Just A Good Ol' Boy
Waylon Jennings talks about Buddy Holly
By Jayson Whitehead
From Gadfly February 1999

In January 1959, Waylon Jennings found himself the bass player for his best friend Buddy Holly on a tour that traveled the freezing tundra of the upper Midwest. One month later, Holly was dead and Waylon (alive only because he gave up his plane seat to the Big Bopper that night), haunted by the belief that he'd somehow contributed to his friend's demise, returned to Texas and country music, where he would find success many years later. Waylon spoke with Gadfly about the impact Buddy Holly had on him and on music.

Gadfly: Did you know Buddy Holly before you became part of his band?

Waylon: Yeah. We both had bands in West Texas that we were trying to get started, and we would see each other at talent shows. Sometimes they would let us open shows. There was a program called Sunday Party on Sunday afternoon in Lubbock, on radio station KDAB. The local and area talent could come in and sing a couple of songs, and we would run into each other a lot of times there, too. We just seemed like we were forever running into each other. We got to be friends. We'd hang out when we had a chance.

Since he was from Lubbock, Texas, was it odd that Buddy was playing rock, and not country?

He had a country band, you know. Buddy was not all that good as a country entertainer. He just didn't have the voice to sing country music. He could do rock and pop type things. He loved good country music; he loved anything that had a good rhythm to it. He was very smart and ahead of his times as far as rhythms were concerned. The difference between his music and regular country music was the groove, for one thing. He insisted on the groove being right.

Is that how he influenced you musically?

I think so. That's the first thing I look for.

You hear similar grooves in your songs, like "Honky Tonk Heroes."

Yeah, if you can't feel it, then you can't sing it. Not right, anyway.

Was that something you first learned from him?

Yes, it was. Buddy and I talked about things like Hank Williams and country music a lot. They depended on a singer in country music, and not the feeling of it. The feeling came from the singer, where in rock and roll, you had to feel it first, then hear it. I think most music is that way now. You feel it first.

You wrote in your autobiography, Waylon, that toward the end of Buddy's life you were probably closer to him than anybody. What do you mean by that?

I don't know. We got close because it was almost as if he had the premonition that he wasn't going to be around. And he did like me. He liked me a lot and I liked him. We never had a problem. And he tried to help me. He was trying to warn me about things and teach me about music as we went along. He loved music. The last day of his life he was still excited about music and every song he sang. I learned that from him and forgot it periodically: When you do a song, you've got to remember you are going to be doing that song for the rest of your life. You better make sure you like it.

Was Buddy a big brother to you?

He was, very definitely.

You were the last person to talk to him before he got on that plane. It took you years and years to get over his death, didn't it?

Yes, you know, I was young, and of course you feel guilty for being alive. He was dead, and I felt a little bit responsible. You know, that old country boy thing about a jinx, or that I had caused it some way.

Buddy and I were cutting up and teasing with each other. And one of the last things we said to one another—he said, "I hope your old bus freezes up going down the road, if you are not gonna go with us on the plane." I said, "Well, I hope your plane crashes." A guy by the name of Hi Pockets Duncan helped me a little with that. He said, "Well, can you bring him back alive now? Do you have that power?" I said, "No." And he said, "What makes you think you had the power to kill him, then?"

Where did you see Buddy going musically?

As I look back on it, I think he would have been somewhere between Bob Seger and Neil Diamond, but probably bigger than both of them; he was just such a innovator, you know what I mean, such an original.

He had definitely moved away from the bebop sound, hadn't he?

He never moved away from anything. He said, "Don't limit yourself. Do anything you want to." He did "Well... All Right"—that's a little country melody. And then you turn around, and "It Doesn't Matter Any More" and some of those songs were just pop. They weren't country. They weren't rock and roll. He said, "Don't limit yourself. Don't let them call you a hillbilly."

Have you ever done a song about him?

I've got one on my new album that has something about Buddy Holly in it. It's called "Old Friends of Mine," and it's about people I've known through the years. Of course, he's in it. We were best friends.

You actually considered quitting music for a while, right?

Yeah, I saw the rotten part of the music business after Buddy's death. [The promoters] begged us to stay there and finish the tour. That night we did the show, and then they wanted to dock us for the absence of Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens when it came time to pay. And they had been crying all day saying, "We'll be broke if you don't do this." They didn't want to pay us that night in that auditorium; then they promised us they would fly us home for his funeral and back and pay us more than what we would have gotten if we had finished the tour. But we never even saw a dime until the tour was over.

Would that be one of the reasons that you didn't become a rock and roll performer?

No, I just did what I could. I wouldn't have been able to be a rock and roll performer. I do some rock and roll things, but I'm not a rock and roll singer. That's very definitely a talent. That's not something that's easy.

Did you play in the studio on any Buddy Holly songs?

No, I never did do that.

But you probably would have, right?

Eventually, probably, but I wasn't capable of it at that time.

What was Buddy Holly's contribution to music?

Every once in a while I run into something, just a little thing, every once in a while, that I think that he contributed to. One of the things was writing songs. There weren't a lot of writers in those days. Too, you listen to his records, he's right in the groove with his voice and with his music. He worked at that very consciously, you know. And he didn't compromise anything. He never compromised his music in any way. I think a lot of us learned from that—I know I did. He told me how Nashville was before I got there—and he said, "Just don't compromise your music. Do what you do. You are the only one that knows what you're doing. They don't." He was smart very early. I think he could have made some great changes in music, in the corporate structure of it, the way people were treated. I think Buddy would have been a great guy for the artist. He learned early where the snakes in the grass are, where the bodies are buried. He taught me a lot.

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