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.