Twenty years ago this week we lost Waylon Jennings, one of the all-time great voices of country music. Jennings was a singer and songwriter who rose from poverty to great wealth and fame, with 54 albums and 96 singles listed among the top sellers between 1966 and 2002. He gave concerts and recorded with many of the most popular artists of his time including Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Bobby Bare, Kris Kristofferson and Mel Tillis. Yet his incredibly unhealthful lifestyle led to diabetes that made him miserable. He had to have his foot amputated, had heart attacks, and eventually died of kidney failure at the young age of 64. He left a legacy of music that is still widely enjoyed today: “Good Hearted Woman,” “I’m a Ramblin’ Man,” “Amanda,” “I’ve Always Been Crazy,” “Lucille,” “Kisses Sweeter than Wine,” “The Race Is On,” “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” “Luckenbach, Texas,” “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” “Bob Wills is Still the King,” “Stop the World and Let Me Off” and many others.
Poverty Made Him Work Hard
Jennings was born in Littlefield, Texas in 1937, during the Great Depression, to a father who worked as a farm laborer and a mother who was of Cherokee and Comanche descent. When he was eight, the family moved from the farm into town, where his father sold dairy products and Waylon’s job was to deliver ice to homes and night clubs. His parents both played the guitar and loved music. They were always short of money, so his father would park his pickup truck next to their house and run booster cables to their radio to hear the Grand Ole Opry and the Louisiana Hayride. His mother showed him how to play guitar and he would try to copy the songs he heard by Bob Wills, Floyd Tillman, Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Carl Smith and Elvis Presley. At age 12, he was playing his guitar on the local radio station, KVOW. At age 16, he was kicked out of the 10th grade and went to work for his father, then drove a cement truck and a lumber truck. At age 19, he was a disc jockey on KVOW radio but got fired for playing music the owner didn’t like — tunes by Chuck Berry and Little Richard.
The Day the Music Died
Waylon became friends with Buddy Holly and when he was 21, Holly hired him as a bass player for a national tour. On February 3, 1959, after a show in Clear Lake, Iowa, Buddy Holly chartered a plane for himself and some of the other lead performers. Because one of the band members, J. P. Richardson, was suffering from the flu, Waylon gave up his seat on the plane and suffered the long bus ride through cold winter weather instead of having the expected comfort of a short plane ride. The chartered plane crashed, killing rock and roll musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. Waylon Jennings lived because he gave up his seat on a plane to help his sick bandmate. The tragic crash was immortalized in the song “American Pie” (“The Day the Music Died”).
Four Marriages, Endless Touring
Waylon was married four times and had six children. In 1956, at age 18, he married Maxine Caroll Lawrence and they had four children. Starting in the 1960s, he spent more than 300 days a year on the road as an established country singer and developed a dependence on amphetamines and cocaine. At age 25, he married Lynne Jones, adopted a child and got divorced five years later. He then married Barbara Rood. At age 32, he married singer Jessi Colter and they sang together in concerts and recordings, including the platinum album “Wanted: The Outlaws,” with Willie Nelson. They had a son, Waylon Albright “Shooter” Jennings. In the early 1980s, they nearly divorced because of his problems with drugs and constant touring, but they remained married until he died in 2002.
His Horrible Lifestyle Led to Diabetes, Heart Attacks and Death
In 1972, at age 35, he was hospitalized with hepatitis. In 1977 he was arrested for possession of cocaine. During the early 1980s, in his mid-40s, he was heavily into cocaine and claimed to have spent $1,500 a day on his habit and he went into bankruptcy for $2.5 million. In 1984 at age 47, he stopped using cocaine after spending 21 years on drugs.
In 1988, he had coronary artery bypass surgery and finally stopped smoking his usual six packs of cigarettes a day. He then gained more weight which worsened his diabetes, causing nerve damage that made his legs and back hurt all the time. In the 1990s, his record sales and radio play declined, but he still drew large crowds wherever he performed. In 1997 at age 60, he announced that he would give up touring to be close to his family, but he continued recording and touring at a reduced rate. In 2000, he needed surgery to bypass obstruction in the arteries in his legs. By now he was in a wheelchair and could barely walk. Diabetes had destroyed his immunity and he developed an overwhelming infection in his left foot that could be treated only with amputation. He gave a final concert in the fall of 2001. On February 13, 2002, he died in his sleep after diabetes had destroyed his peripheral nerves, blood vessels throughout his body, his kidneys and his heart.
How Bad Lifestyle Choices Lead to Diabetes
There are two types of diabetes: Type I, with high blood sugar primarily from not having enough insulin and Type II, with high blood sugar primarily from not responding to insulin. More than 90 percent of the diabetes in North America is Type II, caused by not being able to respond to insulin. Most diabetics can be cured early in their disease by a change of lifestyle as diabetes is caused primarily by the patient’s poor lifestyle and far less by the genes he acquired from his parents. Lifestyle factors that lead to Type II diabetes include:
• lack of exercise
• drinking sugared drinks and eating sugar-added foods
• not eating enough fruits and vegetables
• eating too many refined carbohydrates
• eating red and processed meat
• having low levels of vitamin D
• having a weakened immunity caused by drugs, smoking and/or excess alcohol
Alcohol, Recreational Drugs, Tobacco and Complications of Diabetes
Alcohol abuse increases risk of Type II diabetes. Alcohol is a poison that is broken down only by your liver. Your liver converts alcohol to an even-more damaging poison called acetaldehyde. Excess alcohol damages your liver and pancreas which can lead to diabetes or make existing diabetes much worse. Excess alcohol causes pancreatitis. Of those who develop this condition, one third will develop diabetes because the alcohol can destroy the beta cells in the pancreas that make insulin. Diabetics should never drink alcohol as excess alcohol can cause obesity and both high and low blood sugar levels. Cocaine and amphetamines can raise blood sugar levels and increase diabetes risk. Marijuana can impair short-term memory, and any kind of smoke can cause lung damage (N Engl J Med, June 5, 2014;370(23):2219–2227). Cigarette smoking contributes to diabetes (Acta Pharmacologica Sinica, May 11, 2009;30: 784–787) by causing insulin resistance (Lancet 1992; 339: 1128–30), and can lead to heart attacks by causing plaques to form in arteries (Arterioscler Thromb Vasc Biol, 2005;25:29–38).
Diabetes will affect more than 40 percent of all North Americans, and the risk factors for diabetes are also risk factors for heart attacks, strokes, dementia and many cancers. If you can pinch more than three inches of fat under the skin on your belly you are probably diabetic or pre-diabetic, particularly if you also have small buttocks. When you are pre-diabetic or diabetic, every type of cell in your body can be destroyed by high blood sugar levels, putting you at increased risk for blindness, deafness, pain in your arms and legs, heart attacks, kidney failure, dementia, strokes, chronic fatigue, and so forth. Your doctor can do a fasting blood sugar test (should be below 95), blood sugar two hours after eating a meal (should be below 120), and a measure of cell damage called HBA1c (should be below 5.5). I believe that virtually everyone should follow a diabetes prevention regimen, even if all your blood tests are normal:
• lose weight if overweight
• avoid sugar-added foods and drinks, red meat and processed meats,
• eat plenty of fruits and vegetables
• limit foods made with flour and other refined carbohydrates
• keep blood levels of hydroxy vitamin D above 30 ng/mL
• try to exercise every day
• avoid all recreational drugs, tobacco and alcohol
Waylon Arnold Jennings
June 15, 1937 – February 13, 2002