You may have heard this before. When Waylon Jennings was getting his start in the late 50s, touring with the “Big Bopper” J.P. Richardson, Buddy Holly, and Ritchie Valens, he elected to take a chartered bus on a cold, 300-mile drive to Fargo, giving up his plane seat so that another of the crew could fly, who at the time had a flu. Leaving the boys at the airport, with a note of good-natured bravado he told Holly that he hoped “your ol’ plane crashes.” This was what happened, the infamous “Day that Music Died.” The plane crashed, and three of America’s most idolized rock’n'rollers were killed in a frozen Iowa cornfield. In his interview with VH1 decades later about that day, Waylon said he still hadn’t been able to let go of what he said.
It’s so hard to lay it down. Jennings often sings about the weather-all freedom of the Outlaw, but he never shied from the songs that said it was also a hard, “low-down freedom.” It’s a life lived in a pack, a carried life– to be lived alone in the lightness of one’s self. The Nashville Rebel is a loner because he’s got “things to do, things to say, in his own way.” And yet the packed-n-carried roadlife only gets heavier as the actors in your play increase, as the road carries you–and you’ve suddenly got more than will fit in the saddlebags and you just need some place to fall, to lay it down. Four marriages, an addiction to pills, a 1500-dollar-per-day cocaine addiction, a $2 million dollar debt unvanquished by a deteriorating health and tour-life. This was Waylon in the 80s, and he had to be coming back to this song he recorded over a decade before, written by Gene Thomas.
It’s a profound insight. We’re often quick to say that if we could just find a “Soft Place to Fall,” if we could just have a hiding place, a Rock, we’d be all right. The song, though, says something more implicit about who we are, about our propensity to shoulder the load even when we don’t need to. Waylon’s saying that, even when I can lay it down, I don’t lay it down, I choose despite myself to carry the load that’s killing me. It’s the distinction between what we wish for ourselves and what we, in fact, are. When given the choice, I will bear the knee-buckling “self-made hell,” remain my unbroken “shell,” I will not choose falling back but will stiffen up at the idea of falling back. When the comforting words come–that all I have to do is trust, lay it down, let go, I can’t even do that. It’s so hard! I must be killed. I must be taken down, because, if it’s up to me, I will have the hardest time letting go of my idea of my life.
Back in Eden we were tried,
Found ourselves dissatisfied,
Seeking wisdom that she denied.
Tryin’ hard to lay it down.
Lay it down brother, lay it down
It’s so hard to lay it down.
Speak to me, be unashamed
There’s no need in playing games.
After all we’re all the same,
Just tryin’ hard to lay it down.
Wish my words could make it well,
Wish that I could break the shell
Take us from my self-made hell
Find a way to lay it down.
Burdened by the things I’ve learned
Hurtin’ ’cause I’m too concerned
Nonetheless I confess I yearn
To find a way to lay it down.
Here’s the Christian prayer of old lives in a new death, of new life in a very old death (and resurrection). It’s a confession that we “yearn / To find a way to lay it down,” and there’s the reception of the Good News that what’s been lain down has been done sufficiently in the cross of our redemption, the “one oblation once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice.” When we can’t lay it down, the hopeful message is that the laying down’s been done for us, and all that’s left to “do” is to sit in trusting recognition of that objective death, in the hope that that death is the only demand for new and eternal life.