Frequently referred to as “the Mount Rushmore of country music,” The Highwaymen – Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson – were American country music’s first bona fide supergroup, an epic quartet comprised of the outlaw country genre’s pioneering stars. An essential musical and cultural influence, the Grammy-winning group was active from 1985 – 1995: recording three albums, touring the world and acting in the movie Stagecoach (1986). American Masters – The Highwaymen: Friends Till the End, premiering nationwide Friday, May 27, 2016, at 9/8c on PBS (check local schedule) as part of the 30th anniversary season of THIRTEEN’s American Masters series, explores how these men came together and the fruits of their historic collaboration.
Produced and directed by four-time Emmy Award-winner Jim Brown (American Masters – Pete Seeger: The Power of Song; Billy Joel: A Matter of Trust – The Bridge to Russia, The Weavers: Wasn’t That A Time!), the documentary features vintage performances, rare, behind-the-scenes footage of life on the road and in the studio with producer Don Was, and new interviews with Nelson; Kristofferson; family members Jessi Colter (country singer and Jennings’ wife), Annie Nelson, Lisa Kristofferson, and John Carter Cash; band members Reggie Young (guitarist) of The Memphis Boys, Mickey Raphael (harmonica player) and Robby Turner (pedal steel guitarist); and managers Mark Rothbaum and Lou Robin. Artists influenced by The Highwaymen, including John Mellencamp, Toby Keith, Marty Stuart, and Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel, are also interviewed. Jennings and Cash add their perspective via archival interviews.
Performances from a previously unreleased concert film with the group recorded live at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y., in 1990, demonstrate the group’s chemistry and the power of their combined music catalog including “Highwayman,” “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” “Always On My Mind,” “Me and Bobby McGee,” “Desperados Waiting For A Train,” “Luckenbach, Texas,” “Silver Stallion” and more.
Nelson, Jennings, Cash and Kristofferson liberated American pop and country music from record label-and-producer control to create a new musical landscape where the artists controlled their songwriting, recording and performing. Each had achieved considerable success prior to 1985, at which time they began to strategize about working together to revitalize the country music scene and satisfy their own restless creativity. American Masters – The Highwaymen: Friends Till the End examines how their towering individual personas and mutual friendships meshed to form the group’s collective artistry, their success buttressed by the love and support they gave to each other.
“Country music is America’s most popular music and I’m happy to add The Highwaymen to our growing list of master singer/songwriters, from Carole King and Loretta Lynn to Marvin Gaye and Ray Charles,” said Michael Kantor, executive producer of American Masters. “Like many, I only wish I could have seen these giants live in concert, but this film gives you a front row seat and takes you backstage too.”
The Highwaymen Live – American Outlaws, a new 3 CD/1 DVD or Blu-ray box set of concert performances — including the complete Nassau Coliseum concert film seen in the American Masters documentary — will be available May 20 from Columbia/Legacy, along with a new single-disc compilation CD, The Very Best of The Highwaymen. The Highwaymen: Live At Nassau Coliseum (a special broadcast edit of the concert film featured on The Highwaymen Live – American Outlaws) is part of special programming premiering on PBS stations as part of June Pledge 2016 (check local listings).