I can tell you where I was when I first heard his voice. It was January 26th, 1979 around 8:00 pm. I was in my living room. If memory serves, I have had a bath and am ready for bed.
At first I wasn’t sure it was “His” voice, but as some omniscient narrator, the voice was close to God’s as I’d ever encountered. Why couldn’t it be God? The voice was never connected to a living, breathing human being. As in the opening chapters of Genesis, the voice simply was. The voice knew, understood, and saw time in ways those in the reality we were watching did not understand. Sometime later I came to understand the voice was not only told narrated this story but sang the song which introduced each week’s episode. The stories seemed distant, even carelessly woven together; much like the ones we read in Sunday School. Men and women, brothers and sisters, cousins and uncles, fighting for land and against corruption in places I could only imagine because I had the help of the voice. The voice enabled me to hold the story together and give the character’s lives a larger meaning. Wasn’t that what God’s voice did for Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Joseph, and his brothers? The voice put it into perspective. When it got worse, better, or indifferent; nothing was ever too much for “His” voice to handle. Surely, this was the voice of God. I knew, beyond any shadow of a doubt, I needed a voice like this, to narrate the story of my life. If it worked so well for Bo, Luke, Daisy, Uncle Jesse, and Boss Hogg; surely it would work for me. Who was this man who told their stories? Where could I find Waylon Jennings? Would he tell my story?
Waylon Jennings was reading a script. I now know he wasn’t the voice of God. However, he was one of American music’s greatest story tellers. Like many of his generation, what defined him as a sinner also sets him apart as a saint. He was a complex and holy man, in the tradition of countless troubadours before him, melding virtue and vice into something ordinary Christians easily identify as discipleship.
Romans 7:15-20 is the basis of every great country song ever written. I am talking about the real classics. Think of Waylon, Willie, and Johnny Cash as you listen to Paul write about his own struggles.
15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.
A long time forgotten are dreams that just fell by the way
The good life he promised ain’t what she’s living today
But she never complains of the bad times or bad things he’s done, Lord
She just talks about the good times they’ve had and all the good times to come
She’s a good-hearted woman in love with a good-timin’ man
She loves him in spite of his ways that she don’t understand
Through teardrops and laughter, they’ll pass through this world hand-in-hand,
A good-hearted woman loving her good timing man
He like the night life, the bright lights and good-timin’ friends
When the party’s all over she’ll welcome him back home again
Lord knows she don’t understand him, but she does the best that she can
‘Cause she’s a good-hearted woman; she loves her good timin’ man
That’s a Romans 7 song. She does what’s against her best interest even though she knows she shouldn’t. The desire to do the right thing is in both of them. That’s scripture. As Paul goes on to say, “If I want to do what is good, evil is right there beside me.” Waylon makes the same point: life means doing the best that we can in love. Paul says, “I’m a miserable human being.” Waylon and his wife Jessi Colter both knew about long miserable nights. Waylon doesn’t hide his misery from God (or anyone). We know he’s the one who likes the night life, good timing friends, and living recklessly. It’s clear he’s in the same boat as Paul: there’s no other salvation from the situation, other than something external, like a voice out of nowhere.
We look for “Christian” movies, music, and products. I want to ask: what makes something Christian? I don’t know anymore. Half the stuff sold as Christian I wouldn’t touch with a 10 foot poll. However, there so much out there flies under the Christian cultural radar. The past and present are available if we would only open our eyes. When we look around, we’re going to have to look in some out of the way places.
Waylon Jennings is like the Apostle Paul, unfiltered and on tap in Luckenbach, Texas on a hot July afternoon. Mamas, let your babies grow up to be cowboy apostles; because somebody, somewhere still needs some Good News. It doesn’t matter how they hear it. We in the church are past the point of being choosy. God’s playlist is far deeper than we’ve ever imagined. Find a chair, sit back, and listen. Enjoy the music.