Meg is amazed sometimes when we're listening to the car radio some of the songs that I claim never to have heard before. It does strike me as a little odd sometimes, because I'm an avid fan (and collector in massive amounts) of virtually all popular music of the second half of the 20th century. I'm rapidly approaching the need for a second iPod once this one fills up...and yet occasionally I come across something I'm ashamed to admit that I'm not familiar with.
Enter "The Highwayman"
by the group of the same name. Individually, they are four of the central figures in the "outlaw country" music scene of the 1970's: Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson. Not many supergroups in history can match that combined starpower; I'd place them ahead of even the Travelling Wilburys
I was combing through some of my Johnny Cash music over the summer and stumbled across this track. It pulled me in due in large part to the fact that it sounds so unlike anything else on his greatest hits collection. Now, I consider it one of my absolute favorite singles ever, for a number of reasons.
1) What originally piqued my curiosity was a guitar bit that wove throughout the middle portion of the track. As I heard it play (primarily during the verse sung by Jennings) I could have sworn that it was Mark Knopfler
of Dire Straits
. There are certain guitarists that are instantly recognizable when you hear them, and Knopfler is chief among them. Whether it was his early 80's/pre-"Brothers In Arms" stuff or as recently as "Walking To Philadelphia" back in 2000, he's very distinctive...and it screams out to me in this song. All the searching I've done has come no closer to actually confirming his presence on this album. The only connection I've been able to find is a lot of work Knopfler did with Emmylou Harris (who also worked closely with many of the members of The Highwaymen") and the fact that Knopfler and Nelson teamed up for the soundtrack of the movie "Wag The Dog."
2) There's no chorus! I can't come up with any songs with lyrics off the top of my head that don't have a chorus. Nelson sings his verse, Kristofferson follows immediately, which goes straight into Jennings. There's only the slightest hint of a bridge before Cash wraps things up. Of course, rarely do you have four soloists in the same song (except, of course, with Dionne and Friends
3) The song makes very effective use of slight--yet distinct--variations of the music from verse to verse. It's very simple during Nelson's verse, a steady and subtle drumbeat and the gentle guitar strumming setting up the structure that every verse will copy. For Kristofferson, it sounds like a flute or some other wind instrument that floats above and around him, which segues into a synthesizer. As soon as he finishes his final line, the Knopfler-like guitar makes it's appearance. That guitar then provides the backbone of the verse, filling in the gaps between each of Jennings' lines. For Cash's wrapup, there are elements of all three on display, with two shifts for a more insistent drumbeat kicking in along the way.
4) Great story, great images. My take: throughout history, one soul has experienced adventures associated with their chosen professions; each time, that job has led to an untimely death. However, the soul is reincarnated each time, as hinted by each verse's closing line: "but I am still alive," "but I am living still," "but I am still around," "but I will remain and I'll be back again." Cash's character is still alive as he sings, but he believes he might come back as the highwayman who sang the opening stanza.