Known for his gritty baritone, Waylon Jennings embodied the outlaw side of country music. He was 64 when he died of complications from diabetes, and left behind a collection of vocal tracks that remained unfinished until now.
"It was almost shocking when I first heard it," says the singer Jessi Colter, who was married to Jennings for more than 30 years. "It took me several times to be able to listen to it. It sounded like he was there, that he's opening his heart to you and he's telling you how he feels."
Colter gave her blessing to her husband's long-time producer and friend Robby Turner to add instruments and finish the songs. The result is Goin' Down Rockin': The Last Recordings. The album sounds like classic Jennings, with a voice that's sometimes a little rough, a little ragged, but never false. Jennings had a lot of physical troubles at the time.
"He wasn't the kind of guy that let on about his pains," Turner tells NPR's Melissa Block. "I remember one time, I said something about re-doing one of the takes of the song and he said, 'I don't think I can get through it, hoss.' And I realized then: That's enough said, right there. Because he wouldn't say that if he didn't mean it. But it was relaxing to him, because we had fun; we sat around and talked. It wasn't like another session for me at all. It was just like spending time with my best friend and my dad.
"We were so much like family that it wasn't a lot of questions asked by me. He started doing these songs, and when he started doing each one, I realized, 'Well, there's 'Belle of the Ball,' so that's one he's recorded before. It's not new. Then he told me to finish them one day, but the conversations that we had were sometimes totally off subject. I mean, he was sitting there one time and listening to the playback of a song, and he hit stop on the 24-track machine, looked at me and said, 'I can almost hear the part you're playing, and you're sounding great.'"
'A Vagabond, A Dreamer And A Rhymer'
"Belle of the Ball" was originally released in 1977 as the B-side to Jennings' hit "Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)." Jennings once told Jessi Colter that "Belle of the Ball" was his favorite song he ever wrote.
"It's really about his love for the music industry, his trip of life," Colter says. "And his imagery, when you really look into it and listen to it, is stunning, because he could see so far ahead on some things that it would aggravate me. But in this, he came here just a vagabond, dreamer and a rhymer, and a singer of songs. And he's leaving. It's his leaving song."
Waylon Jennings died in 2002, and Robby Turner held on to these last recordings for many years, until he recorded the other parts along with some of Jennings' longtime players. The guiding principle to finish the record, according to Turner, was "What would Waylon do? W.W.W.D.?"
"That was the whole thing; that was what I had written down on all my notes," Turner says. "You know, Waylon didn't really tell people; he took control and commanded his style of music. But he did that with hiring the right players. He would give us the layout of a song and how he wanted it to go, but we would play until he smiled. And that was our thing: playing until Waylon smiled."
"I think y'all were, too," Colter says, laughing. "If he was smiling, you were smiling."
'It Was All Worth It'
There were tears, too.
"There were moments when a song would finish and he'd say something, or [I'd] just hear him play the tail piece of 'Belle of the Ball,' that I would tear up while recording my steel parts," Turner says. "I remember looking down at my steel guitar and seeing the teardrop fall. And I said, 'That'd be a great picture, but I would never let anybody see it but Jessi.'"
Turner says he'd never told that to anybody, not even Colter. After a pause, Turner adds, "But it was all worth it."
"I Do Believe" is a confessional song about man and his troubles with faith. Raised in the Church of Christ, Jennings had a conflict with the church not appreciating music, Colter says.
"I think mainly what he wanted to say was, 'I do believe, and this is what I believe,'" Colter says.