1985 Columbia releases the “Highwayman” album, teaming Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson
I was a highwayman
Along the coach roads I did ride
A sword and pistol by my side
Many a young maid lost her baubles to my trade
Many a soldier shed his lifeblood on my blade
The master took me in the spring of ‘25
But I am still alive
I’ll always be around, and around, and around, and around.
by Jimmy Webb
Mystical and uplifting, Highwayman has become the summer’s collaborative hit for the superstar quartet of Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. Their new LP, also called “Highwayman,” is a a coming together of boldly distinctive stylists that prompted one reviewer to observe “if Mount Rushmore could sing, this is what it would sound like.”
At Willie’s recent 4th of July picnic event in Austin, the audience was treated to the first ever public appearance of “The Highwaymen,” as the foursome have come to be collectively called. After an all-day rain, the quartet gathered onstage to sing three songs as the sky gradually opened and spilled luminous orange twilight throughout the dissipating clouds. It was a grandiose bit of meterological staging — coincidence, you ask? — that fit nicely with the cover of the album, which shows the heavens parting and the four entertainers peering through like gentle mythological gods.
But the “Highwayman” project, despite it’s majestic overtones, was not a carefully calculated attempt at clustering the individual stars into one spectacular supernova recording — although that’s pretty much how things turned out.
The album’s roots are actually in Switzerland, where Willie, Waylon and Kris were guests of Cash at the taping a Christmas TV special last year. After performing together on the show the four returned stateside and joined forces to cut a couple of songs intended for Cash’s upcoming solo album. One of the songs was Bob Seger’s Against the Wind, which they had all performed together on the TV special. The other was Highwayman, a song by New York-based writer Jimmy Webb themed around reincarnation.
“We’d intended it for my solo album,” says Cash of the song. “But the more we recorded together, the more we realized that it should be an album of the four of us.”
Once the idea for an entire quartet album was concrete, Cash decided to sideline his own album until the group project could be completed. For three nights the four singer/songwriters gathered at producer Chips Moman’s Nashville studio and bantered around songs that they felt would be appropriate for their collaboration.Â They drew from material both familiar (like Cash’s own Big River and Guy Clark’s Desparados Waiting for a Train and obsure to come up with a slate of songs that somehow seemed to fit their individual and collective imagery as purveyors of things original, Old-Western, and American.
It’s the title cut, however, that is attracting the most attention. Already a hit single and an engaging video, its haunting theme of reincarnation makes for unusual country music fare. In the song, Willie, Kris, Waylon and Cash each sing the part of a different individual who, in the end, turns out to be various reincarnations of the same person, the highwayman of the title.
“As far as subject matter, it’s a very meaty topic,” explains Rick Blackburn, head of Nashville’s CBS Records who gave the ultimate go-ahead for “Highwayman.” “But I think country music is ready to deal with heavier topics as opposed to the stereotypes we’ve had all along.”
Lest some listeners imply that the enterainers themselves might be espousing personal afterlife philosopy with the song, Cash responds that he, for one, holds to other beliefs.
“I don’t believe in reincarnation,” he says. “I’m a Christian and I sang the song because I liked it. It’s a good song. It’s a good melody, it’s excellent lyrics written by a really great songwriter. But so far as the philosophy and the religion, if you will, of the song… it’s not my belief. I’m not making a statement of affirmation in belief of transmigration of souls or any such thing.”
Ego never raised it’s ugly head in “The Highwayman” project. The recording sessions were dominated by a shared comraderie between the four entertainers, a brotherhood beyond the business at hand.
“We never had any problems,” says Waylon. “We don’t think of each other as superstars. There were no ego trips. We’re a lot alike. We’ve all had our starving days, paid our dues. We have a lot of respect for each other. If you don’t record with somebody you like, it ain’t gonna be no good.”
The future of The Highwaymen quartet is undecided at his point, although it’s possible that the four will be making several appearances together throughout the summer. “We can’t decide whose band we want to use,” says Cash, referring to the equally terrific musical line-ups that back each entertainer. The four will appear, however, as the Highwayman on the upcoming coming Country Music Association Awards show in October.
A movie project re-make of the John Ford classic Stagecoach that would star all four in leading roles has also been talked about. “That’s a possibility,” says Cash. Willie, Cash and Kris all have substantial movie acting experience, but Waylon’s film resume is practically bare. ”I don’t get very excited about doing movies,” explains Waylon. “I’m a singer.”
In the meantime, Cash and Kristofferson are pegged to begin production in September on a CBS television movie called The Last Days of Jesse James. (Kris will be Jesse, Johnny will be his brother Frank.)
Individually , the four Highwaymen are currently wrapped up in their separate careers as well as the promotional hoopla surrounding their group LP. Cash’s oslo album for Columbia is finishing production. Willie’s “Half Nelson” LP, also for Columbia, of duets with various artists will be released soon. Waylon’s new “Turn the Page” album on RCA is fresh in the stores this month. Cash and Waylon have also completed a duet album for imminent release and are dicussing a possible Western movie pair-up.
Kristofferson, the only act of the four not currently affiliated with a record label, is staying very busy on the road with his Borlderlords band. A movie called Trouble in Mind, in which he will co-star with Keith Carradine, is scheduled for release around Christmas.
So the Highwaymen continue to ride, separately if not together. And who knows? There’s the prospect of another four-way album. Cash says they’ve got almost enough material in the can from the previous sessions.
Nothing lasts forever, but it certainly seems as if these guys are planning, in some configuration, on being around, and around, and around and around…