In 1982, Willie Nelson’s album, “Always on My Mind”, and recording of title song, were #1 on Billboard Country Music Charts.
by: Barry Mazor
The handle “supergroup” usually suggests a spur-of-the-moment, short-term stunt project by big names with a gap in their gig calendars—from Blind Faith or the Traveling Wilburys in rock to the Three Tenors in opera. A few other outfits came together just as casually but lasted: Crosby, Stills and Nash in rock, for one, and the Highwaymen in country. Referred to occasionally as “the Mount Rushmore of country music,” that arena-filling quartet of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson worked together as a unit, off and on, from 1985 to 1995, toured extensively, and recorded three albums. The grouping helped to extend and even reinvigorate the careers of them all.
This month, there are new opportunities to reconsider how that collection of sometimes ornery, individualistic, middle-aged mavericks collaborated and managed to last as a unit, and to experience anew the flavor of their performances together: The documentary “The Highwaymen: Friends Till the End” has its debut May 27 as a PBS American Masters entry, and a new multiple CD and DVD set, “The Highwaymen Live: American Outlaws,” has just been released by Sony Legacy. The latter includes a never-before-seen film of a full March 1990 Highwaymen concert at Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum.
As both the PBS documentary, produced and directed by Jim Brown, and the thoughtful, extensive liner notes to the live set by Mikal Gilmore remind us, when the idea of forming a group was floated by the four friends after a joint appearance on a 1984 Johnny Cash Christmas telecast, it was no given that the combined lineup would work musically or prove more than a short lark.
All of the men were already rugged, leathery heroes of country music. Cash had been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame before the group assembled; all four would eventually be honored that way, and all had, if only reluctantly, accepted the “Outlaw Country” marketing label applied to them for bucking established Nashville musical practices of their day. All had crossed musical borders at times into the rock and folk arenas, and all had screen careers—Mr. Kristofferson seriously so, and Mr. Nelson considerably. (They’d all appear together, along with friends and families, in a 1986 remake of the classic “Stagecoach” western.) There were some political differences between them, which occasionally led to minor friction, but deep-seated American respect for speaking up was a central part of each of their characters, so it stayed minor. “They are,” Jennings’s widow, singer-songwriter Jessi Colter notes in the PBS film, “icons of popular American music, not just country. They had empires of their own!”
The experiences, pleasures and irritations these icons shared forged a bond between them—a bond that showed especially on the stage and now can be seen and heard in the musical interactions in the “Highwaymen Live” performance film.
Since none of the four stars were particularly inclined toward harmony singing, instead tending to trade off verses in duets they’d done, it’s all the more dramatic and welcome when they let loose with unison or harmony choruses on such bravura numbers as “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” “Desperados Waiting for a Train” and “Big River.” Mr. Kristofferson, it’s revealed, had admired that last song more than any other from the 1950s and insisted that Cash, who wrote the number, feature it. When Willie Nelson takes off with one of his patented, powerful acoustic guitar improvisations, Jennings (no guitar slouch himself) beams. And they all take particular pleasure in featuring some of Mr. Kristofferson’s indelible numbers—“Me and Bobby McGee,” “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again)”—as they had on records.
As is fitting for a gang of individuals, each gets a short set in concert where they lead the others—and the versatile band behind them includes instrumental stars of their regular bands. Even with the enormous repertoire of classic songs they have at hand when playing together, they still find time for charming goofing around between songs and in such numbers as “The King Is Gone (So Are You),” and for surprise duet pairings on songs from their solo records. It’s wonderfully entertaining.
The boxed set, in its three audio discs, adds additional live performances from Farm Aid concerts of 1992-93 to tracks from the filmed concert, and by adding new Nelson and Kristofferson vocals to an obscure Cash and Jennings duet on Bob Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings,” a “new” studio quartet track, too.
The Highwaymen act was built on the four country giants’ tremendous mutual respect, their pleasure in each other’s talents, and glee in their chance to perform together. They were not inclined to let go of any of that too fast. Neither will those catching these engaging new artifacts of their unique camaraderie.
by: Kelsey Summer
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA — Willie Nelson is bringing six decades of music to the Sprint Pavilion. Kelsey Summer was live Downtown as fans flocked in to see the icon take the stage.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA (NEWSPLEX) — Kelsey Summer was Downtown at the Sprint Pavilion where a legend was taking the stage. Willie Nelson’s career has spanned six decades. He’s won seven Grammys and numerous other awards. While the icon is most notably known for his music and songwriting, he also has a hand in a few other areas, including poetry, writing, and activism.
Nelson’s activism is playing a key role in Wednesday’s performance. The concert is in support of The Local Food Hub whose “mission is to partner with Virginia farmers to increase community access to local food.”
Bobbie Wilinski, a Nelson fan, says, “Farming is very, very important, and it doesn’t get the attention it needs, so I’m glad he’s supporting that…. Great guy, great music.”
“Willie called me from his bus Tuesday to check things out. He said he was “somewhere in North Carolina, didn’t know exactly where”. He and his group will be performing in Charlottesville, Virginia Wednesday, May 25.
“That’s tomorrow night, isn’t it?”, he asked.
I replied, “Yep.”
He mentioned seeing former president Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalyn, seated on the front row at the Chastain Park Amphitheater in Atlanta Friday night. They are true fans of Willie. They sang along as he crooned “Georgia On My Mind”, then shared the stage with him for a moment, waving at the applauding audience of almost 7000 “Willie lovers”.
Merle Haggard was set to play the Atlanta show with Willie earlier this year. Kris Kristofferson replaced Hag after a “make-up” date was set for l last Friday. Willie said, “Kris did a super job.” “As expected,” I said. Will, like so many others, is still super sad over the passing of our old friend, Haggard. “Merle was like a brother to me,” said Willie. I replied, “I feel the same.”
Changing the subject, Will jokingly asked, “How long have you been in radio, Bill? As I recall, when you started they hadn’t even invented microphones!”
I replied, “Right. Since we didn’t have microphones, we used ‘smoke signals’. From what I hear, you still use ‘smoke signals’ don’t you?”
He laughed loudly and said,”Well, it’s always good to talk with you, pal. Guess I’d better take a short nap … or somethin’.”
I said, “Be careful on the bus, Will.”
He said, “Shut up, Bill! It’s my bus, I’ll do as I please. Maybe I’ll be careful … maybe I won’t.”
End of a needed bit of chatter with a super pal.
— Bill Mack
Willie Nelson is the performer’s performer. He is the type of talent who turns out hit after hit, with plenty to go around, for instance ” Faron Young’s ‘Hello Walls’.
And then the young tunesmith can build a barrage of blockbusters for himself, like, ‘Half a Man’, and ‘Touch Me’. And it may not be five minutes before he comes up with more like these.
Willie is a personable young fellow, somewhat on the shy side for all the successes he has attained. He lives in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. He is a frequent guest on Dallas ‘Big D Jamboree.
Everything he does is considered as big news music wise such being the credit accorded his tune talent. He’s a fine looking male and certainly poses as one of the biggest talents in the western music industry.
[This is from a 1963 program]
Willie Nelson: “It’s a Long Story: My Life” Available in paperback, with new P.S. from Willie NelsonMay 24th, 2016
Willie Nelson’s book, “It’s a Long Story: My Life”was released in paperback this month. A year after it’s successful publication and becoming a national best seller (international, really), the book has been published in paperback. For the paperback version, Willie wrote an update for us all:
FROM THE BUS, SOMEWHERE ALONG THE GREAT AMERICAN HIGHWAY
Whether a singer of songs or a writer of books, an artist is always happy to have his work presented to the world. So I’m delighted that, a year after the publication of the hardback edition of It’s a Long Story, this paperback version is now available. To be honest, I was a little worried that my title might prove fatally prophetic — that my story would be, in fact, too long for anyone to bother with. Turned out I had nothing to worry about. Reviews were kind and readers even kinder. They put up with my long-windedness and kept my story on the bestseller lists for longer than I would have ever imagined. Thank you.
Well, I’m not going to push my luck and make this addition to the book any longer than it needs to be. I’ll just catch you up with my comings and goings this past year.
First and foremost, I’m still on this blessed bus, still “on the road again,” still loving the act of performing live — which is a lot preferable to performing dead — still grateful for every opportunity to visit with my friends and fans.
On the recording front, I’m happy to report that my last album, Django and Jimmie, a collaboration with Merle Haggard, hit number one on the country charts. Always love working with Merle. Our video, by the way, “It’s All Going to Pot,” was a YouTube sensation, generating millions of hits, pardon the pun.
Talking about pot, last spring I announced the launching of Willie’s Reserve, a cannabis brand reflecting my long-standing experience and commitment to regulated, natural, and high quality strains of marijuana in United States legal markets. I feel like I’ve bought so much, it’s time to start selling it back.
Beyond celebrating pot’s pleasures, though, I remain a staunch advocate of its vital agricultural and medical benefits. Along those lines, I’ve been encouraged to learn of parents traveling to Colorado and Oregon to legally obtain the marijuana derivative cannabidiol so that, under a doctor’s care, their children’s seizures might be effectively treated.
This past summer was the thirtieth anniversary of Farm Aid. It’s another reason why, as I move toward my eighty-third year on the planet, I’m happy to be alive and kicking. I’m also sad and pissed that, after all this time, the small farmer is still struggling.
In 1985, when this effort to help the small farmer began, we raised $7 million. Now that number has grown to $48 million. Our recent benefit concert in Chicago, in addition to including my sons Luke and Micah, featured the two great men who founded this effort with me three decades ago: Neil Young and John Mellencamp.
It’s a damn shame that the small farmer is still marginalized. On the other hand, I do think, in a small way, we’ve been able to help. Beyond the money raised, we’ve also raised the public consciousness. There’s awareness today about the challenges of farming and the benefits of buying products on a local level — especially organic food — that was missing thirty years ago. Farmers’ markets have sprouted up everywhere. People realize the downside of shipping in food from hundreds of miles away — wasting money on costly fuel — when wholesome food can be grown and bought close by.
Real progress has been made, especially when it comes to spreading information about farm products. The proliferation of social media, for instance, has generated intelligent discussion.
All forms of communication help, especially when it starts at the grass-roots level. Corporate-owned newspapers and magazines can be biased, but nowadays folks are looking beyond that. Folks are hungry for the truth. Consumers are educating themselves about where and how food is grown. And that’s a good thing.
Allow me to conclude this little P.S. on a couple of musical notes. I never like straying too far from the music. I recently recorded a tribute album to my dear friend Ray Price, one of my early mentors. Fred Foster produced. I worked with both the Time Jumpers — that supergroup of Nashville musicians that includes Vince Gill — and the fine arranger Bergen White.
I also just left the studio where I completed another new album, this one composed of Gershwin songs. Along with other geniuses like Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, the Gershwins are among America’s greatest songwriters. So when I learned that the Library of Congress was awarding me the 2015 Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, I was deeply honored and decided to respond the best way I know how — musically. Interpreting Gershwin in my own peculiar way has been a big thrill and another career high point.
The award, according to the Library of Congress, “celebrates the work of an artist whose career reflects lifetime achievement in promoting song as a vehicle of musical expression and cultural understanding.” I’m proud to stand along with previous awardees that include Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Carole King, and Billy Joel.
Enough talk about me.
One of the sweetest memories of this past year concerns one of my best friends, who left this world in 2002. I’m talking about Waylon Jennings. I helped put together an all-star tribute show to Waylon that was fi lmed and, by the time you’re reading this, should be widely distributed. Everyone showed up to sing songs associated with Waylon — Kris Kristofferson, Toby Keith, Eric Church, Kacey Musgraves, Alison Krauss, Bobby Bare, Waylon’s wife, Jessi Colter, and his son Shooter. I cherish the memory of the grand finale — all of us all singing “Luckenbach, Texas,” the song that, in Waylon’s words, “recaptures a world where everyone is welcome and love never dies.”
That’s the world — at least on this bus — that I’m living in today. For that reason, and many others, I consider myself a very fortunate man.
Hope to see you sometime soon,
From the book It’s A Long Story: My Life by Willie Nelson with David Ritz. Copyright © 2015 by Willie Nelson. Postscript copyright © 2016 by Willie Nelson. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.