The Highwaymen
by: Dave Simpson

A review in the Chicago Tribune called them “the Mount Rushmore of country music,” and I can’t think of a more perfect description.

It was the early 1990s, at the Civic Center in Peoria, Illinois. Right in front of us was Waylon Jennings. Next to him was Willie Nelson. To the right of Willie, honest to God, was Johnny Cash. And to the right of him was Kris Kristofferson, the man who wrote “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.”

The Highwaymen.

What an evening. The place was packed. It was the beginning of their tour, and Waylon kept forgetting the words, but what a voice. And Willie, Johnny, Kris – it was a country music fan’s dream come true.

I thought of that evening during Ken Burns’ amazing eight-part series on country music, which aired on PBS over the past two weeks. Just about everyone I heard from thought this exhaustive look at the roots and progression of country music was right up there with Burns’ classic Civil War epic.

Waylon, Willie, Johnny and Kris all got serious attention in Burns’ series, with particular focus on the life of Johnny Cash, and the genius of Kristofferson’s songwriting.

I remember the moment I became a country music fan. It was at a ski area west of Laramie, Wyoming, sometime after 1975. I was walking past a little bar in the lodge when I heard the first notes of the “Red Headed Stranger” album by Willie Nelson. From that moment I was hooked, a fan of the “outlaw” movement – Willie and Waylon.

In 1979 I saw Willie live in Fort Collins, Colorado, in a concert that went on for hours. The “Whiskey River” live album had just come out, and Willie had the crowd at a fever pitch all evening. He actually apologized for the length of the concert. I’ve never seen as many bottles of Black Velvet as I saw that night.

How can you not be drawn to words like these, written by Willie: “Still water runs the deepest, like a love complete and through, so peaceful and dependable, I can’t say the same about you. Your love is cold and selfish, and it never could be true. One time I loved you truly, I can’t say the same about you.”

One night, also in Peoria, we saw Vern “This Ain’t My First Rodeo” Gosdin, Conway Twitty and George Jones together in concert. What a night. Conway Twitty would die mere weeks later. Jones sang what is arguably the greatest country song of all, “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” (According to the Burns series, Jones called the song “morbid” when he finished recording it, and predicted nobody would buy it. He was wrong.)

We saw Merle Haggard – my favorite of all – in Bloomington, Illinois. This was when Garth Brooks was packing them in at huge venues, with lots of special effects. Someone adjusted the spotlights focused on Haggard, and he said, “this ain’t no smoke and mirrors show.” (You can love both performers. I put “Friends in Low Places” right up there with “Silver Wings” in my 10 best list.)

Later, we saw Willie, Merle and the incomparable Ray “For The Good Times” Price at Loveland, Colorado. Price, well into his 80s, stole the show.

I thought the most powerful moment of the Burns’ series was when Dwight Yoakam choked up at the lines of a Haggard song that goes,“Holding things together ain’t no easy thing to do. When it comes to raising children, it’s a job meant for two. Alice please believe me, I can’t go on and on, holding things together with you gone…

“Today was Angie’s birthday, I guess it slipped your mind. I tried twice to call you, but no answer either time. But the postman brought a present I mailed some days ago. I just signed it ‘Love, from mama,’ so Angie wouldn’t know.”

You don’t need to know anything more about Merle Haggard than those words, Yoakam said, choked with emotion, to understand his genius.

The Burns’ series was spectacular, a reminder of the gift we have in country music. I treasure the memories of seeing some of the greats of country, live on stage.

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