Last spring Waylon Jennings had a problem too tough for even the outlaw of country music to handle. A 12-year slide into cocaine addiction had steepened alarmingly, and his family and friends feared for his life. The quality of his performances and recording sessions plummeted. At one concert in Portland, Oreg. he stumbled onstage, slurred a few songs and stalked off to boos from the audience. He had lost interest in eating. His wife, singer Jessi Colter, had been unable to curb his addiction and kept him going by force-feeding him a diet of milk shakes laced with honey, fruit, proteins and vitamins. “Jessi went through hell,” says Way-Ion, 47. “She was watching me die.” Sick and depressed, Jennings would wake up wild-eyed at 4 a.m. in his luxurious Nashville home. “I’d go out and sit by the pool in the dark and think about what it was doing to me, to my people and to my family. It was ridiculous—the money I was spending on cocaine, and what it was doing to my life.” Then longtime friend Johnny Cash sought him out.
Cash had recently completed treatment at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif. for an addiction to pain-killing pills that had gripped him since hospitalization for surgery last December. “I want to show you my big bright eyes,” Cash told Jennings. “Waylon, I’m not here to make you do something or talk you into anything. I just want you to know that if you decide you need help, I know a good place.” Cash continues, “You can’t preach to Waylon. I don’t care what kind of shape he’s in. Waylon is his own man.” The two friends had long had a drug-free pact between them. “He’s never given me a pill, and I’ve never gotten him one,” says Jennings. “When we [first] met we both said, ‘I’ll never give you the first one—and I won’t be the one to give you the last.’ ” Cash’s encouragement worked. “Johnny Cash was a great inspiration to me—to see him do it,” Waylon says.
Unlike his friend, Waylon decided to go cold turkey rather than enter a treatment center. Through friend Bob Sikora, a restaurant chain owner, he leased a home in Paradise Valley, outside Scottsdale, Ariz., and moved in with Jessi and their 5-year-old son, Shooter. Aware that his attempt to quit two years before in Malibu had failed (“California isn’t a real good place to get off drugs”), Waylon’s resolve was still shaky. “When I went to Arizona, it wasn’t that I was quitting—I was just going to stop for a while,” he says. Isolated from temptation, he began to take long walks in the mountains, sometimes alone, sometimes with Sikora or Shooter, most often with Jessi. After a month of such seclusion, his health improved dramatically, and he felt ready to return to Nashville and the road.
“I told everybody who worked for me or wanted to be around me that they had to drop [the drug] or find something else to do or somewhere else to go,” says Waylon. The once readily available cocaine disappeared from his world. “I know that I can never even touch it, and I don’t want to,” he says. “I’m a drug addict, and if I ever do it again I’ll be right back on it. It took me a couple of mornings sitting out by myself in the wilderness to be able to say I was ‘quitting,’ not ‘stopping.’ I wanted to make it for sure.”
Nowadays Waylon feels a different kind of buzz. “The good, real feeling of being off drugs keeps me high with my family. I can be dead tired when I come home, but if Shooter wants to play or Jessi wants to talk, I’ve got time and energy for it,” he says. “It’s a new high for me. I wouldn’t trade this feeling for anything.”
Johnny Cash knows what his buddy is talking about. “I appreciate everybody’s giving me the credit for Waylon’s recovery, but it’s an awfully tough, lonely row to hoe,” he says, “and nobody but Waylon did that.” Since their respective cleanups, their families have twice partied together. “Sobriety parties,” emphasizes Waylon. “His and mine. June [Carter Cash] gave me a sobriety party and Jessi gave John one.” Adds Cash: “Those were the best parties we ever had. They are two great women.” Waylon says there’s still one party to go. “Me and John are going to give Jessi and June one—but we ain’t going to invite nobody else.”