On This Day: Waylon Jennings Releases ‘Will the Wolf Survive’ Album in 1986

by Jim Casey
Photo by Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Waylon Jennings made his MCA Records debut on March 10, 1986, when he released his new studio album, Will the Wolf Survive. And yes, 35 years later, the Wolf has survived.

Following 20 years with RCA, where Waylon and labelmate Willie Nelson helped usher in the Outlaw movement of the 1970s, Waylon made the switch to MCA. The label served as his home for subsequent albums Hangin’ Tough (1987), A Man Called Hoss (1987), and Full Circle (1988).

If you’re counting at home, that’s four studio albums in less than three years, which is something that would never happen in today’s market. But Waylon was a prolific creator of music throughout his life.

Waylon Jennings Revival

Waylon’s previous three albums with RCA didn’t exactly tear up the Billboard Top Country Albums chart: 1984’s Never Could Toe the Mark (No. 20), 1985’s Turn the Page (No. 23), and 1986’s Sweet Mother Texas (didn’t chart). Waylon needed some new juice, and MCA was ready to squeeze.

By the time Will the Wolf Survive was released, Waylon was in the midst of a mini resurgence. He was almost two years sober, and his 1985 collaboration with Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson on The Highwaymen proved Waylon still had some gas in the tank.

When the supergroup’s self-titled album dropped in May 1985, their lead single, “Highwayman,” rose to No. 1 and spent 20 weeks on Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart, while the album reached No. 1 on Billboard‘s Top Country Albums chart.

I’m Sending the Wolf

Produced by Jimmy Bowen, Will the Wolf Survive had a sleeker sound than Waylon’s previous records. But that was the point. Outlaw purists will never mention it as a favorite album. Waylon didn’t write a single track, and his backing band wasn’t present in the studio to give the offering his familiar hard-driving sound.

However, vocally speaking, Waylon still had the good stuff.

Will the Wolf Survive reached No. 1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart, which marked the first time since 1980’s Music Man. The album also spawned three Top 10 hits, including “Working Without a Net” (No. 7), “Will the Wolf Survive” (No. 5), and “What You’ll Do When I’m Gone” (No. 8).

Will the Wolf Survive marked Waylon’s final studio album to reach No. 1 before his death in 2002.

Los Lobos Shout-Out

The album’s title track was penned by David Hidalgo and Louie Perez of Los Lobos for their 1984 major-label debut album, How Will the Wolf Survive?

In 2020, Rolling Stone listed Los Lobos’ How Will the Wolf Survive? as No. 431 of The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

Waylon Respects the Earle

Waylon’s Will the Wolf Survive featured a deep cut, “The Devil’s Right Hand,” by little-known singer/songwriter Steve Earle. Interestingly enough, Steve released his debut album, Guitar Town, just five days before Waylon dropped Will the Wolf Survive.

Steve included “The Devil’s Right Hand” on his third album, Copperhead Road