The last five years had been difficult. Having triumphed over cocaine abuse through his own resolve (without rehab) in the mid-1980s, his health began to falter within a few years. He survived 1989 bypass surgery, but added problems in the 90's, especially diabetes and emphysema led him to declare an end to those long road tours.
Even worsening health, however, couldn't sideline him completely. A 2000 mini-tour with a group of longtime sidemen known as the Waymore Blues Band was an unqualified triumph. A concert recording (audio and video) at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium revealed he still packed a wallop onstage (disclosure: I annotated the Sony Legacy CD/DVD reissue of that material).
Here's a bit of "Never Say Die" from the Ryman.
Soon after laying down 12 songs, unaccompanied, in the Nashville studio of his steel guitarist Robby Turner, Waylon and wife Jessi Colter moved to Chandler, near Phoenix, his home base before he moved to Nashville in 1965. Those recordings became his final musical statement.
2001 saw him inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, an honor long denied him by control-freak Nashville power brokers who resented his contentious battles for creative freedom in the studio even though his triumphs helped expand country's audience.
Jessi gave those last songs to Turner to do with as he wished. He did the right thing, bringing in key sidemen. The most important: drummer Richie Albright, who worked with Waylon since his Phoenix days in his original backup band the Waylors, then with the Waymore band. Also from the Waylors: keyboard player Barney Robertson and his wife Carter, a backup singer. Ace Nashville guitarist Reggie Young and his wife, fiddler-cellist Jenny Lynn Young had worked with the Waymore Band. The result: Goin' Down Rockin': The Last Recordings (Time-Life Records).
In this clip of the sessions for the title song, you see overdubs for the title song with Albright, the Youngs and Turner as well as swamp-rock great Tony Joe White of "Polk Salad Annie" fame, who wrote the song.
Despite his health, Waylon was clearly on top of every number here including a remake of his 1976 ballad "Belle of the Ball." Its line about "a vagabond dreamer, a rhymer and singer of songs" was later incorporated into his Phoenix headstone.
Unlike his pals Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson, not to mention many other country stars, Waylon never recorded a gospel album. "I Do Believe" details his deeply personal, complex and in many ways progressive views of religion, was an exception. He'd recorded it in the 80's when he, Cash, Willie and Kris Kristofferson were working as the Highwaymen.
The sharply satirical "Wrong Road to Nashville" reiterates his jaded, acerbic (and largely correct) view of Music Row. His celebrated prowess with a ballad is clear on "She Was No Good For Me" and "The Ways of the World." "Shakin' The Blues," vocally and compositionally, reflects the same level of quality as anything on his masterpiece albums like Dreaming My Dreams or Are You Ready for the Country.
Did he realize these would be his final recordings? It's not clear. What is clear is that a blend of idealism and hard-edged realism always drove him, whether fighting for creative freedom or battling his demons. If he expected they might be his last declaration, he made sure they were done right on his end and trusted the right people to make sure the world heard them the way he intended. It seems Waylon got the last word. As usual.