NASHVILLE, Tennessee — In a memorial service that was by turns raucous, rocking and reverent, Waylon Jennings was warmly remembered by friends, fans and family at the Ryman Auditorium on Saturday.
Artists ranging from Charley Pride to Kris Kristofferson to Jennings’ son Shooter paid tribute to the late Country Music Hall of Fame member in song and story. The 64-year-old country star died on February 13 in his sleep at his home in Phoenix, Arizona (see “Country Music Outlaw Waylon Jennings Dies At 64″ ).
The service was open to the public, and fans started arriving long before the 7:30 p.m. start time. Many spent the time waiting outside the venue swapping stories about Jennings and waving to the celebrities arriving in tour buses and limousines: “There’s Emmylou!” “I said ’hi’ to Hank Jr. in the alley!”
Nashville disc jockey Carl P. Mayfield, who in recent years gave Jennings a public forum with the call-in show “Waylon Wednesdays” on WKDF-FM, served as master of ceremonies. The service — dubbed “I’ve Always Been Crazy: A Celebration of the Life and Legacy of Waylon Jennings” — began with Shooter Jennings taking the stage — which was adorned with a large backdrop of Jennings’ signature flying “W” logo, a large picture of him, and two tall vases of red roses flanking his familiar Telecaster guitar with the hand-tooled leather cover, a black cowboy hat perched atop its neck.
Shooter welcomed the crowd and explained that although Johnny Cash had been scheduled for the service (and was listed in the program as the first musical performer), his doctors had advised against him traveling from his winter home in Jamaica. “I talked to him and Johnny said to ’Enjoy yourselves and honor Waylon,’ ” Shooter said.
With that, Travis Tritt took the stage. Remarking that “Waylon had one foot firmly in country and one in rock and roll, and I’ve tried to pattern myself after him,” Tritt launched into a rocking version of Jennings’ 1973 song “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean.” Backed by the 10-piece Waymore’s Blues Band — Jennings’ last musical ensemble — Tritt at times sounded eerily like Jennings.
He was followed by the young group Cross Canadian Ragweed, which performed an energetic version of “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line.” That was followed by lengthy video clips of different periods in Jennings’ life and career, anchored by a recurring scenario of actor Robert Duvall portraying a shrink, interviewing Jennings as his patient. The biggest laugh of the night came during the airing of a clip of Jennings on the TV show “Politically Incorrect,” in which he said, “We don’t want to impeach Clinton. We just want somebody to kick his ass.”
Charley Pride came onstage to sing “Good Hearted Woman” and to recall that Jennings had offered him that song before he himself recorded it. He also flashed a ring that Jennings gave him years ago, which he still wears.
Pride was followed by Hank Williams Jr., who said that Jennings had been a father figure to him and took him on the road as his opening act when Hank Jr. was still a teenager. “When I was 16,” he said, “Waylon let ol’ Bocephus go out there. He could have had the pick of anybody he wanted.” Williams sang his emotional composition “Eyes of Waylon” and was interrupted by an audience ovation for the line, “The first triple platinum in this town is hanging on his wall” — a reference to Jennings’ 1979 Greatest Hits album, which became Nashville’s first 3 million-selling album and has since been certified quadruple platinum.
Kris Kristofferson prefaced his version of Jennings’ composition “I Do Believe” by saying, “If I ever thought I would be singing to honor Waylon in the Ryman Auditorium, it might have helped me through some hard spots.” After Nashville songwriter Tom Douglas sang “Nothing Catches Jesus by Surprise,” another series of videos was shown, featuring the video of Jennings’ “Wild Ones” and a Kid Rock video in which he sang Jennings’ theme song from the TV show “Dukes of Hazzard” and paid homage to Jennings.
Among those sending letters and e-mails of condolence that were read to the crowd were Graham Nash, Kenny Rogers, Paul Simon, Billy Bob Thornton, Neil Diamond, James Garner and Metallica lead singer James Hetfield, whose lengthy message was very heartfelt.
The latter got a great cheer from the balcony crowd, which was made up of staunch and very vocal Jennings fans. There was more black leather showing in the balcony than on the stage and the ground floor combined, and there were black cowboy hats up there galore. One fan T-shirt read “Waylon F—ing Jennings,” as he used to introduce himself in shows long ago.
Mayfield prefaced Shooter Jennings’ performance with his L.A. band Stargunn by saying, “Jessi said that Waylon wanted Shooter to sing ’I’ve Always Been Crazy’ at his funeral.” And Shooter and his metal band fused very well with his father’s Waymore’s Blues Band on the song, with Shooter’s fiery vocals and his band’s churning metal guitars alternating with lively fiddle and piano and trumpet solos from the Waymore band. “This may be the changing of the guard,” Mayfield said after the song.
Billy Ray Cyrus walked onstage with an acoustic guitar to begin “Amazing Grace,” on which he was joined first by Tritt and then by Kristofferson.
The service ended with the first public hearing of the last song Jennings recorded, which was played over a darkened stage. “The Dream” is a lovely piano-based ballad comparing life with a dream, which Jennings concludes by singing, “I’ve had it both ways and the dream could never compare.”
Shooter returned to bid all a goodnight and to say, “Thank you for coming. We hope you enjoyed yourselves. We sure as hell did.”