In 1985 Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson came together to form the Highwaymen. A collaboration that today seems unfathomable because it seems the only way to get four top artists working together today is to have them promoting the soundtrack to a children’s animated film. I’m obsessed with the idea of these four talented and individually successful musicians coming together all for the sake of a greater creative freedom. PBS released an American Masters documentary profiling the history of the group in May and here is an awesome interactive map breaking down the career timeline of each Highwayman.
Now, aside from all of that I’m really just here to give “The Definitive Breakdown of Highwayman by The Highwaymen, That No One Asked For”.
First for review:
How about that for a music video huh? Nothing but the utmost, on the nose imagery will do for the four horseman of Outlaw Country!
Highwayman was written and originally released by Jimmy Webb but let’s face it, it was the Highwaymen who really brought out the best in this three minute and twenty two second musical journey through time and space. We’re led off in the first verse by the instantly recognizable, nasal hinged vocal of Willie Nelson. Nelson is taking on the persona of the Highwayman, a road bandit who robs stage coaches, stabs soldiers and pisses off enough people that he is eventually hung in the town square. This is a pretty nefarious character but the warmth and honesty in Willie’s voice gives you the sense that the Highwayman was just an untoward youth that could have used more direction in his upbringing. It was a smart choice to give this darker imagery to Nelson’s softer tenor, as our following three baritone/bass vocalists would have given us listeners a darker, more negative outlook on our opening character. On a deeper level Willie was the right choice to start off the song because he encompasses the best parts of all four members. A great songwriter, a deft guitar picker and a marijuana advocating, back taxed, everyday American hero. He is the ambassador of the country of Highwaymen, representing all of the best parts of this land and what it can offer it’s visitors. “Hi, I’m Willie. Welcome to Highwaymen. Here you’ll find great song writing, personal story telling, honest human struggle and access to as many shots of Jack Daniels and bong hits as you deem necessary”.
Now that we have been welcomed in to the home of country greatness we are now greeted with the resident poet, Kris Kristofferson. Now, these aren’t Kris’ words but some of his best words were made famous by someone else’s voice, so by the ‘Rule Of Covers’ we can accept that this verse of a sailor out on the unyielding ocean is the property, or at least the long term lease, of KK. Although sung by the lesser of the vocal talent in the foursome, this story about a crew member being torn from his boat and lost to the sea is the clearest of the bunch. We get a sense of the life arc of the sailor, born upon the tides destined to live a life at sea and ultimately end there. The nodule cracked vocals of Kristofferson just adds depth to the credibility of a deck hand who spent his days yelling down from the crows nest, warning of impending dangers and being dehydrated by the consumption of salt water as he mouth breathed his way to setting a sail. KK’s career, much like this character followed the flow of the tides and the wind. Sailing off to the island of A Star is Born, to the far reaches of Blade:Trinity and finally to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Kris’ verse is a lesson that life out at sea can be unpredictable and for many of us out there that feeling is unsettling and the desire for something more practical leads us to Waylon Jennings. For me he is top two in the all time Outlaw country ranks, No.1 having to go to Merle Haggard but it’s a tight race. Especially considering that I play this when I’m in a “F this day” mood. Waylon isn’t pulling punches with what’s going on his life or wasting his time pretending things are okay within his music. That’s why he is the right man to handle this very practical third verse. It’s just a hard working fella at the Hoover dam, who had a bad day at work, was probably hung over, and fell off the damn dam and died. It doesn’t have any pretense to flower up the language of how he died, he just lays it out there, I freakin’ slipped. Mind you, no one bothered to pull the poor guy out of some freshly poured concrete. He must’ve been too far down or something, so he just had let that be his burial spot. Which for his family saved a ton of money in funeral costs and when you visit him you get some top notch sight seeing in to boot. It’s a tale that only Jennings could pass off with any credibility. Who else could add weight to a story about a work place slip and fall?
Now we move into our clean up hitter, Johnny Cash. One of the most recognizable figures in music. I’d say country music but when you have an award winning biopic made of you and you have your own personal museum down the block from the museum that represents all of country music and it’s hall of fame, you’ve transcended the genre. Johnny existed in another world from these three, living with more fame, more money and at least top two in more problems. It makes this space exploring, jet setting, cosmic verse appropriate only to him. Much like the Rick Rubin produced albums that explored the many facets that still existed in Cash, this verse lays out the possibilities that this soul may transcend this world to embody something it once was, in the Highwayman. Or that the spirit can come back as something more natural and unnoticed in this world as a drop of rain. Differing from the previous three, this character never has an earthly based existence, it starts apart from us in the sky, flying a star ship. Johnny is leading us through the deeper deliberations of what life away from our earthly consciousness may be.
This forward momentum and striving to find something apart from this known world best encapsulates what brought these four artists together. They were looking for a creative outlet that existed outside the machine of Nashville and the accepted and expected forms of creation from them at that time and ultimately led to a larger desire for ‘Outlaw Country’. The Highwayman is a song that gives each of these members a platform, with in one piece of music, to showcase a condensed representation of their strengths as individuals but mostly shows their willingness to collaborate. I won’t claim it saved a genre of music but it did renew and revitalize it.
Think of today’s four biggest music artist in any one genre. Now, try to imagine that those four artists decide to form a band together. Outside of talent coming out for a television special to raise money for a global tragedy, I would imagine the best music group that could come out of today’s music scene would be this artistry
What are your favorite collaborations?
Could history prove this foursome changed the landscape of a genre?