(Pictured: Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, 1978.)
Forty years ago this week, Waylon Jennings was enjoying the biggest hit of his legendary career in country music. “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)” wrapped up a six-week run at #1 on the Billboard country chart, finally knocked off on July 2, 1977. It was his fifth #1 country single in the last three years; over the next three, he’d score six more, and add three on top of those by 1985.
As a member of Buddy Holly’s band in 1959, Waylon famously gave up his seat on the fateful airplane to the Big Bopper, thereby surviving the crash. He scored his first country hit in 1965 and took Gordon Lightfoot’s song “For Lovin’ Me” into the country Top 10 in 1966. His first #1, “This Time,” came in 1974. In 1976, he appeared on Wanted: the Outlaws with Willie Nelson, Jessi Colter, and Tompall Glaser, an album that helped make “outlaw country” fashionable. Wanted: the Outlaws made the Top 10 on the Billboard 200 and included “Good Hearted Woman,” which went #1 country, made the Hot 100, and peaked at #25.
Before “Good Hearted Woman,” you’d have to go back several years, to Donna Fargo’s “Funny Face” and “Happiest Girl in the Whole USA” or maybe Charley Pride’s “Kiss an Angel Good Morning,” to find a Top 40 hit so unapologetically country. “Luckenbach, Texas” is even more country than “Good Hearted Woman,” but it also reached #25 on the Hot 100, spending 16 weeks on the chart and seven in the Top 40, peaking during the week of July 16, 1977.
Some big-time Top 40 stations were playing “Luckenbach” during the summer of 1977. Its highest position was #6 at WHBQ in Memphis in early June, charted between Bill Conti’s Rocky theme and “Undercover Angel.” It made #10 at KLIF in Dallas, comfortably tucked between “Life in the Fast Lane” and Marshall Tucker’s “Heard It in a Love Song” during the week of June 17. (KLIF ranked the album from which it came, Ol’ Waylon, at #6 for the week on a chart topped by Rumours and Hotel California, ahead of Steve Miller’s Book of Dreams, Live From the Hollywood Bowl by the Beatles, and Foreigner.) It was also a Top-10 hit at WNIN in Wichita Falls, Texas. “Luckenbach, Texas” rose as high as #31 at WLS in Chicago in a five-week run during July and early August; although WLS would in later years chart songs without playing them, I don’t know if the station was doing that as early as 1977. It also charted at WPGC in Washington, D.C., KTKT in Tucson, and WAKY in Louisville.
In the next couple of years, “Luckenbach” would be followed up the charts by singles that still define Waylon’s career nearly 40 years later, and 15 years after his death: “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” (co-credited to Willie), “There Ain’t No Good Chain Gang,” “I’ve Always Been Crazy, “Amanda,” and Waylon’s recording of the theme from the TV show The Dukes of Hazzard, which went to #21 on the pop chart in 1980, among them.
(It has always surprised me a little that the followup to “Luckenbach, Texas,” which went #1 country in November 1977, didn’t cross over. According to ARSA, no pop station charted “The Wurlitzer Prize (I Don’t Want to Get Over You),” a melancholy number that would have fit reasonably well in a year when Kenny Rogers’ twangy “Lucille” was a big hit and Ronnie Milsap’s “It Was Almost Like a Song” did big business, and in the same season with Crystal Gayle’s “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.” The song, written by Chips Moman and Bobby Emmons, is built around a brilliant jukebox metaphor any writer would love to have written: “They ought to give me the Wurlitzer Prize / For all the silver I let slide down the slot / Playin’ those songs sung blue.”)
As one of the pivotal figures of the outlaw country movement of the mid-1970s, Waylon’s legacy is audible in the work of Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Chris Stapleton, and other alt-country figures today. Just as those guys have trouble getting on mainstream country radio (except for Stapleton), Jennings himself isn’t heard on the air anymore either. But some of us still think he’s the real thing.