As a kid growing up his playground included places like backstage at Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic or Farm Aid or some of the other big shows of the day.

The Jennings name paved the way to privilege and places other people couldn’t go. But it’s also a heck of a long shadow to crawl out from under when you’re lookin’ for your own place in the sun.

As the story goes, Whey Jennings was a kid backstage at one of his grandparents shows. Jessi Colter came off after singing, “Storms Never Last,” and laid her mic down on a chair. Whey picked it up and pranced out onto the stage singing, “Mamma’s Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” leaving grandpa Waylon Jennings to scramble to catch up on the guitar.

“That’s a for real story,” he said with a laugh in a telephone interview from Utah. “A few years later when I was about 13, they asked me to come out and play. The lights hit me. I couldn’t see past the front row, and froze like a deer in the headlights.”

There won’t be any lost-in-the-headlights kid out there on Aug. 29 when Whey Jennings and The Unwanted open for headliner Russell Dickerson at Rockin’ the Arena to kick start the Ellensburg Rodeo off in style.

“My job is to put a smile on somebody’s face and give them a show to remember,” said Jennings, who will also play the Behind the Chutes After Party on Aug. 29 and Aug. 30. “I’ve never really tried to be Waylon Jennings. My grandfather was too big and with too many accomplishments. I’m just trying to be me.”

Whey Jennings, the oldest son of Katherine and Terry Jennings, was born and raised in Grand Prairie, Texas. Where his daddy preferred the production side of the business and never did follow his heritage onto the stage, Whey always knew he wanted to play music for a living.

His uncle Shooter asked him to come out to one of his shows and do a couple of songs, and Whey’s been on one tour bus or another ever since. Shooter, whose full name is Waylon Albright Jennings, not only has the Jennings name to contend with, but the Waylon part to go along with it. He gave his nephew a bit advice on the whole thing.

“Shooter just told me to be yourself and don’t change that,” Whey said. “That’s pretty much the only advice there is.”

REAL SONGS

Whey Jennings and The Unwanted released their first full album last summer featuring a track written by Danny Thompson called, “Those Days.” The other nine tracks were written by Jennings. The album, “Voices from the Gallows” is a mixture of country, southern rock, blues and gospel. But the thing is, he said, it’s 100 percent real songs, written by real men about real life.

“I put everything I have into the music. Every song I do has to mean something to me. If it don’t mean something, then it ain’t going to come out right,” Whey explained. “Country songs used to be about cryin’ in your beer, but I like to write about your wife coming back, you get your house back, your dog comes home.”

When Terry Jennings passed away in January at the age of 62, Whey played a version of Waylon’s “Jack of Diamonds,” which was his daddy’s favorite song and there wasn’t a dry eye in the joint, according to the reports.

“Most of my immediate family’s gone now, so my band is my family now. We’re real close and I look at them like brothers,” Whey said. “I do like to pay tribute to my family though, playing ‘Jack of Diamonds,’ because it was my daddy’s favorite song.

“I also end every performance with an a cappella original dedicated to my grandfather called, ‘Missing You.’ ”

The one thing is for sure, Whey Jennings is cut from the same cloth that invented Outlaw Country music and rodeo fans can bank on the idea when Whey Jennings and The Unwanted make their Pacific Northwest debut on Aug. 29 at the Ellensburg Rodeo, they’re gonna turn loose the dogs and light up the night.

To hear the title track “Voices from the Gallows,” visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=JRexjG95kmY.

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