When they get together as a quartet, country stars Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson call themselves the Highwaymen, an apt name. Having recently released a new album, they are now on the road again. Here’s how it went at a recent rehearsal for a TV appearance in New York.
Four men wearing black are rehearsing.
“It is what it is but it ain’t what it used to be,” they sing.
Johnny Cash, who’s called the man in black, and fellow country music star pals Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson are warming up for a TV appearance.
“It Is What It Is,” an amusing song in which Cash, Nelson, Jennings and Kristofferson trade phrases, is the first single from the new Highwaymen album on Liberty Records, “The Road Goes on Forever.”
The Highwaymen, as the four call themselves when they perform together, are touring in America during June.
The new album is the Highwaymen’s third in 10 years. They got the idea for the first one when they were in Switzerland at the same time making a TV special. That album’s title song was Jimmy Webb’s “The Highwayman,” about a soul with four incarnations.
They thought the Highwaymen was a good name for them as a quartet. They’re always on the road. And they’ve all had something of an outlaw image in country music.
During the rehearsal, they’re loose but professional. They take swigs from cans of soda and make occasional wry remarks, but not much time is wasted.
Kristofferson: “I been mysterious.”
Cash: “I been delirious.”
Kristofferson: “I been so weird it would have killed a normal man.”
Nelson and Kristofferson are playing guitar. Jennings doesn’t have his guitar with him.
“I hate flying with my guitar,” he says. “In airports they can’t find it. Somebody has hidden it. I look over and it’s behind something.”
Cash puts his hands on his hips, does some dance steps. The pedalsteel guitar player sways to the music.
A few bystanders, including two wives, Annie Nelson and June Carter Cash, give a smattering of applause. “I expected a little more than that out of you all,” Cash comments dryly.
Jennings: “I was an outlaw.”
Cash: “I was an in-law.”
Jennings: “I was a scapegoat. That was the last straw.”
“I am what I am but I ain’t what I used to be,” they sing.
The song sounds like it might have been written for Jennings and Kristofferson, both 57, Nelson, 62, and Cash, 63. Kristofferson says it wasn’t. “It’s by Stephen Bruton, my old guitar player. He has it on an album of his own. We have two of his songs on this album. That’s one more than we did by me.”
Jennings says, “We were talking about one to do on TV. Everybody was a little bit afraid of this one. You’ve got to jump from one phrase to another. The main thing is, you have to pay attention.
“Attention paying is not one of our long suits.”
Jennings, lining up for a picture, asks, “How do you pose when you’re 57?” The photographer replies, “Everybody look at the wall, then right here at the camera.”
“Willie didn’t look at the wall,” Cash tattletales. Nelson mutters under his breath. “You’re such a rebel, man,” Kristofferson tells him. “Willie doesn’t even fasten his seat belt when he’s flying.”
“Look at the ceiling,” Nelson instructs. “Look at the floor.”
Cash files a further report, “Willie’s crossing his eyes.”
Cash has a suntanned face from working outdoors, planting trees on his farm the previous two weeks. “We leave later tonight for Europe for 11 countries in three weeks,” he says, “the band, me, June and John Carter Cash.”
Kristofferson will do some touring in July. “Now I’ve got to go to Texas to make a movie with John Sales, a great writer-director,” he says. “I’m playing a 1950s sheriff; that’s why I had to shave my beard off. It starts out in the present with the guy who replaced me. My part is in flashback. I’m playing a bad guy in a good movie.”
Nelson: “I heard the laughter.”
Jennings: “Up in the rafters.”
Nelson: “But I never ever thought that the joke was on me.”
All: “I am what I am but I ain’t what I used to be.”
Jennings says, “I’m writing quite a bit, still working on the road some. I’ve been strong as a bull all my life. For the first time, I’ve got back trouble. One doctor told me it’s a high price for low living. I told him, ‘You’ll hear that back but you won’t get any credit.”’
It’s the name of one of Jennings’ new songs.
Nelson also has been writing, 10 of the 12 songs for a 60-minute video he’ll shoot in Luck, Texas, where he shot “The Red-Headed Stranger.” Johnny Rodriguez wrote one of the songs and Bill McDavid wrote the title song, “The Drummer and Me.”
Some 20 years ago, Nelson toured with a group called the Offenders. He ran into them recently in a recording studio and they decided to do some performances together again.
He isn’t deserting his own band, Nelson says, “But it’s fun to play with these guys again. We’re calling it the Repeat Offenders.”
Right now he’s part of the Highwaymen at rehearsal.
Jennings: “I been a monster.”
Kristofferson: “Without a sponsor.”
Jennings: “I been Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
Cash: “I been a goner.”
Nelson: “I been a loner.”
All: “And when my mixture was right I been a nice bunch of guys.”
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