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Waylon Jennings relates the story of his life as a country music star. His beginnings were poor but he became Buddy Holly's protege before sinking into drug abuse and 3 failed marriages. His success came when he met his present wife, Jessi Colter.
Waylon Jennings relates the story of his life as a country music star. His beginnings were poor but he became Buddy Holly's protege before sinking into drug abuse and 3 failed marriages. His success came when he met his present wife, Jessi Colter.
The storms boil up out of the west; a red-black cloud taking over the sky, streaming across the New Mexico border into Texas. You can stand there and watch them coming at you, nothing to stop them on the high open plains, seventy, eighty, ninety miles an hour, moving like a dark horse across the flatlands, bringing sand, and dust, and tumbleweeds. Always from the west.
I’ve seen chickens go to roost at noon, it’d be so dark. The wind howls through those old tar-paper houses, the sand sifting across the road till you can’t see where the blacktop begins, and the grit gets in your teeth. Many a time I’d be going home, running down the street, trying to beat the storm, and I’d have to stop and grab hold of a pole to keep from getting blown over.
You look under your window, or beneath the door sill, and there’s a pile of sand seeping in, and fine dirt. It covers everything. The sand drifts up against the fences as if it were snow. The wind that blows it circles town from the outside, driving back along Bula Highway, then around to Spade Highway, Littlefield rising out of the whirling dust like a mirage.
“Lonesome,” Momma used to call the noise the wind made, and it haunts me to this day. It sounded like the end of time to me. Sometimes I think I make music to shut out the wind, to find a place where the sands can’t touch, and the air smells sweet and clear on a spring morning after the rain.
It rained a lot that spring I was born. More than eight inches fell in the two weeks before I arrived, bringing with it hopes of a bumper cotton crop and the toil of replanting. The hail spared Lamb County, though it wreaked havoc north to Dimmitt, east to Plainview, south to Lubbock. There was a shortage of laying hens. We were on the fringes, seven or so miles northeast of Littlefield. On Tuesday morning, June 15, 1937, Momma went up to the main farm house, owned by a Mr. J. W. Bittner Sr., and birthed me. Daddy got to celebrate his first Father’s Day that Sunday.
My coming wasn’t recorded in the Lamb County News or Leader. Downtown, where Norma Shearer and Leslie Howard were starring in Romeo and Juliet and the society pages were all fussing about the Duchess of Windsor, they paid no notice to what was happening to us subsistence farmers working the fields. Dirt-poor (we had the floor to prove it), we shared a two-room house with my uncles and aunts and cousins. The bed was in the living room, and there was a kitchen. Twelve people; I don’t know how we did it.
At least that was a step up from the half-dugout my Uncle Bud lived in, by Hart Camp: a roof over a cellar. Momma and Daddy first got married out there, maybe ten miles from Littlefield, a town that had a school house, a cotton gin, a grocery store, and not much else. Don’t blink, or you might miss it.
They’d met at a dance, William Albert Jennings and Lorene Beatrice Shipley. He was a musician in a one-man band, just him playing harmonica and guitar. She couldn’t have been more than fourteen, from Love County, Oklahoma. She danced every dance. Momma used to get mad because Daddy didn’t know how to dance, and she’d have to hold the harmonica for him in his mouth—they had no holders in those days—and wouldn’t get to dance every set.
They got together in 1935 and moved in with Grandpa Jennings. There were sixteen people living in their two rooms, up in a little house on a hill, though, if truth be known, it was more like a bump on the earth. Nobody had any money. They papered the walls with newspaper, pasting it up with flour and water. They did it to stay warm; for insulation, not for looks. It covered up the cracks in the wall.
My daddy was the hardest-working man you ever saw. He did everything at one time or another. He worked in the fields, he ran a creamery, he owned a gas station, he drove a fuel delivery truck. One time he broke his back; he’d been working over in Hobbs, New Mexico, and a piece of lumber fell on him. He got out of the hospital, in a back brace, and immediately went out and pulled cotton. It hurt so bad he had to do it on his knees, but he wanted to get us money for Christmas.
It was never easy for our family, even after Momma and Daddy moved over to the Bittner farm. One time I remember my dad setting in the chair and crying. His head was in his hands. I couldn’t have been more than two years old because my brother Tommy was still a babe-in-arms. (I’ve always had a good memory, even that early, and I can go as far back in time as when I was bouncing in my jumper swing, reaching for my dad’s guitar.) Daddy had worked sunup to sundown, and we still didn’t have nothing to eat. A dollar a day was what he made.
Yet it wasn’t a rare thing when he laughed. He laughed a lot. He’d tease us unmercifully and give us all nicknames. Daddy called me Towhead, because my hair was light colored, or Little Wart. When he smiled, the whole room lit up. Kids trusted him. My daddy could walk up to any child, and they might be bashful and shy and turning away. In a minute they’d be right over cuddling next to him. He was constantly joking.
Daddy finally got himself enough money to buy him a truck. He had a ’41 Ford, short bed; a bobtail, they called them. Grandpa Jennings had traded in his span of mules for a tractor and moved out by Morton, west of Littlefield, near Enochs. He had eighty acres; that was about all you could handle in those days. We were doing all right, even if Momma still tells the story of how she had to put me up on the stove while she was cleaning the house to keep the rats from getting me. That’s kind of country, isn’t it?
Saturday night, we used to sit on the Bittner farm and see the lights of Littlefield off in the distance. We grew cotton and maize on the patch of land we worked. We were farm laborers, not even sharecroppers, and when Daddy got back from a day in the fields, he had to milk about twenty head of cattle. On hog-killing day, we’d get out the ice cream freezer and break open watermelons. Yellow meat watermelons. They’d weigh fifty or sixty pounds, and nothing tasted closer to heaven.
They were originally going to name me Wayland: “land by the highway.” It’s no wonder I’ve spent my life on the road. Momma wanted to call me Galen, and my grandmother had a boyfriend that she was going to marry who had died of some disease, and his name was Wade. Daddy thought I should have the initials W.A., which was traditional for the oldest through the Jennings. The first ones that ever migrated to Texas were William Albert and Miriam.
So it came down to Wayland Arnold. But when a Baptist preacher stopped by to visit Momma, he said, “Oh, I see you’ve named your son after our wonderful Wayland College in Plain-view,” so she immediately changed the spelling to Waylon. We were solidly Church of Christ, saved by baptism instead of faith. She never got around to switching it on the birth certificate. I still hate my middle name, and for a while I didn’t like Waylon. It sounded so corny and hillbilly, but it’s been good to me, and I’m pretty well at peace with it now.
Littlefield is on the cap rock, right at the foot of the Great Plains as they stretch through Denver all the way north to Canada. It’s up about four thousand feet, but it’s so flat your dog could run off and you could watch him go for three days. They say you can stand in Littlefield and count the people in Levelland, twenty miles away. There’s nary a tree anywhere; and the sky surrounds you like a huge blue bowl. At night it’s almost like you’re being sucked up into the stars.
When you’re born in Texas, you think that you are a little bit taller, a little bit smarter, and a little bit tougher than anybody else. It’s a country unto itself, it really is. In fact, it was the only place that was a country before it was a state, and the people who live there still feel that way. My wife, Jessi, hit it right on the head when she said “They think the rest of the world is overseas.” Of course, she’s from Arizona. She knows what it’s like being around cowboys.
We could just dream about being cowboys. For us, life on the farms was all we could look forward to. Littlefield is part of the cotton belt, and it sits astraddle the line between dry-land farming on the west side and wet irrigation to the east. We pulled cotton all around Littlefield, getting up at four in the morning to be in the fields before dawn. It would already be so hot and dry that the gnats would be swarming at your eyes, trying to get at the moisture. By the time the day was too hot for them, we’d be halfway down a row, hunched over, dodging the snakes, pulling the bolls and chopping at them, trying to get to the water jar we had waiting at the end of the row. We were able to stand up when the cotton was high, and virtually stooped in half to reach the low.
There’s a saying, “He’s in high cotton now,” which means it’s easier to pull. Or to pick it. You don’t have to bend over. For low cotton, which is thicker on the bush, you haven’t lived till you’ve bent over all the way down a row, which may be three quarters of a mile to a mile long, and then tried to stand and straighten your back. Or bent over to get that stuff, pulling a crying kid on a sack. My momma pulled bolls; we didn’t pick it like they did in East Texas. You’d pull the boll and the cotton off the cotton stalk and then they’d have a cotton gin that would separate the boll and the seed. The boll was green, and when it dried out it would open and be real brittle. It would just cut the shit out of your hands if you didn’t wear gloves.
In the late summer and fall, Littlefield would be full of transient laborers from Mexico. You couldn’t walk down the street on Saturday afternoon, they’d be so packed. We were working right there alongside of them. They delayed school two weeks at the start of every year to chop cotton and gather in the harvest. In the summer we went barefoot, mostly because we couldn’t afford shoes, but every fall till I was fifteen we went out there to get the money to buy our school clothes. I hated the cotton patch.
There’s nothing I have ever heard in my life as mournful as the whistle of a steam freight train in the distance when you’re kneeling down in a field. It sounds like death. I’d be out in the cotton patch, dragging a sack twelve foot long and half full, putting in dirt clods to bring up the weight, and that lonesome howl would just go plumb through me. That train was on its way out of town and I wasn’t on it. I knew that there was a better way somewhere else. I didn’t know where, but all I had to do was go looking for it.
The last time I was pulling cotton I was about sixteen. I said, “I didn’t plant this shit, and I ain’t never gonna pull it up no more.” And I quit. I left that sack sitting right there. It may be there to this day, as far as I know.
The Shipleys and the Jennings were complete opposites. My grandpa Jennings wouldn’t take a drink or say a cussword if he had to. My dad was that way, too. We couldn’t keep dice or even mention the word “sex” in our house.
My grandpa Alfred Blevins Shipley was a hard-working man and could get drunker than ole Cooter Brown. It was not a sickness with him. It was just something he liked to do, but not until there was plenty of food in the house. He was a strong man, a good provider and protector of his clan. He was the boss ’til the day he died. In a lot of ways I’m like him. I wanted to be. He may have been where I learned to cuss—he was good at it—but I couldn’t get into the snuff dipping. He was good at that too.
He drove a truck all his life, bringing fruits and vegetables back and forth from South Texas. I don’t know how he ever made any money. He would go down to San Antonio, load up, bring it back to Littlefield, give half of it away, and sell the rest. Then he would repeat the whole process again. When he started home (four or five hundred miles away), if he had any money left, he would buy some whiskey and get drunk. I’m talking about drunk. Stone blind and weaving drunk. Trying to keep it between the lines. (In twenty years, the only accident he had, he went off the road into a ditch.)
There were two kinds of people Grandpa didn’t trust, a preacher and a cop. He’d say “They both think they’re sanctified in everything they do.” It’s no wonder he was always arguing with Grandma. Grandma, Dessie Bell Shipley, was a Jehovah’s Witness, and I swear Grandpa would study the Bible just to tell her how wrong she was about it, and nothing made him madder than catching her on a street corner selling the Watchtower. They fought most of their lives and I never heard them say much good to each other. But that was between them, and no one else had better join in.
The Shipley line had come to Texas through my great-grandfather, who was a farmer and a lawman. He rode a horse all the way from Tennessee and had a handlebar mustache. He wound up in Hart Camp after being a constable in Leon, Oklahoma, and a sheriff in Marietta. Along the way, a lot of Indian blood mixed in. My grandmother Dessie Bell’s maiden name was West, and her father had been a cotton farmer. He never worked a day in his life. His six boys did most of the hard labor. He was really a trader, and could make fifty dollars in an afternoon just sitting on a sack of beans. I heard he was part Comanche, and her mother was Cherokee. Full-blood.
She had traveled the Trail of Tears to Fort Smith, Arkansas, where she went to school till they burnt the fort down. My great-grandfather’s name was Wily West. He was so skinny that he could go somewhere, sit down, cross his legs, and both feet would lie flat on the floor.
Let me get this right now. If I don’t, I could get shot by some relatives. My great-grandfather West married a woman who already had a daughter about twelve years old. He had another child by this woman, whoever she was, which was my grandmother. Now my grandmother had a sister, right? We thought that my grandmother’s mother had died, but we found out later that wasn’t true. She had run off and left both kids with him. So he married the original daughter, which made my grandmother’s sister her stepmother.
Nobody knew this until Grandma Shipley died. Then it came out. On the marriage certificate for Great-grandfather West and Grandma’s stepsister, it said her mother was colored. That was the way they referred to Indians in those days. I guess that happened a lot back then, her half-sister becoming her stepmother. Being out in the middle of nowhere will do that to you.
It might’ve been even more complicated had not Wily West been such a rounder. Great-grandpa West, my grandmother’s father, and my grandfather’s mother, Delilah Shipley, had known each other when they were young. Supposedly they’d been in love. He called her Lila; she was some piece of work. She was beautiful and carried a gun. They might’ve been going to get married, but he went off on one of his tears and he took off. When he came back she was gone. She’d married the sheriff of Ardmore, Oklahoma. They never saw each other again until his daughter and her son met and were married.
Years later I took him up to see her in an old folks home in Lubbock. He stayed with her, and I went and did my business and then came and picked him up. On the way back, he was sitting real quiet, staring out the window. All of a sudden he blew his nose and you could see he’d been crying. “When Lila was young, there wasn’t a handsomer woman alive,” he said. “You never know how things are gonna turn out.”
The Jennings were a different breed. Irish and Black Dutch, as far as I could tell, and as God-fearing as they come. They belonged to the Church of Christ; my Dad was as close to being a preacher as he could without being a preacher.
Daddy was truly my hero. He would never punish us kids—me and my three brothers—for something he himself did. Anyway, he could never hurt us. He’d sooner put a foot of quilts over us and beat the hell out of that cover with the belt. His motto was “I’ll never whip one of ’em for what I do in front of them, what I do and they know that I do.” Like smoking. Or cussing. He’d not even say “dang it.” Instead of tobacco, Daddy chewed ice. We just watched what he did and knew we were expected to do the same. He had a quiet strength.
He was built stockily, like his dad. It came natural from his side of the family. All of them were heavy, and big boned. My grandpa Gus weighed close to three hundred pounds, and always wore his belt buckle to the side. I used to think he liked the look of it better over there, but my cousin Wendell Whitfield says it was probably because there was no room for it in front. He also wore a black hat.
The Shipleys were slim. When they gained weight, it went to the face and stomach, just like it does to me. When I gain weight, my face gets real wide even if my legs stay thin.
We had to ride in the back of the truck out to Grandpa Jennings’s place, no end gate to it and just a tarp flapping. We’d ride in the back of that truck all day long; they didn’t go that fast then. If you fell out of one it wouldn’t hardly hurt. You could run and catch up with it, chasing down Route 54 straight as an arrow till it took a right-angle zigzag around Bula High School, near the spot where I first heard Johnny Cash sing “Cry, Cry, Cry,” bouncing over a buffalo wallow that we thought deep as a canyon, and out to the Jennings farm.
Grandpa Jennings never let anything bother him. He thought no matter how bad it might look today, it’d probably be all right tomorrow. He’d set and twiddle his thumbs and look off in the distance; he was kind of a homebody. His cotton planting day was June 6, unless it fell on a Sunday. Everybody else had already planted twice; they’d be hailed out and have to go back. Grandpa just waited for his day.
As you’d expect, we ate good there. We’d get up in the morning, always before daylight, and fix big platters of eggs, frying or scrambling them. We’d just scrape off what we wanted. Then there would be bacon, pork chops, sausage, and butter. Homemade butter, that you would churn “frush.” I used to do that myself.
Breakfast was the big meal. Lunch was called dinner, and we’d have fried chicken and eat the leftovers after five that night. Grandma Tempe would keep the butterbeans going for at least two days. There’s one thing I could never understand about her. After church on Sunday we’d go back to the farm, and she’d put on her old feed-sack dress, grab some poor chicken by the neck, and wring its head off. Now I know it was Sunday dinner, and we all had to eat, but some transformation happened between the hymn and closing prayer and jerking that poor chicken’s neck. Grandma Jennings was a stern woman. I can still hear her muttering “nasty nasty nasty” anytime she’d catch us calking about girls. In later years, after I’d have sex, it seemed like someone ought to come up and shake their finger at me, saying “nasty nasty nasty.”
Supper wasn’t that important, though it was probably the most fun. You’d dip corn bread into sweet milk, and Daddy was always taking peanut butter and putting it in karo syrup, stirring it up. You’d have a little bread with it. Our staples were coffee, bread, and sugar: We would take biscuits and open them up, butter the breads, pour sugar on them, and pour coffee over that. Momma used to make milk chocolate and pour it over crackers. We weren’t so much poor as pour.
The depression sure bred some strange things. For greens, we’d eat lamb’s-quarter. It was a wild weed that looked a lot like spinach. We used every part of the hog we could. We didn’t waste anything. We even made tallow and soap out of the skin. Lye soap, like to take your flesh off.
If you had any left, that is, after they got finished with you in Sunday School. We were staunchly Church of Christ, especially my dad.
Of all the religions I’ve run into, the Church of Christ has probably got it wronger than anybody. They’re self-righteous, narrow-minded, and truly believe they’re the only ones going to Heaven. If you don’t believe the way we do, they say, you’re going to go straight to hellfire and damnation. With a side order of brimstone.
They don’t allow women to speak in the church. They think it’s a sin if you have music in the church. They say, bring your organ over here. Mr. Organ, would you lead us in prayer? If it leads us in prayer, then it’ll be all right. Well, what’s the whole building for—the pulpit, the pews, the carpet, the microphones—if not to lead you in prayer? It’s people that do the singing.
Once I even gave preaching a shot. Momma wanted one of her boys to be a preacher. I was trying to please, but it was the scaredest I ever was in my life. On Wednesday nights they let you give talks. My mouth was so dry, I thought I was going to pass out. I thought, if I don’t do it I’m going to hell, and if I do do it, I’m going to stunt my growth. I knew what I was saying was fear, was instilling terror in people, and when I got up to speak, I was living proof.
Their concept of God was of a Father who told His offspring, “I created you, but I’m not going to be there ever. You’re not going to see me or hear my voice, and I’m going to give you a book that is not easy to read at all, it’s hard to understand, but you are not to question it. It’s a sin to question it. If you don’t follow my words, and do everything that book says, even though you’re my child and I love you, and I’m your Father, I will throw you into a lake of fire and you will burn eternally and I’ll hear you scream for the rest of eternity.”
That’s what the Church of Christ teaches, and it’s not my concept of believing. If God knows yesterday, today, and tomorrow, why would He cause us so much misery in this world? I don’t think God would destroy the earth and let Satan live again. Or blame us for the Forbidden Fruit. That’s our sacred knowledge, the emotion that we’re able to give back to God. It’s what makes us human.
I’ve read the Bible. There are thousands of religions derived from this book, and it seems to me that the inspiration of that book lies in what it says to you, individually and as a person. You should live your life, and your religion, according to that.
Love is one of the truest feelings in the world, and it’s based on the attraction a man feels for a woman, not to mention vice versa. The Church of Christ called it lust and said it was a sin. You should only make love for the purposes of procreation. That’s bullshit. I’ve never been able to believe that. I look at Jessi and have to watch myself. I want her every day of my life. And as for playing music…
I thought, man, I’m going to hell, ’cause everything they tell me is a big sin is something I like. A lot.
Of course, once outside of church, everybody pretty much went about their own business. Me and some of my friends would go over to where the Holy Rollers met and find the tobacco where they’d thrown it out the window when they’d get saved, and we’d get it and smoke it. A lot of times we’d be there the next morning and find they’d been out there looking for it themselves.
My dad was a good man, and he didn’t need the Church of Christ to tell him to do right. He was solid as a rock. He just tried to live the best he could, the way a Christian should, and I never knew him to get really mad. He was a disciplinarian, but he was kindhearted. He’d sooner give you the back of his hand than grab a belt if you pushed the wrong button. I’d be in the back seat fussing with my younger brother Tommy, and he’d say “I’m going to slap the slobbers out of you, boy,” and we knew to duck ’cause that hand would be swatting back at us. We’d hit the floor and keep quiet for the rest of the trip.
About the maddest I ever saw him get was one evening when I went to the movies on Sunday afternoon, and we were supposed to go to church that night. It was a double feature, and Wendell and I watched it twice. Walking home, my dad pulled alongside us in the car. “You shain’t go to the movies anymore on Sunday” was all he said. Anytime he said “shain’t” you could tell he was angry.
I always knew he would protect me. One time I saw something nobody ever gets to see out of their dad. This kid, Billy Stewart, was a little younger than my brother Tommy, and they’d gotten into it. Tommy was maybe ten, and Billy had run home crying. He was a little crybaby anyway. So here comes Strawberry, his older brother, who was about twenty-two years old and a Golden Gloves boxer, a big guy standing at least six foot two. He grabbed my little brother, and Tommy’s screaming bloody murder, and Strawberry said he was going to give him a whipping.
My dad was chopping weeds in the garden, about two fences away, with an empty lot in between, and after that stretched the grass and wildflowers of the prairie. Daddy said, “What are you doing with him? You turn that boy loose.”
“Well,” answered Strawberry, “he hurt my little brother and I’m fixing to kick his little ass.”
“No, you’re not,” Daddy replied in a low, even voice.
“Old man, stay out of this.”
Daddy dropped the hoe down, didn’t even take it with him, and he climbed over the first fence. He was pale as a sheet. “You touch that boy and I’ll break your back.”
Strawberry said, “Old man, I make my living fighting. I whip people twice the size of you every night. You better stay away. I’ll hurt you if you come over here.”
All Daddy would say is “You touch that boy and I’ll break your back.” He went over the next fence.
“You come here and I’m going to kill you,” Strawberry shouted. My dad didn’t even slow up. Finally Strawberry looked at him and turned Tommy loose. “Aw, old man, you’re crazy,” he said, and backed off.
I knew right there what my daddy was all about. I was twelve years old, and I knew he would shield me from harm, would walk through fire if he had to, and that he was a brave man. A hero. He wouldn’t let anything stand in the way of him and his child. He never even stopped to think twice; he just kept on going, one foot after the other, telling Strawberry all the time he would break his back. And I believe he would’ve.
Momma was, and always will be, restless. She has a lot of energy, and like me, that’s worked both for and against her in a lot of ways. I feed that urge for going by traveling on the road. Momma gets high-strung and flighty, and sometimes I think she doesn’t allow herself to be happy.
I got my determination from her, and maybe my sense of perfection. Momma doesn’t bend, and she would always know when I wasn’t telling the truth. “You’re lying and I can see it written all over your face,” she’d say. My cheeks would be turning all sorts of colors.
When I was little, it seemed like we moved every three or four months. Momma had pneumonia once, and we relocated to the Rio Grande valley in South Texas, but Littlefield had a hold on us. We lived at the corner of Austin Avenue and Reed Street, a long shotgun house with no bathroom, and then settled across from the high school on North Lake. By the time I was in grammar school, we were back on Austin, at number 123, in the heart of town, in a twenty-four-by-twenty-four house that my daddy built.
It was the first house we ever owned, and our first inside bathroom. Previously, we had taken our baths in galvanized washtubs. The back bedroom was mine and Tommy’s, Daddy and Momma had a room, and we had a living room and a kitchen. That was it, and when years later the family moved to Sixth Street, they just took the house with them and built onto it.
Momma worshipped her boys, and after Tommy and me—quite some time after—along came James D., who was eight years younger, and then Bo, who was born when I was sixteen. His name was Phillip Doyle, but Daddy started calling him Bimbo because of a song Jim Reeves had out at the time, and he was Bo forevermore.
Brothers do work at being as different from each other as possible, and I guess our family was no exception. Tommy’s more outgoing than me, at least when we were growing up. He’d talk the wheels off a Volkswagen. He wanted to be an entertainer, and he’s a pretty good songwriter; he played bass with me for a while in the sixties. James D. is a lot like my daddy, honest and upfront as the day is long, running a Conoco station diagonally across from where Daddy had his service station for a time; but he was the gripiest kid. Lord, he didn’t let any of us off easy. I remember the first time I ever brought my first wife home. Daddy let me use the car, and James D. was just sitting there, pouting. It was a Saturday night, and as I started out the door, he come right behind me hollering “Dadblame you, and that dadburned girl. It’s because of you we gotta stay home on dadblamed Saturday night because you want to go somewhere with that dadburned girl.” He followed me all the way to the car, just chewing my ass out. What a character.
There was a big gap between James and Bo. Me and Tommy were practically all gone and grown when Bo grew up, so he was really like an only child.
Littlefield can be a tough town, and I was a grown man before I left. I guess if you went back with anybody and traced where they came from, you’d figure out a whole lot about them. I spent all my early life there, and there’s a lot of me still walking those streets.
Once only inhabited by buffalo herds and Indians, West Texas was thought “unfit for cultivation” as late as the 1830s. What would become the town of Littlefield grew from one of the largest ranches in the world, the XIT, which covered over three million acres across nine panhandle counties and had been given to the Chicago financial syndicate that had built the state capitol in Austin. Texas had more land than cash in those days.
When the XIT spread finally went under at the turn of the century, the first tract—the southern Yellowhouse Division—was sold to Major George Washington Littlefield, an Austin banker and cattleman, who paid two dollars an acre in 1901. The town, laid out by Arthur P. Duggan, officially opened on July 4, 1913, and was given a commercial shot in the arm when the Panhandle and Santa Fe Railroad made it an official station. Today it’s the seat of Lamb County, named after a Lieutenant George A. Lamb, who was killed at the Battle of San Jacinto, and contains almost eight thousand persons, about double that of when I was born.
It’s never been easy to make a living in Littlefield, and we had it harder than most. I don’t think anybody had anything in reserve for a rainy day. Even the more well-to-do farmers lived from one harvest to another. When we got up in the morning, all we had was the daily prospect of hitting the cotton patch, or getting in a truck, or going down to the warehouse.
You’d make fifty, sixty cents an hour. That’s all the money you had to look forward to. You might be dreaming about going away to some far-off land of opportunity, but you also might be building hen houses for Buck Ross, or doing something for one of the local contractors, Carlisle Russell or Bob Jennings (no relation). You could be working down at the local service station, six weeks there, six weeks across town hauling trash. Next month you might not have anything to go to. You lived for that day, and that day only.
Saturday night was when you let it all out. Whatever little money we had, we put it in a box for groceries and rent, and then took a couple of dollars out for Saturday night. That was the entire life of Littlefield. There was none of this long-range planning, stock markets, investments, retirement benefits. We never put away money for vacations because there wouldn’t be any vacations. You never even thought in those terms. My folks needed to get the house paid for, have a car that would run, and try to keep everybody healthy. They were just making it from one Saturday to another.
When you thought success, it was to show people in Little-field. We didn’t know any better. We’d go to the store on Saturday (Sunday was for church only) and put a pair of boots on layaway; buy a jacket or a belt buckle, put it on layaway. A dollar down, a dollar a week, and when you got it all paid off, you’d pick it up. That was the little rewards in life. Get a little carry-out barbecue, a stick of baloney, a few groceries. Next week there would hopefully be work that’d last until the weekend. Nothing beyond that.
We didn’t know any better. There’s a charm about Littlefield, and there’s a lot of things we would laugh about when we were growing up. Most of the time we tried to be happy with what little we had. We never begrudged anyone anything. We had a good time, but we didn’t know what was out there.
Home improvements? In those days, a house was just a place to keep you warm and dry. I remember the first time I ever saw linoleum. I thought it was the slickest stuff; we still lived in a place that had a dirt floor.
Sometimes I don’t know how those houses would stand up to the changes in weather. It could get above a hundred in the summer and below zero in the winter. It might rain two inches in the morning, and then a sandstorm would blow in the afternoon, and sometimes last for days at a time. In the winter, the wind changed direction; we called them blue northers, and they’d carry blizzards.
In the late summer and fall, we’d have tornadoes. They’re the weirdest storms imaginable. If a tornado struck a house, it would look like somebody had taken a fist and crushed it right on top. It always seemed like tornadoes had a thing for cotton gins and trailer parks. Once a tornado hit these caged chicken coops, and they found chickens for miles. The force of those things would put a straw through a telephone pole, all the way through, or an egg through a two-by-four. It would take a tractor and put it on top of a barn. You’d hear that it blew a baby out of a woman’s arms, or a woman’s arm off and left her standing there. We had six touch down one night, all around the county.
And yet, people loved living there. It’s a rough place to be, if you want to know the truth, but if you can survive Littlefield, then you can pretty well handle the rest of the world. I have to go back every once in a while, just to see where I’ve been and who I am. I don’t know why that is. Daddy never wanted to leave there, and Momma’s never wanted to leave. People who live there bitch about it all the time, but they don’t want to go anywhere else. Home is home no matter where it is.
Littlefield gets in your soul, in your blood, in the same way sand gets in your craw. I think that’s part of my sound. All the damn sand I swallowed is in my singing.
Did you ever parch peanuts? I would sit around an old potbellied stove with my dad, putting peanuts in a pan and roasting them a little bit. We’d eat those peanuts listening to the Grand Ole Opry, and when Bill Monroe would sing, Daddy would look at me and grin.
He loved Bill Monroe. He was my dad’s favorite singer; I think he liked that high voice. We would park the pickup outside the house and stick some booster cables through the window and attach one end to the truck’s battery and the other to the radio. We were able to pull in the Louisiana Hayride, and on Saturday nights the Opry came through loud and clear over WSM.
Daddy never played out much after I was born, but since nobody had televisions or record players, the only entertainment was going over to people’s houses and singing to each other. He’d sing “Sweet Betsy from Pike” and “Old Zebra Dunn,” and a cowboy song about some old boy who had a girl he was going to wed. He took her out on a cattle drive with him and the Indians attacked and an arrow come and “dashed out her brains.” Those were the actual lyrics.
He used a thumb-and-finger plucking style, and I later found out that Jimmie Rodgers and Mother Maybelle Carter did that a lot. My dad taught Momma a few songs, and when I learned to play, me and her would sing together, “Maple on the Hill” and “The Girl in the Blue Velvet Band.” She put all her soul into her singing; she could be so moved by it. Whenever she heard Roy Acuff’s “Wreck on the Highway,” she had to go outside and cry.
I was fascinated with the guitar from when I had to stand on tiptoes to reach the strings. It was Momma who showed me how to shape my first chords. She was real patient, sitting on the couch and humming “Thirty Pieces of Silver,” placing my fingers so I could change keys. She liked C and D. I was guitar crazy by then. They had a drive-in theater about a mile behind the house, and one week they had an Ernest Tubb movie. For the next month, I’d sit out with a broomstick behind the cafe my Grandpa Shipley had for a time, listening to the jukebox, trying to get my little squeaky voice down there low enough to sing like Ernest Tubb: “Yes I know I’ve been untrue / And I’ve hurt you through and through / Take me back and try me one more time—”
The first guitar I ever touched was my uncle Pat’s. It was more like a bow and arrow than a guitar, and I tried my damnedest to play that. Next door to us were some boys that moved in from Arkansas: snuff-dipping, guitar-playing, way-back-in-the-hills Arkansawyers. They had a Gibson, and their real names were Rastus and Sambo. There wasn’t anything black about them, and they let me bang on their guitar every once in a while. My uncle Jabbo also had one, a Kalamazoo with a hole in it. It had a good tone. That’s where I learned to play “Kentucky.”
Then Momma pulled cotton and bought me one for five dollars. I guess it was an old Stella. I don’t know if it even had a name on it. She bought it from this guy named Weldon Tate. Then we ordered a guitar, a Harmony Patrician, and it came in time for Christmas. Tommy got a mandolin. I had that guitar for years. I even sanded it off one time and put a varnish on it, and ruined it of course. I painted it, and polished it, and put my name on there like Ernest Tubb had on his.
I tried to take a couple of lessons, but the guy I was taking them from spent more time trying to show me how to hold the neck than playing. I just got frustrated with it and wouldn’t go back. But I wanted to play so badly I went ahead and learned myself. Daddy had a little song called “Spanish Fandango American Style,” and that was the first thing I ever learned to pick. It was so pretty, but it wasn’t really a tune. It was more of an exercise. Momma taught me another song I used to practice: “I had a cow / She had a hollow horn / Fed that cow / On green popcorn—”
By this time Daddy had set himself up a produce store at the corner of Xit and Third streets. It doubled as a creamery, and he bought and sold dairy products, eggs, and chickens. It was the job of us kids to test the cream for butterfat and candle the eggs. Daddy took cotton sacks and hung them in the back where we’d keep the chickens, and we’d go in there with a light and hold up the eggs. Sometimes you would see a bloody speck, and that was a number two; and number threes were cracked. Number ones didn’t have anything wrong with them. All the bakeries in town bought the number twos or number threes, and I always thought of that every time I would eat a doughnut.
Daddy seemed prosperous in that time of our life. Not rich or anything, but he had a little money ahead in the bank. Farmers would pull up and I would go and get the cream out of the car, or grab buckets for the eggs, and while we tested them, the farmers would sit on the porch, or just inside the front door, chewing tobacco and whittling on a piece of wood; we called it the spit-and-whittle bench. Or the Dead Pecker bench.
I drove them old farmers nuts, trying to learn to play the guitar in the back room. I’d sit on an old feed sack, pounding away, and every once in a while one of them would come in the back, snuff rolling down his face, saying “If you’re playing that ol’ guitar in parts, well, leave my part out. ’Cause you ain’t worth a shit. I know that ol’ Bob Wills, and he ain’t nothing but an old alky-holic. Anybody who plays that ol’ guitar they won’t never amount to a hill of beans, and you’ll just be an old alky-holic.”
Alcohol never seemed to be my problem. Daddy didn’t drink; he had an ulcerated stomach and the most he would ever do was act like he was swigging out of the bottle. He just never liked the taste of it, and I never have either. It’s probably saved my life on more than one occasion. Over on the Shipley side, it was another story. My momma’s uncle O. C. West was drunk all the time. I don’t ever remember seeing him sober. Once I saw him mixing up grapefruit juice and brake fluid, that’s how bad he was. Finally they sent him off to a sanitarium. He came back when they said there was nothing they could do to help him. He wasn’t an alcoholic; he was a drunkard, and there is a difference. He got drunk because he liked to, and that’s all there was to it.
We kept the produce store till the early fifties, when the bottom fell out of the farmers’ market and Daddy went broke. It almost put me off chickens; they really are nasty birds. They’ll peck each other’s eyes out, given the chance. I hated those damn things, but I hated more to watch Daddy out of work again, smoking Bull Durham and eating beans seven days a week.
When we moved to Austin Street, Momma covered mine and Tommy’s room with cowboy wallpaper. We’d sit back with our BB guns and shoot at the cowboys, one by one.
You’d figure growing up in West Texas we’d practically be cowboys ourselves, but most of our six-gun lore came from the movies. I considered us farmers. Texas wasn’t the West, and somehow, I didn’t even consider New Mexico to be the West. Arizona was the West to me. You just never thought of Littlefield as cowboy country. Flat plains: there was nothing exotic about that.
We’d go down to the Palace Theatre on Saturday afternoons. I was eleven years old, and I had a quarter. One thing I always bought was a box of peanuts, a round box about four inches tall, and along with the peanuts it would also contain a nickel, or a penny, or sometimes even a dime or a quarter. It cost five cents, and I’d go to the movies and that would cost another ten. Later I’d buy a dime toy at Perry’s or Ben Franklin’s, a puzzle or a G.I. Joe, and that was my Saturday quarter.
When Rex Allen came along, I thought he was such a great singer. I was never real crazy about Roy Rogers’s singing at all, but I loved his movies. Gene Autry and Roy were almost like enemies, fighting over who was going to be King of the Cowboys. Tim Holt was the one that always looked weird to me. And the Durango Kid usually had a guest spot featuring Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. It always impressed me that Tommy Duncan never took the cigarette out of his mouth while he was singing.
In particular, Lash Larue was my favorite. He dressed all in black and carried a bullwhip. Like most of the heroes of the day, he had a horse, Black Diamond, and a sidekick, Fuzzy. His movies, like Son of Billy the Kid or Mark of the Lash, played downtown quite often, and we’d all go and pretend we were him fanning his revolver and cracking his whip. I even made a whip out of a conveyer belt, and put a shoestring on the end of it. Then you could pop it. I tried to wrap it around Tommy’s or Wendell’s legs, but they wouldn’t let me trip them with it.
Lash came to our town on a guest appearance in the late forties, and I was right in the front row. He was going to do his act onstage, and they were also going to show some of his movies. The Palace had a small stage, maybe twenty feet wide at most, and he was in the middle of his whip act, guns and all. He missed and whipped the screen, and ripped it.
When the lights came back on and the cartoons started, I went out to the lobby to get a drink of water. There stood Lash Larue. He was having it out with Bill Chesire, who owned the theater, and Truitt Benson, the manager. Lash still had his gun on, was carrying his whip, and had his hat cocked over.
“You’re going to pay for the screen,” they were telling him.
“I told you the stage was too short,” he said. “I told you it was dangerous, even for my assistant. You should’ve had insurance.”
They said, “You’re going to pay for it.”
Lash looked them straight in the eye. “I got a gun and a whip that says I won’t.”
I looked around and thought, I’m the only one that ever heard that. I bet God wasn’t even listening. From then on, if I was playing cowboys out on the prairie, no matter who I was supposed to be, somewhere in my dialogue I had “I got a gun and a whip that says I won’t.”
The cowboy movies were in black and white, and so was their notion of good and evil. All my life I was told you were going to Heaven or you were going to hell. There was no middle ground, no in-between. The Church of Christ taught that “straight and narrow is the way and few will be that’ll find it.” I was getting lost more’n most.
Football, fighting, fucking—the three f’s of West Texas, and probably a whole lot more places besides. I was on the football team at junior high, a pretty good kicker and playing in the backfield some. I could go up to the Catholic dances on Bula Highway if I needed to prove how tough I was. And I was also starting to discover girls.
Or maybe they were starting to discover me. These two little girls who lived down the street, the Griffin sisters, said they’d give me some pie if I took my clothes off. They told me to lay down on top of them. I couldn’t have been more than five or six years old. From there, it was all downhill. I used to neck all the time with another girl from the neighborhood. We had this junk car and I had her in the back seat, and she had her panties off and everything, but her little brother wouldn’t leave us alone.
Mostly we sat around in a clubhouse we had across the alley from my house, a shack in back of this old woman’s house, telling dirty jokes and lying about women—the ones we had and the ones we were going to get. We’d make up ghost stories. Most of all, we’d smoke.
It sometimes seemed like we’d smoke anything. Old cigarette butts that we’d pick off the streets and blend together in roll-ups. Grape vines. Cedar bark. You inhale that and it’s something you never get over. It’ll take the hide off your tongue. We would’ve smoked a pickle if it wasn’t so soggy and hard to light.
Where there’s smoke, there usually follows fire. One morning, about seven-thirty, I was sitting around behind a granary with Tommy, smoking away. There was a board up against the wall that had some cotton caught on it. We’d touch it with the tip end of the cigarette and it would smolder. We did that for a while, amusing ourselves, and we thought it had gone out. I left and went up to Grandpa’s house in Morton with Daddy. That night we came back and found the granary had burned down. Runny-nosed Johnny White told on us, and the police and fire department came knocking at the door. “Your boys burned the granary down,” they said.
“What time did that happen?” asked Daddy.
“Well, it happened at eight o’clock this morning.”
Daddy looked relieved. “Eight o’clock this morning those boys were in Morton at their grandpa’s with us.” Of course, nobody stopped to realize that cotton will smolder for an hour before it catches on fire.
We weren’t so lucky with the Hilltop Dairy. It was up on the only high spot in town, more of an incline than a hill, really, on the fringe of the prairie. We set that on fire one time, watching as the brown grass around it charred and curled in wisps of smoke, feeling the heat on our faces.
It seemed like one thing led to another. We broke the lights in the school ballpark with slingshots; we cracked windows inside the school. We scraped teachers’ cars with nails; mean kid stuff. Once we broke into this truck that the Curtis Candy Company was using as a storehouse and stole a bunch of candy. We took it back to the clubhouse and ate it. You’ve never lived till you’ve tried to chew a month-old marshmallow.
They finally caught up with us, and there was a real possibility they were fixing to send us to reform school. A guy named Skipper Smith was all set to pack us away. I think he was more concerned with us cussing than he was with any of the mischief we’d gotten into. But Houston Hoover, a scoutmaster, spoke up and he said that he’d like to have us down at the youth center one day a week. He knew we had just gotten off on the wrong foot, and that reform school would likely only make us worse.
It was Daddy who really let me off the hook. I might’ve escaped going to reform school, but I was still depressed. I thought I was the rottenest thing on earth, that I’d ruined their lives and they were never going to care anything more about me.
One day Daddy and I were in the produce store. He had his back to me, working testing cream. I was really down, thinking suicide and everything. I didn’t want to live.
“Son,” he finally said, not turning around. “I know you feel so bad ’bout what you did. All those things were wrong, but you can only feel bad for so long. You’ve got to forget it, and put it behind you. I want you to know one thing. You were wrong, but I’ve done worse.”
That’s all he said. What a way to let me up. Momma might never cut you any slack, but Daddy was all heart and forgiveness.
School and I were destined not to get along. I never could seem to get much work done during the year, and I think I probably had some learning and comprehending difficulties. I was a terrible student, even though at the end of the year I would work real hard and get the teacher on my side so they would pass me.
They still enjoyed giving me a hard time. I had a tough ol’ redhead for a teacher in sixth grade at the primary school. One day I was wearing one of those crinkly shirts that you could see through; they came out about the time they first started dealing with synthetic materials. We didn’t have money to eat in school, so we went home for lunch.
I came back late, starting to my seat. “Wait a minute, Waylon,” I heard the teacher say. I turned around, and I realized she could see a pack of cigarettes in my pocket.
“What are you doing late?” she asked in a tone of voice that said she already had an inkling.
“I had to go to the store for my uncle,” I said.
“And whose cigarettes are those in your pocket?”
“Them’s my uncle’s cigarettes.”
She took the pack out. Four or five were missing. “If you just went to the store and got these for your uncle, how come they’re opened?”
“I had to give some to these guys at the store.”
“Tell your uncle I’ve got his cigarettes and come see me. In the meantime,” she said, opening her desk drawer to get out a straight-edge paddle, “I’m going to give you about five licks for not getting them back to your uncle.”
Hell, five licks wasn’t bad. The schools had corporal punishment, and they’d hit you on the butt, right in front of the class, girls, boys, and all. Every teacher had a paddle. Most of them had two or three. Some would have little short skinny paddles, some would have big long ones; some used rulers. Mrs. Crosby, she’d open a drawer and show you all the paddles and say “pick out the one you want.” You got to choose the one that beat your butt.
I lasted up to the tenth grade. One day I took a corner shortcut across the grass, when I wasn’t supposed to. We had to keep to the sidewalks. The principal came at me with a paddle, and I took it away from him and told him I was going to whip his ass with it. It was a standoff for a couple of hours. Finally the football coach stepped in and talked me out of it.
I came down with yellow jaundice after that and was sick for a couple of weeks. When I was well enough to go back to school, the high school superintendent called me into his office. He was a big fat guy, with an overbearing attitude to match. “Are you going to play football?” he asked.
I shook my head no. He said, “Then why would you want to come back to school?”
There wasn’t much thinking over to be done. I imagine he was tired of messing with me. “That’s a pretty good question. Maybe you’re right.” And I quit.
I was sixteen years old.
My dad had one thing to say about my leaving Littlefield High. “If you’re smart enough to quit school, you’re smart enough to go to work.”
In those days, you were either with the gang, or you’re with the guy who runs from the gang, or you’re a clown. I tried to be a hoodlum, walking around with my collar turned up. I could fight pretty good, which I’m not proud of, but just the same, sometimes you had to. Alvin Holmes used to be the biggest bully, and picked on me. I thought, look how big he is. Why mess with him? One time he came up behind me and made me mad, and I kicked his ass bad. I liked it so well I went and found him twice more that day and whipped him again.
When you drop out of school, you can’t really hang out with kids who are going to school. Their parents won’t allow that. So you have to hang out with other people who have quit, or people who are older than you, and you get into things you shouldn’t even be thinking about.
One guy who quit when I did wound up six months later in reform school. I saw another one about six years ago who had spent thirty of his fifty years in prison. He’s since been killed in a robbery attempt.
I had to work, and that probably saved my life. The rest of the guys who quit school usually got in a lot more trouble than I did. Down deep inside, I guess I regretted leaving almost immediately, because one of the first things I did after I got out was buy a dictionary. But Daddy made me work, and when you’re tired, you slow down a bit.
He kept me off the streets. I helped out down at the Produce most of the time, and then seemed to get a job just about all over town. I didn’t last too long anywhere, usually enough to know I wasn’t good at any of them.
I was probably more like a mule than a horse. There was something about mules that I liked. They’re strong—I could lift a hundred-pound sack of feed down at the Produce—and hardworking, but they’re stubborn sonofabitches. If a job was too big or wrong for them, they’d know it. A horse would pull till it injured itself, but a mule wouldn’t do that.
All my work had dead end written over it. I’d be standing on the back of a cotton stripper, which is the last thing they do before they plow the stalks under. You put a mask on, and goggles, and you use pitchforks to pitch it back, and the other guy would be trompin’ the cotton. If that pitchfork slipped out of your hand, he’s a goner. You can’t breathe and those cotton fibers get up your nose, and the clods and rocks come shooting out of the chute and you have to watch it or else you get your ear chopped off. We’d do that all day long.
I stocked shelves at a dry goods store. I was a projectionist at the Mexican movie theater, and I’d always get the reels mixed up. I unloaded trucks at the Piggly Wiggly’s. I ran an air hammer at a paint-and-body shop. Once I got a job at a service station. I went to work about six, and this guy came in and wanted his oil changed. I drained all the oil, and replaced it with transmission fluid. I looked around, realized what I’d done, and just went home. I did that a lot.
In truth, there wasn’t much else to do. Littlefield didn’t want kids congregating for fear they’d get into trouble. It had the opposite effect. With nothing to keep us busy, we just roamed the area, looking for ways to get our kicks.
We used to lean on car fenders in town, smoking cigarettes and talking. We’d wear white shirts with the sleeves rolled up, and we’d also roll the legs of our Levis, which we bought long, to show off our boots. We’d push our pants down real far, so they’d pop in the back when we walked. They’d hang so low it looked like eighteen families moved out of the ass end of them. We’d pull our cowboy hats over our eyes, click the metal taps on our boot heels to create sparks, and the most exciting thing was to walk across the street till some car would come by. You’d whack the side of it. Real hard. And then act like they hit you.
Oh, we were cutting up. When I was old enough to drive, we’d drag Main, cruisin’ bumper to bumper, a set route moving from the railroad station up to the municipal building where we’d turn and head back the other way. Put two dollars in the tank and you could entertain yourself all night. I had a ’47 Chevy with the high-torque engine and a vacuum shift. Anytime you mashed the gas the windshield wipers would stop. I lowered the back and put skirts on it, but I dropped it so bad the front main couldn’t get any oil and it kept throwing rods. You worked on those cars more than you drove them.
Sometimes it got a little crazy. Out on 54 there’d be drag races, and every once in a while someone would miss the curve at Bula and get killed. With the cars we had, eighty miles an hour was unbelievable, out of control. We’d bait the cops, and they’d chase us through the back roads and cornfields. It was almost like a game.
A lot of people kept fighting roosters; that used to be a big sport. And violence never seemed to be far away from the front page of the newspaper. I remember once some guy thought his wife was fooling around on him, and he hid in the trunk of their car. She had a rendezvous outside of town, and he got out of the trunk and shot them both, her and her lover, five rounds worth. He got off.
I was too busy trying to hold down a job to get in more than your basic trouble. I was no stranger to work; I’d been working pretty regularly, after school and on weekends, from the time I was ten years old. In fact, it probably was easier for me to know how to work than to play. I had a hard time learning to have fun, and it only got worse as I got older. Sometimes it seemed like all I had ever done was work.
That was probably why I took to the guitar so single-mindedly when I had the chance. It was a way out. We couldn’t afford lessons, but I wasn’t about to let that stop me. I almost never let the instrument out of my hands. When I got home, I’d walk in the house, say hello, sit down, and start picking at the guitar. My brother James D. recalls that I could be looking right straight at him and never know he was in the room. I’d just be banging away, singing a song I might’ve heard on the radio, lost in my own world.
I was expelled from music class in high school for “lack of musical ability.” If they wanted a B flat, they’d just hand me a B and I’d flatten it. I never learned to read music.
But I couldn’t think of anything else other than to be a musician. I took my guitar everywhere I went, and hung onto it for dear life. I’d play with anybody I could. My dad was the only musician I knew on the Jennings side, though the Shipleys could boast my great-grandmother Nora West—grandma’s half-sister—who played harmonica and a little piano and accordion. She liked to huff and puff “Freight Train” on the harmonica, complete with chugging train noises, and sing old folk hand-me-down ballads.
Oh shut your mouth you little bird you
Don’t you tell no tales on me
And your cage shall be lined in the finest of gold
Hung high in the green willow tree, oh tree
Hung high in the green willow tree
When relatives would come to town, I showed up with my guitar and sang for as long as they’d listen to me. I had a good ear, and sometimes, even after hearing a song only once, I could give it a whirl.
Country music was looked down upon when I was growing up. It was the music of the “have-nots.” We may have had patched clothes and we weren’t invited to the right parties, but still, sitting around the potbellied stove listening to the Opry, we had a kinship with the performers. I felt chills all over me the first time I heard Hank Williams sing “Lost Highway.” I would stay up late on Saturday night listening for him, happy if I could just hear him speak. I always wanted to be a singer, but he etched it in stone. I even had a premonition of him dying. I was in a drugstore downtown, and I put on “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.” I thought, wouldn’t it be weird if he died with that record out; and he did. It tore me up terribly when I heard the news. It was like my world had ended.
I played what I heard. We listened to Chet Atkins and Hank Snow; we took pride in the fact that Ernest Tubb came from Guthrie, Texas, down by Fort Worth, even though that seemed an eternity away. He was Texas through and through, and Momma took an especial shine to him. Daddy was a big Jimmie Rodgers fan; in fact, he loved all bluegrass. I idolized Carl Smith so much I even tried to comb my hair like his.
I had other influences, too. When I would deliver ice across town, in the Flats where the black people lived, I used to stand outside Jaybird’s Dew Drop Inn and listen to the rhythm and blues. On Saturday night it was a jumping joint, with crap games, gambling, and bootleg whiskey. Albert “Jaybird” Johnson himself drove around in a baby-blue Cadillac with a continental kit.
Lamb County was dry, but you could head over to Jaybird’s and they’d bring alcohol out to the car. Liquor wasn’t cheap. A pint of Old Crow would cost you five bucks, and the beer came in a quart bottle for a dollar.
In terms of race, Littlefield was as typically southern as you could get. About the time I was born, you could still go down to the Palace and see a vaudeville show starring the Kentucky Coon Hunters and the South Plains Colored Amateurs with Bozo Bailey, Table Spoon Tommy, Hot Feet Harry, Hair Lipped Harry, Blossoms, and Liza. Less entertainingly, a drunken black man who allegedly killed the local sheriff had to be taken to an undisclosed location to save him from a white lynch mob.
I grew up with “them” in the balcony and “us” down below, the colored fountain and the white fountain. Dunbar School was over “there,” literally across the Santa Fe tracks. I never went to an integrated school. Yet I pulled cotton with black people, and I played with the little black kids, and never thought anything about it.
We weren’t perfect, and there did come a time when I realized some of the things I had been saying all my life were wrong. Tommy and I had been playing in these trees with our slingshots, only we didn’t call them slingshots. Three or four black boys, bigger than we were, came up and asked us, “What you got there?”
Tommy said, “Niggershooters.” So they made Tommy climb the biggest tree and made me shoot at him. At least they didn’t kill us. But there was really nothing racial about it. It’s just how we were taught. I was raised being told that if I don’t quit crying, that nigger man over there is going to get you. We didn’t know “nigger” was a bad word.
I was the only white boy that was allowed in the Dew Drop Inn. I’d listen to the black musicians play, and you could start to hear how the beat was spilling over into the first glimmerings of rock ’n’ roll. There was a guy there who called himself Chuck Berry Jr. He could walk like a spider with his legs over his shoulders, balancing on his hands. He had two gold front teeth, with a four-leaf clover in each, and he was the first person who ever taught me to move all my guitar strings up and put a banjo string on the bottom where the high E is. Then I could push those slinky strings clear up the neck.
I was starting to take my guitar out in public. From family gatherings I’d progressed to the Youth Center. I not only got to perform for the Jaycees and the Lions Club—they didn’t pay me, though they’d say “Think of the experience you’ll get”—but they taught me how to eat with a fork. I used a spoon at home till I was twelve or thirteen.
It was about then that I won my first talent show. Momma drove me over to Muleshoe thirty miles west. From there, I made the rounds. When I sang “Hey Joe” over Channel 13 television from Lubbock, my whole family trooped out to my aunt Frieda’s to catch me. I won a watch, and I was so excited that it wasn’t until I brought it home that I realized it wasn’t working. It was empty inside, like those dummy watches they put in a shop window. I had to take it all the way back and get the real one.
Without dances to play for, since kids might be tempted to have fun, most of my appearing was done at the Palace Theatre at their Tuesday local talent night. You could win a twenty-five-dollar war bond, and I’d do three or four songs on my own, and then maybe back up a couple of the other performers. Sometimes I played with James Jolley, who was three or four years older than me and actually wrote his own songs. I thought that was pretty unusual. Before I heard his “Apple Blossom Time,” I never thought about writing a song.
It didn’t matter whether you could carry a tune or not, but folks came from all over the region to show what they could do. I can remember a little girl from Sudan named Terry Sue Lewis, and Terry Vance, a guy from Lubbock that jumped around like we heard Elvis Presley did.
I was also fixing to get married. Maxine Carroll Lawrence lived out by Spade, had won a local beauty contest and was a senior at the high school there. She was a cheerleader, with black hair and blue eyes, and I’d wait for her after the team bus got back from the football game. Or I’d pick her up after I’d spent an afternoon pushing back cotton for Curtis Dyer, all covered with lint, dirt, grass, mud, everything.
You had to drive by the sewer to get to Spade. Ask one of the spit-and-whittle crew how to find it, they’d say “You just go out the Lubbock Highway till you smell shit and turn left.” Maxine lived a lot farther out than that, in a little house with her mom, and if you were quiet, you could see the jack rabbits and coyotes passing by. She was a natural beauty, and I loved her black hair, just the opposite color of cotton, and her long eyelashes.
It was a typical West Texas courtship. I didn’t have very much money. I’d usually pick her up late, so I wouldn’t have to buy her a hamburger. Sometimes we’d go out and get a Coke; she loved Cokes. We’d sit out there at the Chat ’n’ Chew, or the Dairy Queen, or the Tastee-Freez, and maybe spring for one of their foot-long hot dogs. “Goin’ with,” as we used to say. Steady.
Most Saturday nights we’d drive over to a jamboree in the little town of Whiteface, named after the cattle. There used to be a theater there, and they paid me enough for gas. Maxine and I would park on the way back, trying to get out of the way of the steering wheel, off some back road near the county line separating Lamb and Hockley, while the flatlands of Texas receded all around us.
Or we’d go to Ed Taylor’s drive-in. It didn’t matter what was showing. We were always in the back seat, necking. You just knew this was the night. This had to be the one. I’d try to get her to give-it-up at the drive-in, and we’d usually stop on the way back home, where I’d give-it-another try.
For the first year, all Maxine really gave me was the stone-aches, bad. After I’d drop her off at the house, I’d be doubled over, having to walk spraggle-legged from where I’d kissed her goodnight. I couldn’t wait to get out of sight. The only way I could relieve myself after one of our hot dates was to jump out of the car, go around the front and grab the bumper, spread out my legs, and strain real hard to lift it off the ground.
We were just kids. We had no idea what we were doing, both Before and After. Even though I’d had plenty of girlfriends, I was dumber about women than anything in the world. My daddy had taught us boys to put our mother on a pedestal, and that she could do no wrong. There was none of this smarting off or talking rough to Momma. Daddy wouldn’t put up with it. Consequently, even though my momma may not have been perfect, we thought she was, and every girl in the world was going to be like her.
On Christmas Eve, 1955, I went with Maxine, our moms, and Tommy to the home of the Church of Christ’s pastor in Clovis, New Mexico, and got hitched. It was a Saturday night, and it wasn’t really considered a wedding. It was more like going to get married.
Maxine thought she was pregnant. I didn’t tell Momma, and I don’t think she told her mother, but they probably suspected. You could get married without a blood test in New Mexico.
We didn’t know anything about birth control. Rubbers and rumors, that was about it. Even if I had a clue, I never had the nerve to go in the drugstore and get them. In Littlefield? Are you kidding me? They kept them behind the counter, so rather than risk embarrassing yourself, you took the chance of ruining everybody’s life, including your own. No reflection on Maxine, but I didn’t want to get married right then.
I was so young. You can’t have a clue at that age about marriage and trying to make a go of it, especially when you’re a country boy right off the turnip truck, uneducated and still searching for your place in the world. You start realizing you have to make a living, and worry about raising children. I couldn’t figure out how I was going to take care of a wife and baby.
I couldn’t even figure out how late she was. I never thought about abandoning her. Hell, I’d already committed the ultimate sin from the way I was raised. We went ahead and got married, and on our wedding night she started her period. That’s old country boy luck for you.
Still, there we were, already married, so I was going to make the best of it. The women gathered around and gave her a shower at the home of a Mrs. R. C. Blevins on January 5, and we moved to a small house opposite the high school on North Lake. It was the same place I’d lived as a kid.
We had no idea how to even get along. As far as being helpmates to one another, we’d get in a fight over the stupidest things. I’d think we were going to have Mexican food, and she’d make a hamburger casserole, and it’d hurt both our feelings. For spite, we’d wind up throwing it out and going hungry.
As it was, we could hardly make ends meet. I was working for the Thomas Land Lumber Company, earning forty-five dollars a week. Verle Roberts at the Roberts Lumber Company thought I was a good worker and wanted to hire me. I told him I wouldn’t change jobs for less than $48.50 a week take-home, and after some wrangling, he finally gave it to me.
That slavedriver made me earn every bit of it. He was a taskmaster, having me come in early and stay late, picking at me with his high voice, working me to death. One day I was driving the cement truck and I took a corner too damn fast. If you turn quick in a cement truck, it’ll slarsh, all go to one side, and you’re a goner. It rolled over on me, spilling across these people’s lawns. That was the last day I worked at the lumber company. I got out of the truck, shut the door, and went home. Once again.
Hello, this is Waylon Jennings coming over the Voice of Lamb County, KVOW, 1490 on your radio dial in Littlefield, bringing you twenty-three reguley, uh, regularily, uh, regularlee scheduled newscasts a day.…
I was on the radio. I might not have been able to pronounce “regularly,” but for six hours, from four in the afternoon to ten at night, the airwaves were mine. I had a two-hour country show, and then another two hours of the classics, where I had some more pronunciation problems, and then another two of whatever was left over: Waltz Time, Today’s Symphonies, Mantovani.
KVOW specialized in block programming, which meant they played all kinds of music. The whole station was held together with barbed wire and spit, and I’d been working there since I was barely a teenager. By the time 1956 was underway, I was almost an old pro. I’d play the records, announce the ads, and sing songs over the air. A man named Ed Taylor loaned me an old Martin guitar, and I used to take requests from the listeners, even if it sometimes meant I would sing one song to the tune of another.
I couldn’t afford to buy a guitar of my own. I’d had an electric guitar, with one pickup and an Alamo amplifier. I hit a big E chord and that thing jumped a foot off the floor. The speakers just busted immediately. I ordered a Kay out of a catalogue, and I thought it would never arrive. I had to sell it after I got married. Keeping a guitar and a wife was way out of my range.
I knew I would be leaving Littlefield soon. It was just a matter of time. I always figured in the back of my mind that people divide themselves in two: the ones who don’t know it’s out there and those who know there’s something somewhere else.
When you live in Littlefield, you’re at the center of the world as you’re aware of it. You might hear about things, but there’s really no way of being sure they exist. You can catch a glimpse in the movies, or listen real hard and hear it on the radio, or sniff it out of the air. The ones who know something’s out there and don’t go looking for it are the ones who grow old fast. The ones who don’t care, well, they’re happy staying where they are.
I couldn’t be like that. I had to get out. From the time I was a kid, I never considered doing anything but playing music. Everything else was a stepping-stone. I was stubborn enough not to lose sight of what I wanted, and dumb enough not to realize just how long and hard the road was going to stretch for me, and how much I would have to fight for what I believed.
Jimmy Stewart, who still runs his tractor along Hall Avenue when he’s not pitching horseshoes, likes to tell me that I never gave up and I never gave in. I didn’t have a choice. All I could do was dream, sitting under that big Texas sky. It was like I saw a black cat running across my path and I pulled my handkerchief out and chewed the corner off of it to kill the bad luck. That cat was my lifeline if I stayed in Littlefield, and the handkerchief was my guitar. My singing did the chewing.
I used to love going to the carnival when I was little, especially to see the carousel horses. It wasn’t so much riding them around and around, grabbing at the brass ring, that got to me. Rather, it was their look. They were all wild, they were all free, they were all running. Not controlled by anyone or anything. That was what I was drawn to. The motion of freedom.
If I’d stayed in Littlefield, I might have wound up like one of those coyotes they tie to the fence post and let rot, as a warning. Or maybe I would’ve ended like Ol’ Pat, sick and crippled and no teeth. We kids would go to the store for him, or visit him in his little one-room shack; he was real lonely. He let us smoke, and we’d sit and talk to him and keep him company. Ol’ Pat didn’t want us messing up his bed, so he hammered nails through a board and put it under the bedspread. One day, when I was about nine, I came in and found him. He was the first dead person I’d ever seen.
The empty shells of wooden windmills surround Littlefield like sentinels watching and waiting for a war that’s already passed. There was a time they pumped water and caught the wind. Sometimes the taller they stood, the more precarious their hold on the earth, and the more they had to battle that which they were designed to catch. The world’s highest windmill was built on the XIT ranch in 1887. Its 132 feet was toppled by the winds in 1926. Only a replica now stands at the corner of Delano and Phelps.
The higher I tried to rise, the more chance I might’ve had to be blown over.
My hometown hasn’t changed much since I was a little boy. Whenever I’m back, I get in the car and start driving around. I’m searching for my youth. Looking for my past. The trees I planted with Tommy are still there; they’re grown now, and so am I. Sometimes, if I squint a bit, I think maybe the folks I’m expecting to see are still there too. Around the bend, turning the next corner, about to open the door.
Tater Gilbreath lives over yonder. He and his family can pull a bale and a half of cotton a day. He’s my best friend, and in the summer our feet get so tough from running barefoot that grass spurs, goat’s heads, and devil’s claws can’t break our stride. Not a day goes by that we aren’t fighting. Tater’s momma comes running out of the house with a belt or a switch and starts whipping on us. She wears thick glasses and can’t see nothing but two pairs of overalls. If I’m on top and beating Tater, I’ll get the worst of it.
Marge Veach, the war bride, she’s going to make some cakes and fudge for us after I get back from Brawley’s grocery store. Look at Fred Harrell’s two Cadillacs, both bedstead green, a ’39 with a wheel in the running board and a ’47 convertible. Maybe get me one like that someday.
We can stop for a bite at Two Gun’s restaurant. He’s cross-eyed; one eye goes to Dallas and the other to Fort Worth. Hey, there’s Cleve up in the tree, singing for all the world like Roy Rogers. Let’s play cowboys and take a pretend shot at him. I know that crazy idiot’ll fall plumb to the ground. If he gets hurt we could take him over to Doc Simmons. He’s not really a doctor, but hell, Cleve’s head is too hard to hurt much anyway.
You hear about the murders over on Seventh? Killed the man and his wife, left the kids tied up in the bedroom. Or the wedding party where the best man tore down the back roads after the happy couple off on their honeymoon. The newlyweds made a left as the road swerved. The best man didn’t. They’re still picking up his pieces in the cornfield.
Maybe I’ll go see Rae, prancing like a thoroughbred racehorse, or Georgeanne. Try to get them to take a ride up to Blueberry Hill lover’s lane. Nasty nasty nasty.
Here comes Wendell and Tommy cutting me off as I’m driving out of town, running over the field and through the alley, trying to catch me. I can’t stop now. I’m on my way.
What if,” I asked my dad one day somewhere in the early 1950s, “they mixed black music with the white music? Country music and blues?”
“That might be something,” Daddy replied, and went back to pulling transmissions.
On a fall morning in 1954, listening to KVOW’s Hillbilly Hit Parade, I heard that something. I was taking my brother to school. It was about 8:20, and the reason I remember is that the program was only on for fifteen minutes each day, from 8:15 to 8:30 A.M.
Elvis Presley was singing “That’s Alright Mama” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”
The sound went straight up your spine. The way he sang, the singer sounded black, but something about the songs was really country. Maybe it was the flapping of that big doghouse bass, all wood thump, and the slapback echo of the guitars wailin’ and frailin’ away. It just climbed right through you. I had grown up hearing Bill Monroe sing “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” but this was something entirely different.
I thought, what a wild, strange sound. Up at the station, I looked at the yellow Sun label from Memphis as if it were from Mars. I started listening for it. They didn’t know what to call Elvis yet on the radio, though they thought of him as a country artist. “That’s one of our boys there,” they’d say, just to let their listeners know. But nobody was sure of what he was going to mean.
Excerpted from Waylon by Jennings, Waylon Copyright © 1996 by Jennings, Waylon. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted September 26, 2008
This book is one of the best ive ever read. Waylon Jennings was an amazing man who lived an amazing life. It sure tells his story well. He is one of my true inspriations that when times are tough to never give up. Anyone who is a huge fan of Waylon's should give this book a read!
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Posted September 13, 2003
waylon was a great singer but after reading this book i think he's even a greater man...you just can't put the booko down...its that good
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Posted November 11, 2002
There are not many books that I can read from beginning to end and then pick up again a month later and reread it again. This is one of them. It is inspiring, tragic, funny and emotional. A definite read for all fans of Waylon, fans of country music and fans of autobiographies in general. Given five stars only because there is six star rating.
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Posted March 5, 2013
Posted January 31, 2013
Superb read! What an awesome man Waylon was. My respect level for him went through after reading this! Refreshingly honest, insightful just all around fabulous read.
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Posted December 10, 2012
This is an excellent book. I had read it several years ago and this time purchased it as a NOOK book. Very well written and honest telling.
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