Rhett Miller on the Old 97’s, Waylon Jennings, and the Holy Grail
That would’ve been six years before Waylon passed away; how did his health seem to be at that point?
I do know that he wound up in the hospital right when we got the artwork for that record. I don’t know that it was the actual beginning of the end, as I wasn’t privy to what was going on in his life.
Is the cover of the EP the original artwork – the Jon Langford painting?
Yeah – and I think that being in the hospital may have contributed to Waylon not being crazy about the artwork which, you know, showed him surrounded by angels – us.
Actually, Waylon’s biggest complaint was that it was too much about him and not enough about us. You can see on the cover that he’s big and we’re really tiny.
It’s cool that he was concerned about that. Not everyone in that position would be.
Waylon just seemed like a really generous guy. There was no ego to speak of; he had his skins on the wall; he didn’t have to be anything but a cool guy. He just wanted to make people feel good about being there.
Sounds like the sitdown together at lunch was an experience in itself.
Waylon was so personable and so down to earth that he didn’t make us feel like we were in the presence of a rock star … we were just in the presence of a guy who’d spent his life doing what we were hoping to spend our lives doing.
There we were, at the beginning of a – hopefully – long career and there he was, towards the end of an amazing, long career and we’re peers.
It was like a continuum; we were bringing something to the Earth that didn’t exist before; trying to create something beautiful and fun. It didn’t matter if you were an elder statesman or a young whippersnapper; we were just kind of all in it together. I love that.
You got him talking about the old days in the Crickets with Buddy Holly.
Yeah … and of course the sad story about his final words to his friend Buddy.
[Holly had chartered a small plane on the evening on February 2, 1959 to hop ahead from the Crickets’ gig in Clear Lake, Iowa to the next show in Moorhead, MN. Waylon originally had a seat on the plane, but the Big Bopper – who was also on the bill – asked for his berth in lieu of riding the less-than-luxurious band bus. Ritchie Valens also took a seat on the plane, having won it in a coin toss with Crickets’ guitarist Tommy Allsup. Jennings’ last memory of Buddy Holly was the rock ‘n’ roll legend saying to him, “I hope your damned bus freezes up again.” “Well, I hope your old plane crashes,” Waylon joked. The plane took off in a snowstorm during the early morning hours of February 3rd. It crashed in a cornfield less than six miles away, killing all onboard.]
Like I said in the liner notes, even though Waylon had probably told that story a billion times, telling it to us choked him up. But it makes sense: they were friends. The guy’s a legend and it’s a legendary story … but it was actually something that they lived through. So sad, man.
Absolutely. I remember reading in Waylon’s autobiography that for a while after that he didn’t care about playing music. It took awhile for him to get back on his feet.
I believe it.
So after lunch, it was time for Waylon to lay down his vocals. I wanted to ask you: I was chasing Ken’s opening riff to “Iron Road” on the guitar and realized it was in F … why? (laughter)
You know why? The Old 97s decided in our earliest days that we would tune all of our guitars a full step down – so half the time our songs are in F or B flat. When we’re playing Gs or Cs, anybody playing along with us has to play an F or B flat … it’s a nightmare – a total nightmare. (laughs)
How much prep did Waylon do? Did he want to get in character for the songs – the hobo in “Iron Road”, for instance?
I think he and Murry bonded on the concept of the hobo – the hobo’s proximity in the cultural lexicon to the musician and how we’re itinerant and it’s hard to keep a family. I heard them bonding over that – but I wasn’t the songwriter on “Iron Road”, so I was just the fly on the wall.
Yeah, well, you got your workout when you got to “Other Shoe” – which is a bit of a brain-warper. (laughter) Well, it is – on the surface, it just sort of rolls along … and then you pay attention to the words and realize the guy’s underneath the creaking bedsprings with a .44, with his wife and her lover above him. Jesus …
(laughs) I know … I’ve had people come up to me and ask if this happens or that, and I tell them, “I don’t know … that’s for you to imagine.” (laughs)
And then there was the problem with your lyric – the word “elixir,” which Waylon kept pronouncing “excelsior.” If you don’t mind telling the story one more time …
Well, imagine having to go in and tell the guy with that voice how to sing. (laughter) It was just a pronunciation question and a word he wasn’t familiar with – which I was kind of surprised about because it’s an old-timey, countryish word. I thought for sure he’d know what it was.
But it took him a minute and I’m sure he would’ve gotten it without my silly little idea to just take the phrase “an elixir.” I told him to imagine two women who love each other very much and one of them’s named Annie.
And he could sing, “Annie licks her.”
And it worked.
Oh, he loved that. That was our big bonding moment. (laughter)
And he nailed it on the next take.
Oh, of course – yeah. It’s Waylon … how many songs had he sung? How many mics had he been in front of? He was a pro, man – a total pro.