Waylon Jennings was many things to many people. As a child of the ’80s, I first was introduced to him as the singer of The Dukes of Hazzard‘s theme song as well as the voice of the folksy narrator who helped recount Bo and Luke Dukes’s adventures. Little did I know, the whole show was a watered down spin-off of a movie called The Moonrunners, where Jennings also served as "The Balladeer." For my parents in the ’70s, he was one of music’s outlaws, who along with Willie Nelson, Tompall Glaser, and Jessi Colter, blazed a new trail for Country Music by recording the first platinum selling Country record in 1976. My grandparents remembered Waylon as the singer with the rich baritone voice who had recorded tunes like "Stop the World (And Let Me Off)" and "Only Daddy That’ll Walk That Line." A younger generation may only know Jennings from his pair of on Family Guy episodes where he reprised his narrator role from Dukes. The one thing that no one would peg him for is a movie star. Yet in 1966, under the auspices of an American International Pictures production, they tried to fit the hard living, but clean cut, Waylon into the role of a Nashville Rebel.
Jennings might have summarized the movie the best himself in his book Waylon: An Autobiography. "There wasn’t anything about a Nashville Rebel in the movie as far as I was concerned. They cast the characters after they had the title! And I never thought it was about me. It was more like a Nashville travelogue, where you could see the inside of Tootsie’s, The Grand Ole Opry, the Black Poodle, and be entertained by stars like Porter Wagner, Faron Young, Tex Ritter, Sonny James, and get yourself introduced to newcomer Waylon Jennings, as Arlin Grove." While many other Country Music films were made around the same era, including Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar and Country Caravan, generally, they were plotless films that focused solely on giving the audience a chance to see the country and western stars in full color. Nashville Rebel is packed with performances as Waylon mentioned, but it’s wrapped up inside a tale that plays out a little something like a twisted version of Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd filtered through the lens of low budget film making.
Like in Kazan’s film, Arlin Grove (Jennings) is a bumpkin who has no desire other than to marry his sweetheart, Molly (Mary Fran of Newhart) and continue writing songs, "in his own way" as the character says. After being discovered by a dastardly lawyer (Gordon Oas-Heim of H.G. Lewis’s Color Me Blood Red), who Jennings described as coming "compete with a cigarette holder, a sure sign of distrust," Arlin finds himself caught up in the fame game of adoring audiences, opportunity, and opulence. While the lawyer splits up Molly and Arlin, he soon becomes jealous of Arlin’s attention to Margo (Cece Whitney of Bullet for a Bad Man), and vows to bring down the career he just finished making. Booking Arlin in a tiny Chicago dinner club, the country sensation flops and crawls right into a bottle. Ignoring the advice of Opry star Tex Ritter to not "drink so much, and keep on the road," Arlin heads down the wrong path unaware that Molly is pregnant and possibly dying.
Apart from the song "Nashville Rebel" and the title of the film, there’s precious little that makes Arlin any more rebellious than any other country star of the time. Waylon had come out of a rockabilly background which found him touring as Buddy Holly’s bass player (And giving up his seat on that fateful plane-ride to The Big Bopper while his brother Thomas gave his up to Richie Valens). However, by the time Jennings recorded his first album, his music had softened into what he called "folk-country." Waylon’s hair stays greased up for the entire film and his clothes get sharper as his career rises but a more apt title would be Nashville Rube.
Even from the first scene, where Arlin, newly released from the military, gets beat up by a group of guys, the character is built as hapless and gullible. Even later in the film, Arlin totally accepts that his shady manager paid off the entire Grand Ole Opry to like his music which would be as easy as getting a Showtime at the Apollo crowd to enjoy Kenny G.
For his part, Waylon fairly slept though the role which he never expected to get. Jennings said, "I had heard about the auditions, but I didn’t plan to do anything about them. John Cash was out of town, however, and I was floating around... I read for the part and I was terrible. I promptly forgot about it. I was higher’n a kite." Johnny had already graced the screen in his own low budget gem, 5 Minutes to Live, and Waylon, high on uppers, had no real aspirations as an actor. Over the course of filming, Jennings can be seen to lose a considerable amount of weight, and in his biography he says as much noting, "I started out filming at 170s pounds and lost 30 of them before the three weeks of shooting schedule was over. I was up the whole time, never eating, fighting with Barbara [his wife at the time], me on pills and roaring," and that "by the time the film reaches its climax... I looked like a gutted snowbird."
Jennings also felt there was little of the real Waylon that made it onto the screen except for a scene where Arlin pops a bottle of champagne. The real Waylon had never done that before either and when the cork gives way he says, "We’re in business." It was an adlib and Jennings recalled, "It’s the real me. I still say it the same way." However he also remembered that as the film went on "the line between Arlin and me was getting less clear, the more pills I took while I was doing the part." Jennings found humor that while he remained an insomniac, "At least I got to sleep in the movie." However, there was at least one thing about Arlin that definitely mirrored Jennings’s life at the time. In his autobiography Waylon recounted his wife Barbara telling their friend Duane Eddy "flat out told him she didn’t want me to be a star" and neither did Arlin’s sweet Molly. Unlike the film romance, Waylon and Barbara would part soon after. Jennings was also haunted by his hit song from the film, "Green River." The tune was penned by Harland Howard, a songwriter who Jennings worked with on many occasions, even recording a whole album on his songs, but he would later refuse to play it in concert saying, "I never liked it. Even when people yelled from the audience for it, I wouldn’t play it. ‘That’s a terrible song,’ I’d say, ‘I don’t do that no more.’"
While Waylon’s fictional singer is the focus of the film, Nashville Rebel does give a wonderful "travelogue" of Nashville in the late ’60s. One of the main focuses of the film was appearing on the Grand Ole Opry. The Opry, which began in 1925, got its name when an announcer went from an hour of classical music to the country music show by saying, "You’ve been listening to the Grand Opera, but now we present you with The Grand Old Opry." Within a week the newspapers were calling the program by that name, and the venerable program was born. At that time, and for many years after, performing or becoming part of the Opry was the pinnacle for country musicians. (Though Waylon turned down his real life chance to join, as it would have kept him off the road too much.) Getting a chance to see the Ryman Auditorium, the Opry’s original home, in operation and hosting a bevy of country legends, is a treat for music fans of all stripes.
While there are many songs in Nashville Rebel, including a young Loretta Lynn performing her classic tune "You Ain’t Woman Enough (To Take My Man)," two tunes stand out from the rest: "Hillbilly Heaven" by Tex Ritter and "Christmas at the Opry" by Loretta Lynn and the Wilburn Brothers. Both of these have a particular feature missing from modern country music: the recitation. Defined as a spoken narrative to music, generally with a sentimental (or at times, religious) theme, the recitation song hasn’t seen a spark of popularity since C.W. McCall’s "Convoy," but Nashville Rebel packed in two with similar themes. Both recall the dead country music legends of yore, such as Hank Williams, listed in God’s "tally book" in "Hillbilly Heaven." These stars come back to perform at the Opry on Christmas Night in "Christmas at the Opry."
Most of the cast of Nashville Rebel now reside in Hillbilly Heaven, and if there was ever an updated version of the song, just the people seen onscreen would be enough to fill the ranks with legends. Tex Ritter has the biggest part in the film of any of the other musicians as he tries to warn Arlin off of going down a bad path, but Chet Atkins has the funniest line when he assures the slick lawyer that Arlin’s record would have that "Nashville Sound" as it’s an "in-built feature of our musicians and singers." In an era when auto-tune and prepackaged music is de rigueur, it’s somehow comforting to know that slapping a "sound" on an artist goes back as far as the music industry. While Jennings wasn’t much of a rebel in Nashville Rebel, the prescient title did hint to his future where he would break from the Nashville music machine. By 1973, he had leveraged the success of his friend Willie Nelson to gain artistic control over his albums, and with the 1973 album Honky Tonk Heroes, comprised of tunes penned by unknown songwriter Billy Joe Shaver; Jennings forged his own rebellious path which would lead directly to the success of "Outlaw Country"
In his early career, Waylon Jennings used to play shows on top of a snack bar at a drive-in between features, and talking about Nashville Rebel he quipped that the film "was one of those movies that go straight to the drive-in. Depending on how you look at it, I’d either come a very long or very short distance from the top of the snack bar." In his career, Waylon would appear on screen several more times, often in made for TV films featuring famous friends, but he would never take on a leading role again. Nashville Rebel is not a Walk the Line forbearer starring its subject, but rather has more in common with exploitation elements with its "fame and fortune gone wrong" subject matter. It is a cautionary tale, but not only because of the events that transpire onscreen. Like Waylon Jennings, not every musician should become an actor. For every turn like Mick Jagger in Performance or Elvis Presley in Charro!, there’s Mick Jagger in Freejack and Elvis in practically everything else he ever did. The ability to hold an audience from a stage with an instrument just doesn’t always hold up when the same ability is put onscreen. Arlin’s song Nashville Rebel says, "I’ve got things to do and things to say in my own way" and, sometimes, it’s best to do things in the way you know and not be a rebel.