"Highwayman" is a song written by American singer-songwriter Jimmy Webb, about a soul with incarnations in four different places in time and history: as a highwayman, a sailor, a construction worker on the Hoover Dam, and finally as a captain of a starship. The song was influenced by the real-life hanged highwayman Jonathan Wild. The dam builder verse alludes to the deaths of over one hundred men during the construction of Hoover Dam near Boulder City, Nevada. Webb first recorded the song on his album El Mirage, released in May 1977. The following year, Glen Campbell recorded his version, which was released on his 1979 album Highwayman. In 1985, the song became the inspiration for the naming of the supergroup the Highwaymen, which featured Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson. Their first album, Highwayman, became a number one platinum-selling album, and their version of the song went to number one on the Hot Country Songs Billboard chart in a 20 week run. Their version earned Webb a Grammy Award for Best Country Song in 1986. The song has since been recorded by other artists. Webb himself included a different version on his 1996 album Ten Easy Pieces, a live version on his 2007 album Live and at Large, and a duet version with Mark Knopfler on the 2010 album Just Across the River.
According to Webb, he wrote the song in London while he was finishing up work on his album El Mirage. After a late-night round of "professional drinking" with his friend Harry Nilsson, Webb went to sleep and had "an incredibly vivid dream":
I had an old brace of pistols in my belt and I was riding, hell-bent for leather, down these country roads, with sweat pouring off of my body. I was terrified because I was being pursued by police, who were on the verge of shooting me. It was very real. I sat up in bed, sweating through my pajamas. Without even thinking about it, I stumbled out of bed to the piano and started playing "Highwayman". Within a couple of hours, I had the first verse.
Webb included the phrasing in the line, "Along the coach roads I did ride" to convey a kind of "antique way of speaking". Not sure of where the song was leading him, Webb realized that the highwayman character does not die, but becomes reincarnated, and the three subsequent verses evolve from that idea. In the second verse he becomes a sailor, in the third verse a dam builder, and in the fourth verse Webb switches to future tense and the character becomes an astronaut who will someday "fly a starship across the universe divide".
Jimmy Webb version
Webb's version of the song was first released on the album El Mirage in May 1977.
Glen Campbell version
Webb then brought the song to Glen Campbell, who recorded it in 1978. His record label, Capitol Records, wanted him to go in a different direction and record music like the group The Knack. Campbell wanted to release the song as a single, but Capitol refused. After recording 30 albums for the only record label he had worked with since 1962, Campbell left the main studios of Capitol and never returned. Although he would record three more albums for Capitol, the relationship was at an end. Campbell eventually released the song on his album Highwayman in October 1979.
The Highwaymen version
|Single by The Highwaymen|
|from the album Highwayman|
|Released||May 6, 1985|
|The Highwaymen singles chronology|
In 1984, Campbell played the song "Highwayman" for Johnny Cash, who was making a quartet album with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson. A few years earlier, Webb brought the song to Jennings, but Jennings, having heard the Campbell version, said "I just couldn't see it then." The four were all together in Switzerland doing a television special and decided that they should do a project together. While the four were recording their first album, Marty Stuart again played the song for Cash, saying it would be perfect for them—four verses, four souls, and four of them. Campbell then played the song again, this time to all four of them, and the quartet had the name for their new supergroup, the Highwaymen]], the name of their first album, Highwayman, and the name of their first single. The four thought it was a perfect name for them because they were always on the road and all four had the image of being outlaws in country music.
In the Highwaymen's version of the song, each of the four verses was sung by a different performer: first Nelson as the highwayman, then Kristofferson as the sailor, then Jennings as the dam builder, and finally Cash as the starship captain. Webb later observed, "I don't know how they decided who would take which verse, but having Johnny last was like having God singing your song (laughs)." Rosanne Cash has said her father did not realize the song was about reincarnation until she explained it to him. A black-and-white music video was released, which used actors to re-enact the song's lyrics, including the deaths of the first three characters. Each of the performers is seen briefly in the sky singing a few lines, as their segment of the song concludes.
Their cover of the Webb song remains the most popular and widely known of the Highwaymen's songs, being their only song to reach number 1 ("Desperados Waiting for a Train" at number 15 is the next closest). The version by the quartet entered the Hot Country Songs Billboard chart on May 18, 1985, rose to number 1 and spent 20 weeks total on the chart. It finished 1985 as the number 5 country song of the year in terms of airplay.
|US Hot Country Songs (Billboard)||1|
|Canadian RPM Country Tracks||1|
|Canadian RPM Adult Contemporary Tracks||19|
"Highwayman" has also been recorded by numerous other artists. Irish traditional musicians Makem and Clancy covered the song on their album We've Come a Long Way in 1986. Norwegian folk singer Finn Kalvik recorded his version of the song, called "Fredløs", for his 1981 album Natt og dag. Finnish rock musician Pate Mustajärvi recorded a Finnish-language version of the song, entitled "Mä Elän Vieläkin" (meaning "I Live Still"), for his album Ukkometso, which was released in 2000. In 2018, Finnish singers Juha-Pekka Leppäluoto, Tony Kakko, and Antti Railio performed the Finnish version for the first performance of Raskasta Iskelmää (a sister-project of Raskasta Joulua), and in 2019, Raskasta Iskelmää released a studio version which, in addition to Leppäluoto, Kakko, and Railio, also included vocals from Ville Tuomi, Kimmo Blom, Tuple Salmela, Antony Parviainen, and Marco Hietala. The band Arbouretum covered the song on their 2011 album The Gathering. Canadian band Walk off the Earth covered the song on their 2012 album Vol 1. Independent Americana-folk artist Jake Smith, also known as the White Buffalo, covered the song in 2013. Heavy metal band Iced Earth covered the song on their 2014 album Plagues of Babylon in the format of the Highwaymen with four different singers singing. In this case it is Jon Schaffer of Iced Earth singing Willie Nelson's part, Russell Allen of Symphony X singing Kris Kristofferson's part, Stu Block of Iced Earth singing Waylon Jennings' part and Michael Poulsen of Volbeat singing Johnny Cash's part. Swedish gothic metal band Beseech covered the song on their 2016 album My Darkness, Darkness.
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- Burnes, John. "Campbell is Riding His Success Nicely". St. Louis Post-Dispatch. June 23, 1988.
- "The Express: Legend Glen is no punk". - The Express. - December 29, 2008.
- Hoekstra, Dave. "Glen Campbell, The Zelig of Roots Music". Chicago Sun-Times. July 24, 2005.
- Hurst, Hawkeye. - "Waylon and Johnny Walk the Straight and Narrow Together". - Orlando Sentinel. - July 21, 1985.
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- Hurst, Hawkeye. "Marty Stuart Has Come a Long Way to Just Now be Arriving". Orlando Sentinel. June 15, 1985.
- Compiled from data from Allmusic - allmusic.com and Billboard - billboard.com.
- "Highwayman". - Hot Country Songs. - Billboard. - billboard.com.
- MacDonald, Patrick. - "Proud Time for Pop". - The Seattle Times. - December 29, 1985.
— "Billboard's Ratings of 1985's Top Pop Music Artists". - San Francisco Chronicle. - January 1, 1986.
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- "Highwayman". - Grammy Awards. - c/o grammy.com.