Whey Jennings performs this weekend at Top Deck

Mike Easterling
Whey Jennings and the Unwanted perform this weekend at the Top Deck in Farmington.

FARMINGTON – Whey Jennings doesn’t kid himself into thinking that most people who come to see him perform for the first time are already fans of his music. He knows it’s his famous last name — and his status as the grandson of music legend Waylon Jennings — that draws their attention, at least initially.

“They want to see if the monkey can dance,” he said.

But Jennings, who performs here this weekend, knows if he wants to keep those folks coming back, he has to show them something besides a strong family resemblance to his late grandfather, a onetime member of Buddy Holly’s Crickets who went on to serve as one of the founding fathers of the outlaw country movement in the early and middle 1970s. By the time he died in 2002, the elder Jennings had become one of the giants of American popular music, having transcended genres and generated a slew of hits that included “This Time,” “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” “Luckenbach, Texas,” “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” “I’ve Always Been Crazy,” “Bob Wills Is Still the King” and “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys."

The long shadow cast by his grandfather is something Whey Jennings doesn’t shy away from, even as he hustles to build a career, and a following, of his own. He said he has nothing but good memories of his grandfather, who died when the younger Jennings was 21.

“I knew him pretty well,” said Whey Jennings, who grew up in Texas, during a phone conversation last week from Indianapolis, where he was preparing for a show that night. “When I was a kid, we used to see each other a lot, although it was mostly in airports or backstage. When I was 11, I moved in with my dad in Franklin, Tenn. (approximately 20 miles south of Nashville), so then I’d see him at my football practices and at dinners.”

When he was a child, Whey said, his grandfather was just that — his grandfather, not some famous, hard-partying country singer who hung around with Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson. It wasn’t until the younger Jennings grew older and began to understand the world around him that he started to grasp the enormity of his grandfather’s celebrity and began to see him as a larger-than-life figure.

“Then, I’d kind of get nervous around him,” he said.

So the relationship between the two existed on a dual plane of sorts. Whey Jennings enjoyed having a famous grandfather, but his attention as a teenager was largely focused on playing football — he dreamed of becoming a professional some day — until an injury cut short his career. From there, it didn’t take much prodding for him to turn his eye to a music career.

“The first thing I ever saw musically was a drum set on my grandfather’s stage,” he said, recalling how big an impact that made on him at an early age.

But Jennings didn’t take a direct path to music, opting first to return to Texas to try his hand at cotton farming for a while. It wasn’t until his dying mother implored him to give music a serious try that Jennings finally resolved to give it his best shot. It didn’t take long for the creative bug to bite, as he said he knew he wanted to have a career in music from the first time he stepped onstage.

“Now, I’m stuck,” he said. “I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Jennings tours all over the country but has built a solid following in the Four Corners area, where he has become a regular at Navajo Nation fairs. The other members of his four-piece band are Native — two Navajo and one Cherokee — and the group has been together for several months now after being introduced to each other in Gallup.

Jennings largely follows in the outlaw country footsteps of his grandfather, but he mixes in blues and rock influences. He took a strictly acoustic approach to his sound on his 2014 debut recording, but he plans to record his second album with his entire band in June at a studio in Michigan’s secluded Upper Peninsula. The recording will feature all original material, and Jennings hopes it will help him establish his own identity.

“It’s going to be all Whey Jennings,” he said. “It’s not going to be Waylon Jennings’ grandson.”

Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.

If you go

What: Whey Jennings and the Unwanted in concert

When: 8 p.m. Friday, March 4

Where: Top Deck, 515 E. Main St. in Farmington

Tickets: $8 in advance at the Copper Penny, 515 E. Main St. in Farmington

For more information: Call 505-325-1563