Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Highwaymen (Sony/PBS, 1990, restored and reissued 2015)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night I watched one of the PBS pledge-break specials that proved to be unexpectedly interesting: The Highwaymen, a 1990 filmed concert from the Nassau Coliseum on Long Island featuring what the local KPBS hucksters endlessly referred to as “the first country-music supergroup.” In alphabetical order, they were Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson (whose reputation was really closer to folk and rock than country, but we’ll let that pass — he fit in just fine) and Willie Nelson. The local hucksters went on and on and on about how you could never assemble a group like this again, which in one sense was true — Cash and Jennings are both dead — though one could probably either reunite Kristofferson and Nelson with two other people of similar stature (well, maybe not the stature of Cash and Jennings, but pretty damned close — I would think Garth Brooks would be a no-brainer for inclusion in a modern-day Highwaymen 2 and probably either Brad Paisley or Blake Shelton for slot four) or pick four all-stars of modern-day country for a totally fresh version. Be that as it may, the original Highwaymen were certainly a phenomenon; like Bing Crosby and Bob Hope with the Road movies, they maintained their individual careers but also united for the Highwaymen projects, producing three albums: Highwayman (note the singular title; as their Wikipedia page explains, “Formed in 1985, the group did not have an official name when they released their first album on Columbia Records. The album, entitled Highwayman, was credited to ‘Nelson, Jennings, Cash, Kristofferson.’ The single ‘Highwayman,’ a Jimmy Webb cover, became a #1 country hit” — sort of like the Three Tenors, whose debut album in 1990 was simply called Carreras, Domingo, Pavarotti in Concert while their second one, in 1994, featured “The 3 Tenors,” with an elaborate animation of a giant numeral “3,” on the credits of their video as well as the cover of their CD) in 1985, Highwaymen 2 in 1990 (this was the one they were promoting when they gave the concert reproduced on PBS, and they performed the single from it, “Silver Stallion”) and The Road Goes On Forever in 1995. Given the vagaries of record contracts, the first two were on Columbia (of the four Highwaymen, all but Jennings were Columbia artists at the time) and the last on Liberty, which by then had been pretty much ghettoized as EMI’s country label.

The 1990 Long Island concert by the Highwaymen is a nice souvenir of the time not only when Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings were still alive but Kris Kristofferson had a serviceable (or more than that) voice — sometime in the next few years Kristofferson’s voice shredded almost completely but here he’s still in excellent form — and Willie Nelson singing in that remarkably intimate-sounding voice that made him probably the most successful country artist to “cross over” to mainstream pop since Cash. (Nelson’s pop breakthrough was with the 1975 album Red-Headed Stranger — ironically, a vividly uncompromising concept album about the life of an outlaw cowboy — which launched him on a successful career on Columbia after he’d bombed out on Liberty, RCA Victor and Atlantic, for whom he made Phases and Stages, his release just before Red-Headed Stranger and a masterpiece that got lost in the shuffle when Atlantic abruptly closed their country division just as it was being released. Three years later Dolly Parton would abruptly break out of the country ghetto with “Heartbreaker” and a series of pop singles whose only real concessions to country were Parton’s reputation and the twang in her voice.) The Highwaymen concerts — if this one is representative — were quite good showcases both for the individual talents of the country superstars represented and surprisingly effective blends. The show (at least the part of it we got to see on TV — as usual in these pledge-break shows we were incessantly reminded that what we were watching was only a portion of what was filmed and we’d have to give a three-figure contribution to KPBS to get a DVD and/or a CD with the whole thing) opened with the “Highwayman” single, with each of the four taking turns singing lead — first Nelson, then Kristofferson, then Jennings and finally Cash — and then became a duet between Jennings and Nelson on “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and a solo for Cash on his 1963 hit (actually written by his wife, June Carter Cash, with songwriter Merle Kilgore) “Ring of Fire.” Cash did beautifully on this one even though I was a bit (well, more than a bit, actually) disappointed that the famous mariachi trumpets on the original (June Carter recalled that Cash woke her in the middle of the night after one of the recording sessions and said he’d had a dream about having mariachi trumpets on the record, so he called in a mariachi band the next day and added them) were reproduced on a synthesizer. Then they did a version of Kristofferson’s song “Me and Bobby McGee,” which was definitively recorded by Janis Joplin for her last album, Pearl, in 1970 (supposedly she and Kristofferson had a brief affair and she decided to record the song to help him, but by the time her version was released his career was already launched and she was dead) and was here performed by Kristofferson, Jennings and Cash, in that order, with Nelson remaining silent vocally but contributing a lovely guitar solo.

After that there was a pledge break, following which Cash tore into “Folsom Prison Blues” (my friend Leo, who once actually taught a writing class in prison, was especially impressed by the song and even more impressed when I told him that in 1968, 13 years after the original record, Cash did a live album in Folsom Prison, highlighted the song and, instead of just doing his regular concert set, cherry-picked his repertoire so all the songs he played for the prisoners would be about subjects they could relate to: prison and crime), following which Kristofferson came on for his other two star-making songs, “Sunday Morning Coming Down” (the real launch of his career; supposedly he chartered a helicopter and landed it on Johnny Cash’s front lawn to present him with the song and ask him to record it, which Cash did; often in country music your career is jump-started when you can get an established artist to record a song of yours, as Willie Nelson did when he got Patsy Cline to record his “Crazy”), on which Cash joined him on lead vocal midway through; and “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” Then Willie Nelson soloed on “Always on My Mind” (one of his biggest hits but not one of his better songs — ol’ Willie is great when he writes songs about relationships on the rocks but not so good when he tries to write a straightforward love song about a couple who are actually happy together), following which he and Cash duetted on one of Cash’s earliest Columbia hits, “I Still Miss Someone” (though I still like Cash’s original version and Joan Baez’s cover better). Then they trotted out (no pun intended) “Silver Stallion,” the “plug” song from Highwaymen 2, and it was a quite beautiful and nostalgic country ballad even though Nelson had written better ones for Red-Headed Stranger. Then they spotted a pledge break, and after it came one of the most intriguing songs on the program, “Are You Sure Hank Done It That Way?,” an engaging song about a struggling young country artist going through the traumas of playing on the road and doing crappy gigs at which no one in particular is listening to him, and plaintively asking his manager, “Are you sure Hank Williams done it that way?” (The Highwaymen, like many other country artists, cited Hank Williams as virtually the patron saint of country music; the Highwaymen song Columbia chose for inclusion on the Essential Johnny Cash compilation, regrettably not perfored here, was called “The Night Hank Williams Came to Town.”) For this one Jennings didn’t sing but did play the second guitar solo — and he was surprisingly good.

Then Johnny Cash did one of his trademark songs (and a key piece in his achieving crossover status, breaking out of the country ghetto and becoming an American pop icon), “A Boy Named Sue,” including an hilarious moment in which he used his voice to imitate the “bleep” on the original single release. Then came what was in some ways the best song of the show: “Why Me, Lord?,” a gospel song on which Kristofferson sang lead and the rest joined in classic gospel-quartette fashion, proving once again that virtually the entire American musical tradition — blues, ragtime, jazz, rock, soul and country — comes from African-American spirituals, hymns and gospel music. (I remember seeing one special about Dolly Parton that proclaimed that she started singing in church, and I yelled at the TV, “Of course she did! So did Elvis! It wasn’t just Black singers who started in church!”) Then Jennings sang lead and the others sang backup on his big hit of the time, “Luckenbach, Texas” (the town itself is described on Wikipedia as “an unincorporated community thirteen miles [19 km] from Fredericksburg in southeastern Gillespie CountyTexasUnited States, part of the Texas Hill Country,” but probably nobody outside Texas had heard of it until Jennings immortalized it in song) and Nelson, Cash and Jennings joined forces for a searing version of Cash’s early Sun hit “Big River” (a song Cash wrote after a TV Guide writer said, “Johnny Cash has the big river blues in his voice”), following which there was another pledge break and then the grand finale, Nelson leading the other three in his song “On the Road Again” (another lesser entry in the Nelson canon but one that became a big pop hit). The Highwaymen is a welcome documentation of a bygone era in country music, when there was still a distinctive “country” sound apart from the style that dominates country music (especially its male artists) today, the kind of thing we called “Southern rock” when the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd played it in the 1970’s — and when country artists had distinctive styles and artistic profiles instead of blending into a sort of generic image of tight jeans and big hats the way they do now. It was welcome to see this on PBS even though the damnable begging they continually have to do gets in the way of their self-proclaimed mission to preserve parts of American culture no longer welcome on commercial TV.