Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson are forever cemented in Hoover Dam’s history. The four legendary singers, along with National Academy of Songwriters Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Jimmy Webb, all played a big role in the song “The Highwayman.”
Webb originally wrote “The Highwayman” for his 1977 album “El Mirage.” The song is about reincarnation and follows one man’s soul throughout four different times as he lives life as a highwayman, a sailor, a construction worker on the Hoover Dam and as a starship captain.
Webb told performingsongwriter.com the song was inspired by a vivid dream so real that it was destined for greatness. “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.”
In the song, Webb references Boulder City, writing “I was a dam builder. Across the river deep and wide. Where steel and water did collide. A place called Boulder on the wild Colorado. I slipped and fell into the wet concrete below.”
Prior to writing “The Highwayman,” Webb composed songs for Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, Art Garfunkel, Linda Ronstadt, and R.E.M. Webb also wrote the hit song “MacArthur Park,” which was recorded by Jennings in 1969 before being redone in 1978 as a disco tune by Donna Summer.
After “The Highwayman” didn’t gain success on “El Mirage,” Webb’s friend Glen Campbell decided to rerecord it. Capitol Records didn’t want Campbell to release the song, but Campbell believed in the song so much that he left Capitol Records after the company refused to record it. Like the wandering main character of the song, “The Highwayman” was about to be reborn.
Eight years after transitioning from dream to ink, Campbell played Webb’s “The Highwayman” for his friend Cash. Cash had formed an unnamed supergroup with Nelson, Jennings and Kristofferson. Campbell thought the four verses to “The Highwayman” would be perfect for the group to cover. Campbell also knew the unnamed quartet needed a proper song to mirror their outlaw country personas.
With four reincarnations of the same soul represented in “The Highwayman’s” lyrics, each singer took a verse. Nelson as the highwayman, Kristofferson as the sailor, Jennings as a builder of the Hoover Dam and Cash as the starship captain. Not only did the song work out perfectly for the group, the men adopted its title as the root of the super group’s name, The Highwaymen.
During their tenure as The Highwaymen, the quartet starred in a 1986 film titled “Stagecoach,” which filmed around the Arizona/Nevada desert border, not too far from Hoover Dam. Then, in 2005, Cash’s life, and part of his friendship with Jennings, was documented in the award-winning film “Walk the Line” starring my friend and actor Joaquin Phoenix as Cash. Jennings’ son, musician Shooter Jennings, portrayed his father in the film.
“The Highwayman” ended up winning a Grammy Award for best country song. The single became such a classic country staple that Nelson and Kristofferson revived it, performing it at the 2014 Grammy Awards with Merle Haggard and Blake Shelton.
More recently, Rolling Stone declared “The Highwaymen” as one of the best supergroups of all-time next to Mad Season with Layne Staley (Alice in Chains) and Mike McCready (Pearl Jam).
Webb went on to become the only artist to receive Grammy Awards for music, lyrics and orchestration. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1986 and became its chairman in 2011. His book, “The Cake and the Rain: A Memoir,” was published this past April by St. Martin’s Press. It contains 352 pages of fascinating recollections and stories of peculiar events, like an epiphany during his teen years to speed to Las Vegas so he could meet Elvis.
Webb’s memoir is available in all major bookstores and on Amazon.com. You can follow Webb on Twitter at @RealJimmyWebb and review his tour dates at www.jimmywebb.com.
Tanya Vece is an entertainment and music writer who resides and volunteers in Boulder City. You can follow her adventures on Instagram @hollywoodwriter.