The Pines with Dave Simonett and Erik Koskinen
It was Glen Campbell who first approached Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson about recording a version of the Jimmy Webb song “Highwayman” for their then-unnamed joint project. Campbell thought that the “four-verses, four-souls” (to quote musician Marty Stuart) structure of the song would be a perfect fit for the new group. Webb recorded his version in 1977, followed by Campbell who recorded his version in 1979; but it was the version released by Nelson, Jennings, Cash, Kristofferson–who would later rechristen themselves The Highwaymen–that went all the way to number one on the Billboard country charts in 1985 and earned Webb a Grammy for best country song.
This month, “Highwayman” gets a slightly softer retooling as The Pines’ David Huckfelt and Benson Ramsey apply their signature atmospheric moodiness to the song. Adding keyboard chimes and washes to banjos, acoustic guitars and spare percussion, they chose to keep the four-verses, four-souls structure of the song by collaborating with Twin Cities musicians Dave Simonett of Trampled by Turtles and solo artist Erik Koskinen. Using the same approach as the original quartet–with each member singing solo one of the four verses–brings sharp focus to each musician’s distinct voice, which are front-and-center in the new recording. Huckfelt takes the role of the highwayman originally sung by Nelson, Koskinen takes Kristofferson’s sailor, Simonett takes Jennings’ construction worker and the song ends with appropriately spacey vocals delivered by Ramsey as the starship captain originally sung by Cash.
It’s not surprising that current musicians are revisiting “Highwayman:” Its timeless storytelling and familiar mythological themes of tragically lost lives have enduring popularity. While most interpretations of the song will not unseat from the hearts of fans the version performed by arguably the most renowned group of country music outlaws, The Pines have paid due respect with their tribute and have given the song a new and sorely-needed update from its original 1980s studio sound.
Michael Roeder is a self-proclaimed “music savant.” When he’s not writing for Little Village he blogs at playbsides.com.