school math teacher showed up stricken to say John Lennon was dead, I wasn’t sure who that was; then for the following week the radio played nothing but the Beatles and my back catalog education began.
You see, kids, he says, donning his curmudgeon cap, you couldn’t just google this stuff in your palm.
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That said, I spend a pretty good portion of my time these days trying not to be needlessly nostalgic. If my kids don’t appreciate an LP crackle, or what joy we took from listening to the Top 40 in anticipation of who would land where because the stats weren’t streamed and available in real time, I also know from driving those same children here and there with the radio or the phone playing pop songs I can’t identify that the joy of discovering and identifying with music is not dead, it is just transforming. In his time the 18th-century playwright Voltaire packed theaters and was regarded as a genius; he also lived long enough to see the style that brought him fame fall into cheese.
Wherever I look — but mostly over my shoulder — there are signs warning me off the tendency to overindulge By-God-Back-In-My-Day syndrome. My past formed me, I am grateful for that past, and all change is not positive, but neither is getting a crick in your proverbial neck because you are forever looking backward.
This whole line of thought came about in a recording studio last week when a producer friend of mine suggested I try singing a little less like Waylon and more like myself. If I was Waylon I’d’a maybe snorted a line off the mixing board, kicked his amp in, tuned to Drop D and gone all extensively outlaw on his hinder. Instead I just grinned and prepared for Take Two.
The producer was right. Waylon lived that way so I didn’t have to. I was never gonna be Waylon anyways. The very fact that I said “hinder” rather than — well, you know — proves it. And in his own way Ol’ Waymore taught me that sometimes the most outlaw thing you can do is figure out how to ride into the sunset at a smooth canter rather than a mad gallop. You can honor the past and even harmonize with it, said my producer friend, but you gotta sing your own song going forward.
An original “Roughneck Grace” column exclusive to the Wisconsin State Journal. Audio versions may air on “Tent Show Radio” (tentshowradio.com). Read more from Michael Perry at www.sneezingcow.com.