NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) – Despite the black cowboy hat and bad-guy image, country star Waylon Jennings was known as a stand-up guy. But when it came to his songs, it was a different story.
“You start messin' with my music, and I get mean,” he told The Associated Press in 1992. “As long as you are honest and upfront with me, I will be the same with you. But I still do things my way.”
Jennings died peacefully Wednesday at his Arizona home after a long battle with diabetes-related health problems, said spokeswoman Schatzie Hageman. He was 64.
“Waylon Jennings was an American archetype, the bad guy with a big heart,” said Kris Kristofferson, who sang with Jennings in the Highwaymen along with Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson.
Jennings' list of hits spans four decades and includes country music standards like “Good-Hearted Woman” and “Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” both duets with Nelson.
He made 60 albums and had 16 country singles that reached No. 1. His “Greatest Hits” album in 1979 sold 4 million – a rare accomplishment in country music for that era.
Jennings won two Grammy awards and four Country Music Association awards. Other hits include “I'm a Ramblin' Man,” “Amanda,” “Lucille,” “I've Always Been Crazy” and “Rose in Paradise.”
Singer George Jones called it a “great loss for country music.”
Jennings' deep, sonorous voice was unmistakable. He narrated the popular TV show “The Dukes of Hazzard” and sang its theme song, which was a million seller.
Jennings “had a voice and a way with a song like no one else,” said country star Emmylou Harris, adding “He was also a class act as an artist and a man.”
Jennings had been plagued with health problems in recent years that made it difficult for him to walk. In December, his left foot was amputated.
He traditionally wore a black cowboy hat and ebony attire that accented his black beard and mustache. Often reclusive when not on stage, he played earthy music with a spirited, hard edge.
Some of Jennings' album titles nourished his brash persona: “Lonesome, On'ry and Mean,” “I've Always Been Crazy,” “Nashville Rebel,” “Ladies Love Outlaws” and “Wanted: The Outlaws.”
He often refused to attend music awards shows on the grounds that performers shouldn't compete against each other. He didn't show up at his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame last year.
“Whenever country music got a little too impressed with itself, Waylon was there to let them know what the music's roots were. He was very uncompromising about that,” said Lenny Kaye, a guitarist with the Patti Smith Group who helped Jennings write his 1996 autobiography.
In 1992, Jennings told the AP: “I've never compromised, and people respect that.”
He made occasional forays into TV movies, including “Stagecoach” and “Oklahoma City Dolls,” plus the Sesame Street movie “Follow That Bird” and the B-movie “Nashville Rebel.”
Born in Littlefield, Texas, Jennings became a radio disc jockey at 14 and formed his own band not long afterward. His hit records began in the mid-1960s and his heyday was the mid-1970s.
In 1959, Jennings' career was nearly cut short by tragedy soon after it began.
He was scheduled to fly on the light plane that crashed and killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. Jennings gave up his seat on the plane to Richardson, who was ill and wanted to fly rather than travel by bus with those left behind.
When a plane crash killed seven members of singer Reba McEntire's band in 1991, Jennings was one of the first to call her.
“I told her there's one thing you're going to have to deal with. And that's thinking it was your fault,” he told the AP in 1992. “As a young man at that time, I thought it was my fault. I felt guilty and I couldn't get it out of my mind for years.”
For musician Rodney Crowell, that was typical Jennings.
“For all of Waylon's tough stuff, he had such a tender heart. He was such a sweet soul,” Crowell said.
Copyright © 2002 The Associated Press