“Now remember,” my mother began, “Waylon will be there, and you know how he is, how much he loves children.” (Yes, my father agreed, he really does love children.) “If he asks you to sit on his lap and you’re feeling shy, you don’t have to. But what you do have to do—”
“Is be polite,” snapped my father.
“Which you will,” said my mother more softly.
“Of course you will. You have great manners.” My father matched his tone to hers.
“Because he’s your father’s boss, you know,” my mother added.
“I know, I know!” I said, pretending it was no big deal, that Waylon Jennings didn’t terrify me. Not because he was some sinister child molester; that is not where this story is headed. (He was a womanizer—that much is in the public domain, by his own admission.) When my parents said Waylon loved children, they meant it in the most innocent sense. I’m not sure why my mother reiterated that I did not have to sit on Waylon’s lap or what she worried would happen if I did. I’d have faced nothing more traumatic, I’m sure, than a closer whiff of his cigarette breath or a damp embrace against his sweat-soaked flannel.
What scared me about Waylon was not that he was an actual monster, but that he looked like one, like a man halfway through a werewolf transformation. What scared me was the way he talked—fast, in a road language I couldn’t begin to decipher, though my father spoke it, as well. What scared me was his power, a strong undercurrent that held everyone in its grip. Or at least it did me.
The year was 1983, and I was seven. My father, a songwriter and musician named Sonny Curtis, had been touring with Waylon for four years, as long as I’d been forming permanent memories. He and Waylon had both emerged from the same hardscrabble West Texas world. They were born one month apart in the spring of 1937, the tail end of the Dust Bowl, to poor cotton-farming families just outside Lubbock. Waylon spent his early years in a dirt-floor shack, fifty miles north of where my father lived in a dugout, an underground shelter rooted deep in the thick prairie lovegrass.
Music was a refuge for my father, and I assume it was for Waylon as well, a vehicle to escape those unending rows of cotton. My father learned to play the guitar at age four, before his fingers could stretch all the way across the neck. When Waylon was starting out in the music business as a teenager, my father had already made a name for himself around Texas, performing on local radio and TV shows and picking gigs with his high school friend Buddy Holly. After Buddy’s death, my father intermittently served as the lead singer and guitarist for the Crickets, Buddy’s former backup band. But like Waylon’s, my father’s heart was always more country than rock ’n’ roll.
The Crickets—at that point comprised of my father, drummer J. I. Allison, and bassist Joe B. Mauldin—had known Waylon since they were in their late teens; they’d all been closely touched by Buddy’s meteoric stardom and tragic death (it’s now the stuff of legends how Waylon gave up his seat on Buddy’s ill-fated plane). The men had seen each other through failed dreams and reversals of fortune, and shared more than rickety stages and greasy truck stop suppers on the road. They shared a cultural background. So perhaps it made sense when Waylon asked the Crickets to accompany him on tour in the late ’70s, at the height of his country music career, a time when he was regularly selling out 20,000-person stadiums. Maybe he sought to ease the loneliness of fame and road life by surrounding himself with men who spoke the familiar language of home.
In short, I did not need my parents to remind me on the drive to the party that Waylon was my father’s boss. At that point in my life, I couldn’t remember a time when Waylon was not the star around which we revolved. He was the reason my father left for two-week stints and returned home lifeless. My memories of my father from this period are few. His zombie gaze into his black morning coffee. His threadbare concert T-shirt bearing a cartoonish eagle in the shape of a W for Waylon. The stuffed animals he brought me from the road: a grizzly from Montana, a Clydesdale from Scotland. His sleeping figure curled on our orange plaid couch, the halting rhythm of his snores distracting me from my afternoon cartoons. “Your father’s fried,” my mother would say when I plopped down on his legs and turned on Sesame Street. “Let him sleep.”
And yet Waylon’s grip was loosening; the center was not holding. His cocaine addiction had become a separate entity, a beast more fearsome than the Hells Angels he’d hired to be his bodyguards. Of course, I didn’t know any of this on the drive to that party. At age seven, I had no clue what cocaine was or what it could do to a person. That a giant country music star could be overtaken by a white powder that looked like my mother’s laundry soap. That it could turn him into an unreliable disaster of a boss, husband, and friend. That our very universe, our livelihood, could be upturned by it. My mother knew, and so did my father; of course they did. But in the back seat of their Buick, I stuck to my directives, laws I wouldn’t question. How could I? An only child raised on a rural cattle farm, I looked to my parents like I looked to the sun and the moon, my vision of the world filtered through their light—and their darkness.
The party was at drummer J. I. Allison’s modest white farmhouse, a half-hour drive from our own farmhouse, down a winding rural highway outside Nashville. The Waylon years coincided with the back-to-the-land movement of the ’70s: when J. I. and my father weren’t performing, they were reading Whole Earth catalogs and baling hay. When we pulled into J. I.’s driveway, I saw a few burly bearded men tossing horseshoes on the front lawn and drinking cans of Stroh’s. My parents greeted them by their entourage nicknames: Jigger, Crank, Joe Beautiful. And then there was Deakon, Waylon’s head bodyguard, a brooding hunk of a Hells Angel. Waylon was one of the leading figures in the country music “outlaw” movement, a rebellion against the slick, overly arranged Nashville sound. The Hells Angels, meanwhile, were some of the most notorious outlaws in America, their violent counterculture mythologized in books by Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe. Waylon and the Angels were a natural fit.
We entered the house through a narrow mudroom, its brick walls glinting with gold Buddy Holly records. Inside the kitchen, a few of the musicians’ wives and girlfriends sat gossiping around a breakfast table, body-permed bees in the center of the hive. Like my mother, they wore cowboy boots, Jordache jeans, and oversized sweaters. Their hair was loosely tousled; their faces, lightly kissed by makeup. They didn’t have to try too hard. They weren’t groupies, after all.
Sounds from the adjacent living room flowed through the house in constant, heavy waves—the men’s explosive laughter and the reverb from the stereo. My father headed in that direction while I hung back with my mother in the kitchen. There, the music was lighter, safer: the women’s languid Southern vowels, the hiss of the soda as it hit the ice, the highballs clinking merrily. Cheers.
My mother poured me a Coke, forbidden in my home, and I gulped it down greedily. Soon, I grew bored listening to the women’s gossip, veiled references to people I didn’t know. My mother, perhaps eager to be rid of me so she could talk freely, suggested I go look at the billy goats and horses that J. I. and his wife kept penned beside their barn. But first, she added with a raised eyebrow, it would be nice if I said hi to Waylon.
I paused under the arched doorway while my eyes struggled to adjust to both the shadows and the light. The amber rays of late-afternoon sun slashed through the vertical blinds at the end of the living room. Above Roger Miller’s nasal vibrato rising from the turntable, I made out the sound of my father’s laughter and stumbled half-blindly in the direction of his voice. He sat on the couch, telling an old rock ’n’ roll story.
“Hey there, little sweetheart,” he said, pausing his conversation. My father never acted anything less than thrilled to be interrupted by me, whether he was in the middle of transcribing a song or telling a joke. He rarely came to me; I had to seek him out, as I do to this day. But when I did, his eyes would register a sudden mixture of surprise and relief, as if he had recovered a lost treasure, a crumpled hundred-dollar bill in the pocket of some old Wranglers. Something wonderful he’d forgotten he had.
“Who’s that pretty girl?” Waylon boomed. He knew me, of course.
“Hi, Waylon.” I twisted my lips into a smile.
“Come on over here, hon.”
I wound my way to the end of the room where Waylon sat shooting dice at a card table in the corner, his shoulder-length hair stringy with oil, his back to the wall. It would have been where Don Corleone chose to sit as well—a place of power and visibility. He ashed his cigarette and threw a flannel arm around my shoulder.
“You’re gettin’ prettier every time I see you, you know that?” he said, holding me at arm’s length while he examined me. It was Waylon’s style, his lifelong modus operandi, to relate to women through flattery and objectification. I only saw him a handful of times after that party, but it was how he began every conversation with me, whether I was seven, thirteen (and decidedly not beautiful), or twenty-six, which I was the last time I saw him, when I visited his tour bus before catching one of his final performances in Chicago, where I was living at the time. He was more than a little sexist, and yet he had a way of making you meet him on his terms, terms I couldn’t help but find endearing, especially as I grew older and better understood his way of expressing admiration for women. After all the shit you gotta put up with in this crazy world, his words seemed to suggest, how do you still manage to look so fine? I’d be lying if I denied the boost his words, his gaze, sometimes gave me. Especially when I was thirteen, with pimples and new glasses, which, over dinner at a Chinese restaurant with my parents, he said suited my face beautifully and which I then began wearing to school with pride.
“Can you believe this pretty girl belongs to Ol’ Son?” he asked the men at his table, who politely laughed, emitting a cloud of stale beer breath. It didn’t come from Waylon, who never had a taste for alcohol. He smelled of something different, sweat and smoke mixed with a sour perfume I did not like. “You know I’ve known your daddy since we was kids?” he asked. “Ain’t he a good guitar player?”
“I guess,” I said with a shrug.
“You guess?” asked Waylon.
“Well, he can’t play ‘Lay Down Sally’ like Eric Clapton does.” It was my favorite radio song, and I often badgered my father to play it for me at home.
The men guffawed. Which felt weird because I hadn’t been joking.
“Hey, Hoss!” Waylon hollered across the room to my father. “Why won’t you learn ‘Lay Down Sally’ better for this kid?”
The men laughed louder, and I did not know if what I’d said was stupid or smart. I guessed stupid.
“Well, it sure is good to see you, beautiful. Give Ol’ Hoss a hug.”
I did as I was told, of course. Be polite.
Feeling my way toward the sliding patio doors, I heard him say, “We know who her daddy is. Still tryin’ to figure out who’s her mama.” A familiar Waylon joke, one I’d heard him make before about other musicians’ kids. Today, I better understand his brand of comedy, how he liked jokes that turned usual syntax on its head, but back then I wondered why it was so funny to pretend nobody knew our mothers. Maybe that was part of the joke as well, to exclude through language, to draw a tight circle around the living room, or the tour bus, or whatever space Waylon occupied. The inner sanctum: you were either in it, or you were out, and aside from Jessi Colter—Waylon’s wife and fellow musician—women were out.
Relieved to be free from Waylon’s grip, I made my way outside to see a girl my age named Allie getting out of a car with her mother, Waylon’s secretary. I’d played with Allie before at an earlier Waylon party, where we’d bonded over our deep affection for Joan Jett. Though I was thrilled to see another kid my age, something wasn’t right. Despite the crisp fall weather, Allie wore no coat over her flimsy pink princess dress, the kind you find in the toy aisle of a drugstore. She was rubbing her brown doe eyes, which she had rimmed in cornflower blue, the crayon I used to color in skies. It looked as if she had colored outside the lines of her face, smeared red crayon in wide circles around her mouth and cheeks. After a few seconds, I realized it was lipstick; she’d gotten into her mother’s makeup drawer. Her mother had gotten into the liquor cabinet.
“I let Allie dress herself!” she shrieked to the horseshoe players before weaving off to mingle.
Allie stood alone, clownish and bereft. After a few beats, a guitarist’s wife named Sue, a friendly, slumped woman with straw-colored hair to her waist and a smoker’s growl, approached her. “Come on, honey. Let’s go wash your face,” she mumbled as she gently took the little girl by the hand and led her into the house.
Oddly, it was Allie who broke through my mother’s carefully constructed wall of denial. It wasn’t the Hells Angels and their threat of head-breaking carnage always bubbling below the surface, or the partygoers lurching in and out of the bathroom, eyes afire, or even Waylon’s junked-up mania. It took a blameless child to do the job. Seeing Allie was “a turning point,” my mother later told me, and in that moment, she made a decision: there would be no more Waylon parties for me.
There weren’t many left for Waylon, either. The following year, 1984, Waylon’s addiction would nearly eat him alive. When he began missing shows because he was too sick and strung out, he and Jessi retreated to her home state of Arizona, where he would dry out for good, though his health never fully recovered. He still frightened me a little after he got clean (mainly because fame itself has always frightened me), but I saw that, stripped of the drug-addled werewolf persona, Waylon had a tender side. He always wanted to hear about my life, would rather talk about anything other than himself. I’d turn the conversation back to him every time, thinking, Why in the world would Waylon Jennings want to hear about me?
“Fame destroys people,” I’ve heard my father say, and Buddy Holly’s plane crash aside, I know it’s a lesson he learned primarily from Waylon. But did fame destroy Waylon? It numbed him with groupies and gobs of money and a gram up his nose before every show, but that was all kindling. Even if he’d never made it out of Lubbock, Texas, Waylon might have found a way to light the match. Looking back today, I wonder if fame just gave his bonfire a bigger turnout.
My mother disagrees with my assessment. She thinks the record companies exploited Waylon for years by booking him out nonstop; it’s no wonder he took so many drugs to keep up. But that’s capitalism, I tell her, not fame. My father’s opinion lies somewhere in between. Drugs—especially amphetamines—have fueled the Nashville music scene for almost as far back as he can remember. Before cocaine entered the picture in the late ’70s, every muso on 16th Avenue was popping fistfuls of white crosses, Desoxyn, and something they called “L.A. Turnarounds,” which would float you from Nashville to L.A. and back again. Where, exactly, my father asks, did I think all that stage swagger came from?
“But lots of famous musicians don’t become strung-out maniacs, Dad,” I argue.
“Yeah, but lots do,” he says.
One gray February weekend in 2018, I traveled with my three daughters from our home in Michigan to visit my parents in Tennessee. My father is eighty-one now and mostly retired, though he still picks the occasional songwriter-in-the-round gig in Nashville. Perusing their library one rainy morning, I came upon a leather-bound copy of Waylon’s 1996 autobiography, which he lovingly inscribed to my parents. By habit, I flipped to the index and read all the passages about my father. About Buddy Holly’s death, Waylon wrote, “Everybody had always thought Sonny was the one that would make it, and here Buddy had torn up the world.” I remembered how my father once told me that as a young man, he wanted to be famous more than anything on Earth. And yet, as the years passed, fame began to assume the dark pall of a curse.
I flipped ahead to the section of Waylon’s life that intersected with my own, the five-year period my father toured with him. The story he told was not the one I knew. The Feds busted Waylon for cocaine possession in 1977, the year before my father took the tour gig. But “one thing the bust didn’t do was slow down my drug use,” Waylon wrote. While my father toured with him over the next few years, Waylon’s cocaine addiction progressed to the tune of nearly $1,500 a day. By 1981, his drug use and financial mismanagement had landed him two and a half million dollars in the hole. To avoid bankruptcy and dig his way out, Waylon fired much of his entourage and stepped up his tour schedule, a tour that involved my father. “The newly trimmed version of the Waylon Jennings traveling carnival, featuring the Crickets … hit the road. Slowly, show by show and month by month, I put money aside for the debt,” he wrote.
I re-read the paragraph several times, letting it settle. For years, I’d believed my parents had sheltered me from the Waylon drug scene, because they’d told me as much. We never made you sit on his lap. I knew I couldn’t bring you around that scene anymore. I’d assumed that Waylon’s cocaine habit had progressed after my father took the tour gig that swept him away for the early years of my childhood. But I was wrong. By Waylon’s own admission, paying off his cocaine-fueled debts was partially the reason for the tour.
This is a new truth for me to reckon with, and new truths require new narratives. My new narrative does not involve throwing my parents under the bus for participating in a drug-addled music scene lorded over by Hells Angels. I consider myself lucky in the parent department, am loved and supported in ways too varied to enumerate. As a mother myself now, I’m annoyed when I hear about our culture lurching to blame a parent—usually a mother—who allows her child to walk to a nearby park alone or wait in an air-conditioned car while she grabs a carton of milk. No matter what walls we painstakingly construct for our children, the world has a way of seeping through the cracks. And who knows what I would have done in my parents’ situation? What if my household income had been the one on the line? These are questions I cannot answer.
And yet, and yet, and yet.
That party in 1983 wasn’t exactly the “turning point” my mother claimed it was.
They didn’t bother to hire a babysitter that day, though we had a reliable one.
They required me to make nice with a man I found terrifying.
They not only planted me in the middle of a toxic music scene, but also made me part of the show.
That is my new truth. So what is my new narrative?
Maybe the Waylon years were their own weird kind of gift to me, an open window into a messier world. A world where grown-ups act badly. A world where bands break up. A world where even adults must forge fragile pathways around fraught terrain and powerful people, just as I struggled back then, sitting cross-legged on my parents’ bed, to joystick my little Atari frog across a treacherous highway. My pixelated amphibian always got flattened. And yet I, the player, got better over time.
Later that day, over sandwiches, I told my mother about what I’d read in Waylon’s book. I asked if she’d known the mission of the tour from the start.
“Well, yeah, I guess so,” she admitted. She described meeting a road manager in Waylon’s entourage early in the tour. He kept a baggie of cocaine and a straw in his shirt pocket and occasionally paused to take a snort in the middle of a conversation. “They were all into it,” she said with a bemused laugh as she rose to clear the lunch plates.
“So why did Dad take the job?”
“Are you kidding?” She turned to me, wide-eyed. “It was the height of Waylon’s career. We had just moved from L.A. to Tennessee, and your dad was trying to re-establish himself as a songwriter in a new town. We needed a steady income. And, you know, it was the good road.”
The good road. I’d heard my father use that term before. Before (and after) life with Waylon, the Crickets schlepped their own gear from gig to gig, lugging their amplifiers and instruments down congested city sidewalks night after night. They set up their own sound checks before the shows, adjusted their own amps, and traveled in crappy buses that frequently broke down. That was the bad road.
The good road was different. Waylon’s entourage included instrument techs and sound engineers, who managed everything; all my father had to do was show up. Every time he walked onstage, a roadie would sling his guitar strap around his neck, his instrument already tuned, his strings replaced. He found the microphone perfectly positioned to his height. After he performed, he’d hand his guitar to the roadie to tune for the next show, then stroll into the night to find a town car waiting to take him back to the hotel. That was the good road. For my father, anyway.
I considered my mother’s rationale as I watched my two youngest daughters playing in the living room, laughing themselves delirious over some goofy song they’d made up. My youngest was seven, the same age I’d been at that last Waylon party. As I looked at her perfectly unburdened face, I thought about the family dysfunction I hid from her, the violent news stories I switched off before she could hear, the barriers I constructed to wall out the messier parts of her world. I thought about mortgage payments and sacrifices, choices and complicity. I thought about the witchery and density of fame.
“Yeah, I get it,” I told my mother. It wasn’t a lie to smooth over the moment. I do get it. Really, I do.