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Jessi Colter Remembers the Myths About the 'Outlaw' Highwaymen
May 27, 2016  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment

What Jessi Colter (below, with Waylon Jennings) remembers about the Highwaymen is how sane and normal they so often were.

How’s that for shattering a few myths?

Colter is the widow of the late Waylon Jennings, who in 1985 joined up with Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson to form the Highwaymen. For the next decade, off and on, they made music together.

It was nominally country music, “but it was really American music,” says Colter, drawn from a deep well.

Fans can now get a double dose of Highwaymen memories, with a PBS American Masters documentary called "The Highwaymen: Friends Till The End," which airs at 9 p.m. ET Friday (check local listings), and with a new Columbia/Legacy box set titled The Highwaymen Live: American Outlaws. The box set has three CDs and a DVD of a 1990 concert at Nassau Coliseum.

The Highwaymen got together and kept getting back together, says Colter, for a couple of reasons, all tied to camaraderie and respect.

“They had a true core of friendship,” she says. “Kris and Willie were very different from John and Waylon, but they also had so much in common.

“Waylon was working in the fields when he was 10 years old. Kris grew up differently, yet in many ways they came from similar beginnings. The music business rejected them, but they stayed with it. They lived for chasing the song.”

The group operated as a democracy, she says, when it came to selecting songs. Producers were involved, but the primary criterion, says Colter, was always the same: “The song had to be the truth.”

All four men, she notes, battled substance abuse problems and were known at different points in their careers as rebels.

But by the time they got to the Highwaymen, she says, they defied expectations by almost always behaving themselves.

“All the families went out on the road,” she says. “And that was great. We did all the things we never got around to doing back home. We’d go out for dinner, all the things normal people do.

“I put together a sobriety party for Waylon and then another one for John. It gave us all an opportunity to be together for a few hours.

“Willie and Kris would go off on their golfing gigs. June [Carter Cash] was always going shopping. Everybody got to know everyone else’s kids. Waylon ended up writing an album of song for 4-year-olds.

“I remember one time when Lash LaRue, the old cowboy star, came on the bus. All the guys were suddenly like 12-year-olds, seeing their hero.”

When the Highwaymen formed, more than a few commentators suggested they needed to do it because they were aging out of country music careers.

It didn’t turn out that way, and as Colter describes them, the tours and the collaborations ended up turning into more of a victory lap. All four had won their fights to sing the music they wanted to millions of people who appreciated it.

“Waylon was frustrated for so long,” Colter says. “He had the music he wanted to make, and the music business just didn’t understand it. They wanted to put trombones on it.

“To me, RCA was a company that sold refrigerators and did country music just to stay in the black. It was like Old Hollywood with Waylon – they thought he wanted to destroy everything when he just wanted to make his music.”

Nor did he see that music as some sort of cosmic statement, Colter says. “I remember when the Rolling Stones said they really liked his music, he was pleased, but he said, ‘Why would they like me?’ People said he had an ego, but he wasn’t fishing for a compliment. He was genuinely surprised.”

Most famously, Jennings, Nelson, Colter and their friends were presented for a time as “outlaws,” some sort of exotic musical species.

“Waylon never liked the term,” says Colter, which may help account for the fact he wrote a song called Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit Has Done Got Out of Hand?

“We saw it as a marketing term. He grew up on Hank Williams, but he wanted to get away from the myth about drugs and dissolution.”

Colter, an artist herself whose biggest hit was I’m Not Lisa, notes that she was the female outlaw, and that when the outlaw campaign started, “I was the only one who had a gold record.”

Country music for decades was slow to acknowledge women artists, with a few exceptions like the Carter Family, Patsy Montana and Kitty Wells.

By the time Colter came along in the late 1960s, female artists were just starting to get a foothold. Whether there could have been a female counterpart to the Highwaymen, she’s not sure.

“You did have artists like Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, Connie Smith and me,” she says. “Dolly Parton was one of the first who said, ‘I’m going to be star,’ and she did. She did the Trio project later, of course, with Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris. It would have been something to have a group of women singers like the Highwaymen.”

She’s not complaining. The Highwaymen we did have left enough of a legacy.

“They shared a deep love for American music,” says Colter, who turned 73 this week. “They loved making it together. Remember, at the time they were all around their 40s, which is a turning point for most men. It’s when they go crazy and take two 20-year-olds.

“These guys all had had their tumultuous times, and when they came together, they brought out so much in each other. I’m so proud of it.”

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Interesting that they were not originally known as The Highwaymen. Columbia put out the album combining the four stars as the record companies had done for many a duet album,but used the surnames and titled the album Highwayman,after the lead single(which went to #1 on the country charts,penned by Jim Webb,of Up,Up & Away fame. BTW,Webb's own version,produced by George Martin,is a keeper.
This is also a good time to remember the recent passing of Guy Clark,who penned another hit from the first LP,Desperadoes Waiting For A Train.
Fans already know that the third Highwaymen album,The Road Goes On Forever,via Capitol/Liberty(now controlled by Universal) was re-released a while back with bonus tracks and a DVD.
While Sony has brought out a new Very Best single disc collection,there is a double CD set for just a few dollars more,Essential, that includes tracks from both Columbia and Capitol vaults as well as some non-Highwaymen tracks with involvement from members of the group.
May 30, 2016   |  Reply
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