NASHVILLE -- Wait a minute. Hold everything. What's wrong with this picture?
It's a snowy morning in Nashville, 10 a.m. by the clock in the lobby of the recording studio where Waylon Jennings, country music's former bad-boy superstar, is taking a break and waxing eloquent about his wayward career.
From outward appearances, this could be the Waylon of old. With his shaggy black hair, black leather vest, flat-brimmed black cowboy hat and pointy-toed black cowboy boots, Jennings is hanging on to his sinister public persona.
Yet something's different: Jennings' long hair and thick beard are washed; his clothes, for a change, don't look as if they've been lived in for a fortnight. Gone too are the old scowls, nervous twitches and shifty-eyed demeanor. And there are no more dripping sinuses, sudden lapses in conversation and disappearances into the bathroom to "powder the nose."
This new-and-improved Jennings is even laughing for a change, as he tells self-effacing tales from the bad old days and talks about how much he'd like -- get a load of this -- to do a children's album someday.
"I've always been crazy about kids," insists Jennings, 50, who will appear at the Birchmere Friday and Saturday. With seven children and three grandchildren from four marriages, he has a built-in audience for the kids' LP he hopes to make.
"Back in the days when I was a bad old mean-looking guy," he says, "parents would come up to me and they'd be shakin'-nervous. But their kids would look at me and smile, and we'd hit it off right away ..."
Jennings tilts his head back and laughs. Can this thoroughly polite, witty and entertaining gentleman really be country music's Dark Master of Weird Negativity, the more sinister and ill-fortuned half of the famed "Waylon & Willie" team that reigned supreme over country music for the better part of the 1970s?
Can this exceedingly healthy and vital-looking specimen really be the paranoid, reclusive Waylon Jennings of old -- the one whose entourage included a number of ex-bikers, and whose raunchy, hard-bitten public image was constantly clouded in rumors of drugs, debauchery, undifferentiated kinkiness and worse? Who is only recently recovered from a longstanding cocaine addition, which he says not only stole his health and peace of mind, but also cost him $3 million or $4 million and robbed him of the best years of his career?
Sitting there in the studio lobby listening to "Ol' Waylon," words like "shy," "sensitive" and "gentle" actually come to mind.
"Yeah, that's right." Waylon laughs again and shakes his head as he confirms the rumor that he is, indeed, a new man -- one who, as he enters midlife, is working feverishly to revitalize his drug-derailed career.
"Like, I put together this one-man show based on my new album" -- an "audio-biography" ?called "A Man Called Hoss," subtitled "The Story of My Life ... Before Somebody Gets It Wrong."
"It involves a whole new side of me that people have never seen. When I do a show, I actually sit down on stage with my guitar and just sing and talk -- probably 80 percent of it is me talking, telling old war stories. And that is something I never did before!
"Before, when I was onstage, I always did things like a robot, and offstage, I was a prisoner of who I was," he recalls. "I was scared. Scared of fame, scared of people. I didn't know how to talk to 'em ...
"But now, for a change" -- he smiles again and pushes his cowboy hat back on his head, as if undergoing a true revelation -- "I enjoy entertaining people, seein' 'em laughing and listening to what I'm doing. I mean, I really like people ... But before, I spent most of my time hiding."
Strange words, indeed, from the man whose ruggedly authentic, hang-loose-at-all-costs individualism inspired grudging admiration even amid the ersatz glitter, neo-Puritanism and musical conformity of Nashville.
After all, it was Jennings, with frequent compadre Willie Nelson, who revitalized country music in the 1970s and early 1980s. (Jennings and Nelson's 1976 "Wanted: The Outlaws" was the first Nashville-produced country LP to top the million-sales mark.) The two managed to awaken the interest of the huge, youthful rock-oriented audience to which the country establishment -- with its anemic laments of lost love and marital strife -- had always had trouble relating.
During those years Jennings sold 15 million or so LPs (including a quadruple platinum "greatest hits" package) and won a couple of Grammys and a handful of Country Music Association awards. He scored with a dozen or so No. 1 singles, which, more often than not, dramatized his dark, hard-living, antiestablishment persona: "I Ain't Livin' Long Like This," "I've Always Been Crazy," "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way" and "Don't You Think This Outlaw Bit's Done Got Out of Hand."
Jennings' music has always seemed to emanate from the dark borderline between country and rock. His sonorous voice, with its mix of masculine bravado and urgent vulnerability, and his sinewy, "chicken-pickin' " electric lead guitar signature combined in a raw intensity seldom heard on '70s country radio.
Still, when the Waylon-Willie phenomenon caught fire, he was ill-prepared for the experience.
"I shrank back from it, man," he says with a grimace. "The truth is I was scared as hell by it all. I mean, I never had any ambition to be number one, never had any goals or anything like that. When it all started happening, I enjoyed watching Willie more than anything else, because he was having such a good time with it. But to be honest, I didn't understand a lot of it. I just wanted to play my music ...
"If the truth be known, most of the runs I've made at success before were kind of negative. But this time, I want to make a positive run at it for a change."
Jennings, the son of a truck driver and sharecropper, was born in 1937 in the dusty Texas Panhandle town of Littlefield. He was weaned on the hard country and honky-tonk songs of an earlier generation -- Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Carl Smith, Little Jimmy Dickens ...
By age 14, Jennings had left school and found work as a disc jockey in nearby Lubbock. It was there, in 1955 at Radio KKKL, that he met another West Texas native, Buddy Holly. Holly, then on the brink of national fame, befriended Jennings and later gave him temporary work as his bass player. In late 1958, Holly produced Jennings' first record, on the Brunswick label: a West Texas rockabilly version of the Hairy Choates Cajun classic "Jole Blon."
"Buddy was the first guy to ever have any faith in me as a singer," Jennings recalls in a voice still tinged with loss. "He was a rhythm guitar player, and that's basically what I am. He taught me that you can take country songs and put different rhythms to them. He taught me calypso-type things and 'straight-A' things like 'Peggy Sue,' and things like talking a waltz and doing it in 6/8 time instead of the usual 3/4. But mainly what I learned from Buddy was an attitude. He loved music, and he taught me that it shouldn't have any barriers."
In February 1959, Holly was killed in a plane crash near Mason City, Iowa. Jennings had given up his own seat on the plane to J.P. Richardson ("The Big Bopper"), who, along with Ritchie Valens, also died in the crash.
"Twenty-nine years ... man I can't believe he's been gone that long," Jennings murmurs. "Buddy was a lot of fun -- one of the best friends I ever had. There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about him."
It was in 1965, after several years as a local star on the Phoenix club scene, that Jennings signed with RCA/Nashville. The dozen or so LPs that he recorded for RCA during the mid-to-late 1960s resulted in a handful of Top Five singles and one Grammy. But by and large, the rawness and vitality of his music was submerged beneath the bland, pop-inspired "Nashville Sound" production style favored by the RCA staffers assigned to produce his records.
"They wouldn't let me pick my own songs or use my own band in the studio," he says. "I'd cut a basic track, and when they were through adding stuff to it, I wouldn't even recognize it anymore."
The troubling lack of control over his music was paralleled by a growing sense of chaos in Jennings' personal life. His wild and woolly ways even inspired a movie: "Payday," a gritty little 1973 country-and-western film noir in which Rip Torn plays a whiskey- and amphetamine-debauched honky-tonk star who careens through a seedy netherworld of motels, back seats and second-rate nightclubs.
As the 1960s came to a close, Jennings had racked up three broken marriages. (He has been married to his fourth wife, singer Jessi Colter, since 1969.) He'd also developed a ravenous appetite for amphetamines and barbiturates (a habit he shared with his sometime roommate Johnny Cash, who today is still one of his closest friends). There were also about $600,000 in debts and a bad case of hepatitis, which, along with the drugs, landed him in the hospital a time or two.
But his knack for survival overcame his self-destructiveness, and he managed to regroup. Wresting artistic control from RCA, he began producing and coproducing his own LPs, using his own band -- the Waylors -- in the studio. Then, of course, he teamed up with longtime friend Willie Nelson and really hit the big time.
But in the midst of the superstardom, chaos reappeared. In 1977 he was arrested in Nashville on cocaine charges (later dismissed). Increasingly lurid stories of his extracurricular activities made the rounds. Mired in financial woes and lawsuits, he found himself by 1981 in a state of near financial ruin.
"I'd gotten a $3 million advance from RCA and that was all gone," he recalls matter-of-factly. "Everything I owned was in hock. I finally ended up having to go broke and start my whole career from scratch."
At the heart of his problem were the drugs. "I wasn't just doing a little drugs," he emphasizes. "I was doing them constantly. I'd been doing them for 21 years. I'd do them till I collapsed. Then I'd get up and start right doing them again. I was killing the people around me, because they had to watch me destroy myself ... I'd never sleep. I'd stay up six or seven days or nights at a time, and I wouldn't go home. They've done these experiments with mice, where they give them cocaine in one corner of their cage and food in the other; the mice would never even touch the food. They'd just eat the cocaine until they died. Well, I was just like them mice. If I hadn't stopped when I did, I don't think I'd have made it a couple more months."
Unlike Johnny Cash, who checked into the Betty Ford Center, Jennings rented a house in Arizona and took the cold-turkey route. He says he's been drug-free now for more than three years. He recalls one of his proudest moments: when he handed Jessi his last stash of cocaine -- about $10,000 worth -- and calmly watched her flush it down the toilet.
The New Waylon recently shed 40 pounds ("I quit drugs and then discovered food!" he laughs). Along with Carol Burnett and Coca-Cola Co. President Donald Keough, he won the 1988 Horatio Alger Award (Cash nominated him) for "typifying the American spirit of true grit under adverse conditions."
Mainly though, says Jennings, he's working harder than ever. "I think I still got a lot of good music, a lot of good songs in me," he says. "And I'm approaching it just like I'm starting my career all over again -- which I am. I'd like to take my one-man show to Broadway. I'd like to get back where I'm selling a million records again. And I believe I can.
"But you know what?" He pauses reflectively, then laughs again. "If it don't happen, then that'll be fine too. I'm gonna have a good time at it anyway.
"This time around, this is for me."