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‘American Masters’ Recalls the Country Music Supergroup, The Highwaymen
May 27, 2016  | By David Hinckley
 
The more you like country music, the more you’re apt to like "The Highwaymen: Friends Till The End," a PBS American Masters documentary that airs at 9 p.m. ET Friday. (check local listings)

And the more you like country music, the more you also ought to dig beyond what producer/director Jim Brown can fit into one hour.

Brown, whose previous music subjects include the Weavers and Billy Joel, does a fine job here in summarizing the story of the remarkable collaboration among Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson.

The story just has more dimensions, musical and personal, and by happy coincidence you can find it on a just-released Columbia/Legacy box set called The Highwaymen Live: American Outlaws.

The set includes three CDs and one DVD, which gives you a much more extensive taste of a 1990 Nassau Coliseum concert that’s sampled in the TV show.

It would be hard to say The Highwaymen’s material, recorded on and off over a decade, was the best music these four guys ever made. But it’s rock-solid, rooted firmly in the intersection of country music with the more amorphous “American music.”

They mostly sang their own songs, which was more than enough to fill a show or a box set of CDs. They also sang songs from Steve Goodman, Fred Rose, Bob Dylan and other great writers.

The point, made several times in the documentary, is that they were singing what they wanted to sing. That sounds easy, almost redundant, but each went through long stretches where “the business” told them they needed material that was more bland and generic, i.e. more commercial.

When The Highwaymen formed in late 1984, some said that all four were on the down side of the mountain. “Desperados waiting for a train,” in the words of Guy Clark. They took some delight in proving that assessment was premature.

The TV documentary includes interviews with the two surviving members of the group, Kristofferson and Nelson, as well as family members and other country artists. There are brief archival interviews with Jennings and Cash, who never cared much for talking about what he did on stage.

Still, Cash was the one who almost accidentally got the group together. He was filming his 1984 Christmas TV special in Switzerland and invited the other three to be his guests. He wasn’t aiming to create a group, but that’s what happened, and The Highwaymen’s 1985 debut album went to No. 1 on the country charts, selling more than a million copies. Not bad for four washed-up veterans.

Both the TV documentary and the liner notes to the box set note the personal closeness of these musicians. The box set, however, spells out what the TV documentary only hints at: that they had some fraternal disputes along the way.

Kristofferson was and remains a socio-political leftist, which is unusual in country music and didn’t always put him in perfect synch with the others. The liner notes of the box set recount Jennings asking Kristofferson to please leave his politics behind when he spoke on stage after the first Iraqi war.

The box set notes also recount the group’s initial difficulty in putting together its stage show. They were “too polite,” which undercut the easy, sometimes rowdy camaraderie they developed when they were just hanging out together.

Eventually they worked it out, but it’s an interesting exploration of a problem common to virtually every blended group where several individuals were used to being the focal-point star.

In the end, The Highwaymen group became a star of its own, in some ways separate from the sum of its parts. That’s remarkable, and both the American Masters and the box set trace the path by which they arrived there.

It’s a story, and this is music, worth preserving.  

 
 
 
 
 
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