THE PLAYERS: Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson on guitar and vocals.
THE STORY: The four baddest outlaws in country music got together to sing some of the best damn story songs in the history of music. They recorded three albums before Jennings passed away in 2002. Nuff said.
I remember the very first time I heard about The Highwaymen. I was an intern at Wizard, rooming with Brian Warmoth at Nyack College over the summer and he played a few songs from one of their records on his laptop. At the time I might have picked up one of those Walmart Johnn Cash Super Hits CDs or that might have come later, but I did have a general disdain towards country–you know the stuff they play on the radio or even VH1 sometimes. I didn’t realize there was so much better country out there. Anyway, he explained the supergroup to me, that it included Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson. The idea of it was very intriguing. Later, during my senior year of college, I went to Walmart once again (there’s not a lot to do in Delaware, Ohio) and picked up a Super Hits Highwaymen CD. Damn, it’s good stuff. Since then, I’ve gone on to listen to lots more Cash and was blown away when I got Nelson’s Stardust earlier this year. The most I’ve listened to Jennings is on Highwaymen records and the only extra Kirstofferson stuff I’ve heard was on my SNL DVDs when he hosted way back in 1976 (he was better known to me for his turn in the Blade movies).
Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to come across the Highwaymen’s first record which was just called Highwayman. At the time, the band didn’t really have a name, they just went by their last names. It wasn’t much of a leap from Highwayman to Highwaymen and there you have it. Many of the tracks on the first record are on the Super Hits version I have, so they were familiar to me by the time I listened to it, but there were a few newbies like the Cash/Nelson sung “Committed To Parkview” a haunting track about two men in a mental institution. On their own, these guys were masters of the story-song, but together they’re like a Voltron of the form. Much like the Traveling Wilburys these four men came together to play some amazing music which retained their individual skills but also sounded awesome together. I’ve only listened to the Super Hits and the first record, but I’ve got my eye out for the other two and will look around to see if there’s any performance DVDs on Netflix. My one complaint about the recordings is that they’re kind of over-produced. You could have just put these guys in a room with their guitars, amps and a few mics and just put it on wax like Rick Rubin did with Cash towards the end of his life and also Neil Diamond on 12 Songs. Maybe a more lo-fi remaster is in order.