Recently, country music has been losing many of its greatest icons — legends to say. The past three years alone reported us the unfortunate passing of some of the most loved legends. Early in 2015, the death of Little Jimmy Dickens left country fans grieving. He was followed by Jim Ed Brown, Bobby Emons, and Don Robertson.
In 2016, some of the most cherished voices in country music went silent. Among them were Merle Haggard, Sonny James, Ralph Stanley, Jean Shepard and Guy Clark. And, followed by many others. The following year, 2017, the following artists breathed their last: Glen Campbell, Don Williams, Michael Johnson, Mel Tillis, Billy Joe Walker and Troy Gentry.
We are losing many great artists as time passes by and what way to save country music than to cling to its origin — the traditional country artists. But, never lose hope as we have some who are still with us. We still have Loretta Lynn, Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, and of course, the two great highwaymen left, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. These are the living pillars of country music to date.
Talking about the pillars of country music, good friends Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson are still strong, alive and kicking. Together with the late Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, Nelson and Kristofferson complete the original “Highwaymen.” They are the leading influences of the Outlaw Music, and country fans have loved them dearly.
The Highwaymen: Outlaw Country Supergroup
Active between 1985 and 1995, The Highwaymen was an American country music supergroup, composed of four of the genre’s biggest artists, known for their pioneering influence on the outlaw country subgenre: Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson. The group recorded three major label albums as The Highwaymen: two on Columbia Records and one for Liberty Records. Their Columbia works produced three chart singles, including the number one “Highwayman” in 1985.
Between 1996 and 1999, Nelson, Kristofferson, Cash, and Jennings also provided the voice and dramatization for the Louis L’Amour Collection It was a four-CD box set of seven Louis L’Amour stories published by the HighBridge Company, although the four were not credited as “The Highwaymen” in this work.
Besides the four formal members of the group, only one other vocal recording artist appeared on a Highwaymen recording: Johnny Rodriguez, who provided Spanish vocal on “Deportee,” a Woody Guthrie composition, from “Highwayman.” To note, the four original members starred in a movie together: the 1986 film Stagecoach.
Willie Nelson: The Red-Headed Stranger
“If you start out looking at somebody, wondering whether he’s good or bad, I think you’re starting out in the wrong direction. I think we’re all good and we’re all bad.”
Country singer-songwriter Willie Nelson rose to prominence at the end of the 1960s and contributed to the “outlaw country” subgenre, which challenged the conservatism of Nashville. During his lengthy, award-winning career, he has written some of the most popular and memorable country songs of all time. Many of them were covered by a wide range of artists over the last half-century. Now in his 80s, Nelson continues to record and tour, as well as in devoting a considerable amount of time to various charitable and political causes.
Willie Nelson was born on April 29, 1933, in Abbott, Texas. The son of Myrle and Ira D. Nelson, Willie and his older sister, Bobbie, were raised by their paternal grandparents during the Great Depression. With their grandmother, Willie and Bobbie attended their town’s small Methodist church, where they received their earliest exposure to music. “The first music we learned was from the hymn books. Willie had such a beautiful voice,” Bobbie told Texas Monthly in 2008. Both grandparents had a musical background who encouraged Willie and his sister to play.
Nelson got his first guitar at the early age of six and started writing his songs soon after that. His famous gospel song “Family Bible” draws from his early exposure to religious music. He sold the song to his guitar teacher for $50.
A few years later, he started playing his first professional gigs with a local polka band, and in 1947, Nelson joined the gospel group Bud Fletcher and the Texans. The group already featured Bobbie on piano. They played the local club circuit for the next few years—and Bobbie and Bud married.
After graduating from Abbott High School in 1950, Nelson was enlisted in the United States Air Force. He got stationed at Lackland in San Antonio. His military career was short-lived, however, as persistent back problems led to an honorable discharge less than a year later. Unsure of where to turn next, Nelson enrolled in a farming program at Baylor University. While pursuing his studies, he took odd jobs to make ends meet, including selling encyclopedias door to door.
Nelson had not lost his passion for music which he pursued by working as a disc jockey for various radio stations. He soon abandoned his agriculture studies to focus more exclusively on his music. Over the next few years, he moved around a bit, regularly playing gigs at local clubs and honing his songwriting craft. It was during this period that Nelson penned some of his finest early work, including “Night Life,” “Crazy” and “Funny How Time Slips Away.”
In 1960, Nelson settled in the country music capital, Nashville, Tennessee, where he found a job as a songwriter for Pamper Music, earning a salary of around $50 a week. The following year, two of Nelson’s creations became hits for other artists. These were Faron Young’s version of “Hello Walls,” and Patsy Cline’s legendary rendition of “Crazy.” His version of Young’s song which reached No. 1 on the country charts and was a Top 20 pop hit. On the other hand, his cover of Cline’s song was a Top 10 hit on both country and pop. Two years later, Ray Price’s recording of his “Night Life” was also a Top 40 country hit.
Fall on Deaf Ears
However, despite these successes, during this period Nelson’s recordings fell on deaf ears. With his gritty, roadhouse sound, Nelson did not fit the traditional Nashville country music mold. Whenever producers tried to make him fit, they only succeeded in stripping away the qualities that helped make him unique, such as his unusual manner of phrasing. His resistance to such efforts—as well as his reputation as a hard-living, hard-drinking man—only served to highlight his outlaw status.
Though the 1962 single “Touch Me” did reach the country Top 10, Nelson’s debut album, And Then I Wrote, failed to chart, as did his follow-up album, Here’s Willie Nelson. Though later albums that decade would be better received, none of his efforts as a performing artist would equal the success that others had, recording his songs.
Greatest Hit: “On the Road Again” (1988)
A Honeysuckle Rose inclusion, this song serves as proof of Nelson’s love of the road – and all that it entails. There’s something about the allure of the highway and the stage that has kept the singer going from one stage to the other – for years and years.
Kris Kristofferson: A Master in Music and English
“Tell the truth. Sing with passion. Work with laughter. Love with heart. ‘Cause that’s all that matters in the end.”
Kris Kristofferson, in full Kristoffer Kristofferson, was born June 22, 1936, in Brownsville, Texas, U.S. He is a singer, songwriter, and actor. Known for his gravelly voice and rugged good looks, he released a string of country music hits, notably “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” “For the Good Times,” and “Once More with Feeling.”
As a teenager, Kristofferson was an accomplished writer and athlete. He attended Pomona College in California, where he played football and became a Golden Gloves boxer, a cadet commander of his ROTC battalion, the sports editor of the school paper, and an honor student in English. He also won awards for his short-story writing in a competition sponsored by the Boston-based journal The Atlantic Monthly. He received a Rhodes scholarship to attend the University of Oxford in England, where he studied the poetry of William Blake and earned a master’s degree.
A son and grandson of military officers, Kristofferson joined the U.S. Army in 1960, becoming a U.S. Army Ranger and learning to fly helicopters while stationed in what was then West Germany. His studies in literature and poetry prompted an interest in songwriting, and while he was in the army, he put together a band. When he finished his military tour, he turned down a teaching position at West Point Academy and instead settled in Nashville, where, despite his parents’ objections, he began to pursue a career in music.
Kristofferson began selling his songs and working day jobs. He had the good fortune to meet Johnny Cash, who was already a star and took Kristofferson under his wing. Cash introduced Kristofferson at the 1969 Newport Folk Festival, where the struggling singer-songwriter first performed for a big audience and, subsequently, gained some footing in the music industry.
Kristofferson released an eponymous solo album in 1970 with Monument Records. However, he continued to be recognized primarily for his songwriting, which was sought after by country and pop singers alike. He also collaborated with poet and cartoonist Shel Silverstein, who co-wrote songs such as “Your Time’s Comin’ ” (recorded by Faron Young in 1969) and “Once More with Feeling” (recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis in 1970). “Me and Bobby McGee,” though usually associated with Janis Joplin (who recorded it shortly before her death in 1970), was written by Kristofferson and first recorded by Roger Miller in 1969. It was later recorded by Kenny Rogers (1969) and Gordon Lightfoot (1970). As well as by many other artists of various genres since that time. Kristofferson recorded and released the song on his album Kristofferson in 1970.
He continued to produce hits, such as “For the Good Times,” recorded by Ray Price and then named the song of the year in 1970 by the Academy of Country Music. That same year, Cash’s recording of Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down” was named the song of the year by the Country Music Association. In 1971, three of the five Grammy Award nominations for the best country song was for songs written by Kristofferson. Also, as were two of the five nominations for song of the year.
Moreover, he won his first Grammy for 1971’s best country song: “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” He recorded about a dozen of his albums during the 1970s, three of which were collaborations with country singer Rita Coolidge. Coolidge became his wife from 1973 until their divorce in 1979. Their first album, Full Moon(1973), went gold and achieved sales of half a million copies.
Greatest Hit: “Why Me” (1973)
His range as a vocalist might not be the greatest. Any musical expert will tell you that. But, what sets Kristofferson apart from the pack as a performer has nothing to do with his pristine vocal approach. In his shining moment as a performer, this number one Country hit from 1973 shines because of his plain-spoken take on the song.
Simply put, it works because of this song of gratefulness. It showcases a man who is vocally as rough around the edges as the lyrics of this timeless Kris Kristofferson song. Whereas, it features backing vocals from Rita Coolidge (his wife at the time) and a pre-stardom Larry Gatlin.
Through it all, Nelson and Kristofferson continue the legacy of the Highwaymen, and country music itself. They may have aged through time, but their voice and talent have never worn out. Together, they are the living legends that country music needs. They embody and represent what REAL COUNTRY MUSIC is.
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