As High­way­men, four leg­ends just couldn’t match solo works

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - PHILIP MARTIN

I saw The High­way­men — the coun­try su­per­group made up of Johnny Cash, Wil­lie Nel­son, Way­lon Jen­nings and Kris Kristof­fer­son (and a crack band of ses­sion mu­si­cians) — per­form a cou­ple of times in the late ’80s and early ’90s. And I don’t want to sug­ar­coat it; those shows were pretty ter­ri­ble.

By ter­ri­ble, I don’t mean slop­pily per­formed or that the ma­te­rial was sub par. It felt like one of those thor­oughly in­au­then­tic ex­pe­ri­ences that con­cert events some­times turn out to be. The shows ex­isted to al­low these leg­ends a chance to cash in on their re­mark­able cat­a­logs in a way that didn’t tax them over­much. They ex­isted so fans could see the four icons to­gether on one stage. It was a kind of liv­ing Mount Rush­more of a cer­tain kind of coun­try mu­sic — the sort that is never quite so pop­u­lar as crit­ics would like it to be.

But the mu­sic de­liv­ered in these shows — and com­piled in the re­cently re­leased The High­way­men Live – Amer­i­can Out­laws (Columbia/Legacy), a three-CD/one DVD boxed set that cap­tures the band on­stage, chiefly dur­ing a 1990 show on New York’s Long Is­land — never seemed as ad­ven­tur­ous or raw as any of the front­men’s solo work. It felt, at the time and in reprise, closer to a va­ri­ety show or Las Ve­gas

re­vue than what­ever it was that I ex­pected.

I re­mem­ber be­ing weirdly dis­ap­pointed, although I had been to enough shows to un­der­stand that it’s dif­fi­cult to be spon­ta­neous or in­ti­mate when you’re try­ing to con­nect with thou­sands of peo­ple, some of whom only know your big­gest hits. I get this now, and maybe I got it then — I only went to The High­way­men shows for pro­fes­sional rea­sons. I wouldn’t have bought a ticket, though I would have paid to see any of the in­di­vid­ual per­form­ers.

Still, I re­mem­ber think­ing it strange that these artists I so ad­mired were will­ingly com­plicit in what struck me as show biz kitsch. They traded verses of some of their most en­dur­ing songs, songs that had been over-ar­ranged and slick­ened for the oc­ca­sion. I re­mem­ber how the back­ing mu­si­cians were able to make “Mys­tery Train” — the show’s in­stru­men­tal over­ture — sound like a game show theme.

Still, it was a well-played game show theme that fea­tured a glis­ten­ing pedal steel lead by Robby Turner, a player who in some cir­cles com­mands the same sort of re­spect as the fa­mous front­men. The son of Doyle and Ber­nice Turner, who played steel gui­tar and rhythm gui­tar, re­spec­tively, in Hank Wil­liams’ Drift­ing Cow­boys in the 1940s, Robby Turner was play­ing drums and tour­ing with the Wil­burn Broth­ers. As an 11-year-old he was play­ing three nights a week in a Paragould honky tonk. In 1976, when he was 14, he joined Ace Can­non’s band as a steel player and later pro­duced three of the sax player’s al­bums. He worked with Char­lie Rich, Ru­fus Thomas, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Gin Blos­soms as well as Don Was and Her­bie Han­cock. Last year he played on Chris Sta­ple­ton’s Trav­eller.

All of the back­ing mu­si­cians pro­ducer Chip Mo­man (who died last week at the age of 79) as­sem­bled for The High­way­men shows were ses­sion mon­sters. Most had worked with Mo­man as part of the Mem­phis Boys, Amer­i­can Sound Stu­dio’s house band that played on record­ings as di­verse as Joe Tex’s “I Gotcha,” Mer­rilee Rush’s “An­gel of the Morn­ing,” Neil Di­a­mond’s “Sweet Caro­line,” The Box Tops’ “Cry Like a Baby,” Elvis Pres­ley’s “In the Ghetto” and Danny O’Keefe’s “Good­time Char­lie’s Got the Blues.”

Drum­mer Gene Chris­man, bassist Mike Leech, gui­tarist Reg­gie Young, key­boardists Bobby Em­mons and Bobby Wood had all served in the Mem­phis Boys. They were aug­mented by gui­tarist J.R. Cobb, who had worked with Roy Or­bi­son and (as a mem­ber of the Clas­sics IV) writ­ten the hit “Spooky” (which he later re-recorded as a mem­ber of the At­lanta Rhythm Sec­tion) along with key­boardist Danny Timms and Nel­son’s har­mon­ica player Mickey Raphael. Timms and Wood also pro­vided back­ing vocals.

Ad­di­tion­ally, each of the front­men made a show of play­ing gui­tar — Jen­nings held his trade­mark leather-girded Tele­caster, Cash strummed a big Guild dread­nought, Kristof­fer­son al­ter­nated be­tween a Stra­to­caster and an acous­tic 12-string. There were a lot of in­stru­ments and voices com­pet­ing for room up on that stage, and a lot of the songs weren’t well served by the show band treat­ment. Kristof­fer­son’s ma­te­rial seemed es­pe­cially vul­ner­a­ble to be­ing smoth­ered in the mix — “Help Me Make It Through the Night” was given a par­tic­u­larly schmaltzy read­ing, with an as­cend­ing key­board fig­ure crowd­ing in be­tween the lines of the verses, turn­ing what had been a plain­tive grown-up bid for tran­si­tory af­fec­tion into an­other peppy pop num­ber.

Still, the set list was for­mi­da­ble — a lineup of great­est hits (among them “Mam­mas Don’t Let Your Ba­bies Grow Up to Be Cow­boys,” “Good Hearted Woman” and “Luck­en­bach, Texas” that had been recorded by Jen­nings and Nel­son; Nel­son’s “Blue Eyes Cry­ing in the Rain” and “On the Road Again”; Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” “Fol­som Prison Blues,” “Big River” and “A Boy Named Sue”; and a slew of Kristof­fer­son songs) pep­pered with tunes from High­way­men records that pro­vided the tours with a rea­son for ex­ist­ing be­yond the nov­elty of see­ing an all-star old-timer’s game.

The most in­ter­est­ing of these, Jimmy Webb’s “High­way­man,” an ex­is­ten­tial story about how the rebel spirit sur­vives the death of the rebel, was the ti­tle track of the 1985 al­bum that brought the four icons to­gether. That al­bum, as well as its 1990 se­quel, was of­fi­cially cred­ited to “Nel­son, Jen­nings, Cash, Kristof­fer­son,” rather than “The High­way­men.”

The boxed set repli­cates pretty faith­fully what I re­mem­ber, and the per­for­mances feel com­fort­able and re­laxed, with none of the stars evinc­ing much more than pro­fes­sional charm. What’s most im­pres­sive about the per­for­mances is the checked power of the band, which feels like it might break off the stage and roar away at any mo­ment.

There are a few high­lights — their ver­sion of Guy Clark’s “Des­per­a­does Wait­ing for a Train” feels more poignant now that Jen­nings, Cash and the song’s writer, the inim­itable Guy Clark, are all gone. And Kristof­fer­son’s “The Pil­grim: Chap­ter 33” ben­e­fits from the con­text — it was al­legedly writ­ten about a stum­bling Johnny Cash. When Cash comes in on the sec­ond half of the first verse (ac­com­pa­nied with a walk­ing bass line), it’s hard not to feel some­thing. You can hear Kristof­fer­son chuckle, and be­lieve that at least the friend­ships are gen­uine.

It is mar­velous that this sort of show ever ex­isted, that you could buy a ticket and see these guys to­gether on one stage, trad­ing verses and lines and smil­ing for the fans. You can tell they’re en­joy­ing them­selves, though the ex­cel­lent liner notes by Mikal Gilmore (I hes­i­tate to say they jus­tify the cost of the set, but they’re the most in­ter­est­ing thing in the pack­age) in­di­cate that there was at least a lit­tle back­stage ten­sion be­tween the po­lit­i­cally out­spo­ken (and left-lean­ing) Kristof­fer­son and Jen­nings, who ob­jected to Kristof­fer­son’s oc­ca­sional speechi­fy­ing on the sub­ject of the first Iraq war. But not on po­lit­i­cal grounds ex­actly.

“We came pretty close to punch­ing it out,” Gilmore quotes Jen­nings as say­ing. “I didn’t say he was all wrong. Main thing I was say­ing was he shouldn’t be do­ing it on­stage with three other peo­ple who didn’t share all of his thoughts.”

I don’t re­mem­ber any po­lit­i­cal fire­works at the shows I at­tended. That might have made them more mem­o­rable.

My prob­lem with a lot of pur­ported coun­try mu­sic has al­ways been that there’s a ten­sion be­tween what I be­lieve it ought to be — folk mu­sic about the lives of com­mon peo­ple sung in plain voices — and what can be sold to a mass au­di­ence. The High­way­men were not my idea of how the mu­sic of Cash, Kristof­fer­son, Jen­nings and Nel­son ought to be pre­sented. I would have pre­ferred some­thing less baroque and more sub­tle. But the truth is, when you’re play­ing a big house, you have to play to the 50th row. Any time coun­try mu­sic be­comes re­ally pop­u­lar it be­comes show busi­ness. You make a record, you make a com­pro­mise. You think Hank Wil­liams hung out in Nudie suits when he was off duty?

Some peo­ple might be pre­dis­posed to dis­like an artist like Dierks Bent­ley be­cause Ja­son Is­bell claims he stole a melody from him or be­cause he just looks — and used to sound — like an­other one of those bro-coun­try man­ques. What­ever. His new al­bum Black (Capi­tol Nashville) is at least a stab at mak­ing a coun­try record that re­flects some­thing like the way or­di­nary peo­ple live and court af­fec­tion in the mod­ern world. While it brings in di­vi­sive noises — there are hip-hop el­e­ments in the sul­try “Some­where on a Beach” and Trom­bone Shorty shows up on “Mardi Gras,” which plays as a nod to his party boy past — for the most part it re­lies on old-school mu­si­cal­ity.

While it’s not a writer’s al­bum — or maybe it is, since 23 writ­ers ac­count for the 13 songs (Bent­ley has a co-writer credit on seven of them) — it does sug­gest a more ma­ture and se­ri­ous ap­proach, as Bent­ley and pro­ducer Ross Cop­per­man demon­strate they know how to make a record. Par­tic­u­larly en­joy­able are Bent­ley’s duets with Maren Mor­ris (“I’ll Be the Moon”) and Elle King (“Dif­fer­ent for Girls”).

It’s not re­ally coun­try mu­sic — it’s not what I call coun­try mu­sic — but it’s not bad stuff ei­ther. And while it still feels a lit­tle anony­mous and 21st-cen­tury stream­lined, one senses an hon­est ef­fort un­der­neath. I’m in­clined to com­pare Bent­ley to the ac­tor Chan­ning Ta­tum, a pretty face who un­der­stands ex­actly how far he has to go to be re­ally good. But he wants to be re­ally good. Maybe he’s not yet. But he’s try­ing.

And that’s so much more than you can say for so many oth­ers.

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