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Robert Hilburn : Waylon Jennings Ready For His Second Chance

August 23, 1986|ROBERT HILBURN

Waylon Jennings is thankful for a second chance.

After establishing himself in the '70s as one of the most dynamic figures ever in country music, Jennings all but destroyed his singing voice because of prolonged cocaine use, he acknowledges.

His voice was in such bad shape a couple of years ago that a friend, who once worked with Jennings and remains a big fan, was moved to tears when she heard him in concert here.

And Jennings wasn't just having problems on stage and in the recording studio. His private life was unraveling. He became increasingly withdrawn, feeling uncomfortable even around his family. Everything appeared headed toward another pop tragedy.

Yet the Texan has made a dramatic recovery. He broke the cocaine problem during a monthlong hiatus last year in Arizona, he says, and is once more singing with an emotion and power reminiscent of his most prized early records.

His latest album, "Will the Wolf Survive," is his strongest LP in years, highlighted by an especially engaging rendition of the title track. And Jennings--who'll be at the Forum next Saturday night on a bill with wife Jessi Colter and country-rock newcomer Steve Earle--seems equally secure in his personal life.

Jennings was relaxed and in good spirits backstage during the Farm Aid concert July 4 in Austin, Tex., lounging with Willie Nelson on Nelson's bus and even giving his views on the state of country music to a TV reporter and crew.

"I feel so much better about everything--my family, my friends, my music," Jennings said in a recent interview. "I could see the toll it (my involvement with drugs) had taken on Jessi . . . the worry in her face. And I can see how it affected my relationship with my little boy.

"He would reach out to me, but my attention span was so much shorter than his, it wouldn't work. I could also hear that my voice was gradually going away. I tried to come up with all kinds of excuses to tell myself my problems were due to something other than drugs. But you get to a certain point and you can't lie to yourself any longer."

Jennings, 49, has long been on the progressive edge of country music, so it wasn't a total surprise when he picked a song by the rootsy East Los Angeles rock group Los Lobos as the title track for his latest album.

Over the years, Jennings has reached out to various rock composers for songs. Among the tunes he has recorded: the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood," the Rolling Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman," Neil Young's "Are You Ready for the Country" and Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire." He has also played stadium shows with the Grateful Dead.

It's easy to see why Jennings was drawn to "Will the Wolf Survive." It's an endearing statement of independence, pride and survival, traits that apply at various points to Jennings' own colorful Nashville career.

Jennings, whose best-known hits include "Good Hearted Woman" and "Luckenbach, Texas," arrived in the country music capital almost two decades ago as one of the most exciting new figures Nashville had seen in years. But his independent spirit frequently clashed with the conservative country-establishment ways.

It wasn't long before he (and sidekick Willie Nelson) became known as "outlaws" around town. The term referred then to Jennings' progressive musical leanings, not his eventual drug problems--which, he said, escalated from occasional "uppers" to sometimes spending as much as $1,500 a day on cocaine.

"I had quit a few times, but I always went back," Jennings said. "But there were too many things telling me this time that I had better quit for good. I guess I just realized I was going to lose everything . . . I also don't think I would have lived much longer--anyway. I would get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and I'd do coke. They'd say come to supper, and I'd go in the bathroom again and do coke. It became me ."

Jennings was so enthused about recording his last album--his first for MCA after nearly 20 years with RCA--that he spent three weeks visiting publishing companies, searching for songs by new writers--something virtually unheard of in an artist of Jennings' stature. He wanted to concentrate totally on singing on the project. Next time, however, he wants to resume writing.

"I want to come up with something autobiographical . . . the whole story, from the beginning and on up to now, kinda like a book. I think it's time to tell my story right before someone else tells it wrong."

LIVE ACTION: Tickets go on sale Sunday for Liza Minnelli's Oct. 23-26 concerts at the Universal Amphitheatre. . . . Tickets will be available Monday for the Greek Theatre's Oct. 1-2 reggae bill of Steel Pulse and Jimmy Cliff. . . . Genesis has added a fourth date (Oct. 16) to its Forum engagement. Tickets on sale Monday. . . . Coming to the Palace: Device (Sept. 11) and Gene Loves Jezebel (Sept. 23). . . . B.B. King will play a benefit for Mayor Bradley's gubernatorial campaign Sept. 8 at the Hollywood Palladium. . . . The March Violets will be at the Roxy Sept. 1.

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