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They're Country to the Core : Four legends of the genre join again as the Highwaymen. Cash, Jennings, Nelson and Kristofferson shrug off the slick for plain-spoken songs.

June 02, 1995|STEVE APPLEFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Steve Appleford writes regularly about music for The Times.

UNIVERSAL CITY — Break time is about over for the man in black, who has just returned to one of four empty stools gathered on a North Hollywood rehearsal stage. "This part of the group is ready," says Johnny Cash, picking up a shiny guitar.

That's a joke, son, just a hint to his partners--Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson--that it's time to return to their work as the Highwaymen. And soon enough the four are picking at their guitars and harmonizing to the lyrics: "I'm gonna live forever / I'm gonna cross that river . . . You're gonna miss me when I'm gone."

This quartet of famed singer-songwriters has gathered every five years since 1985 as the Highwaymen, standing firm for country music's core values. That's about 137 years of experience between the four of them, estimates Cash, who, at 63, is the oldest.

"This is a vacation for me," says Nelson of his work with the group, which has just released the new "The Road Goes on Forever" album, produced in Los Angeles by Don Was. The Highwaymen also arrive Sunday for a concert at the Universal Amphitheatre.

Nelson and the others are here today mainly for a good time, free from the usual pressures of their solo careers. Which isn't to say these country music individualists always agree on all things musical and otherwise. Moments before a CNN camera crew tapes a group interview with the Highwaymen, Jennings becomes alarmed when Kristofferson compares the Oklahoma City bombing to the around-the-clock bombing of Baghdad during the Gulf War.

"We don't always agree, but we always work it out," Nelson, 62, says with a laugh. "So far we haven't come to blows. We've had a few drive-by shoutings, but nothing serious."

Before the rehearsal, Jennings explains: "We've gotten to where we don't worry too much about what the other one thinks. We give each other a pretty hard time. That makes it work.

"We're such individuals away from this, it takes a day or two for us to get together and to where we don't sound like a train wreck."

Fans will hear the results for themselves Sunday during a two-hour concert that will include selections from the three Highwaymen albums, along with several hits from the solo careers of Cash, Jennings, Nelson and Kristofferson. In a recent review of "The Road Goes on Forever," the group's new material was described by the Dallas Morning News as "four ageless voices around songs that dig deep into the soul of country music. . . . Nobody can spin a tale the way they can."

The Highwaymen project first came together after Cash invited the others to join him for a 1984 Christmas television show in Switzerland. Cash and Nelson were soon talking of recording their first collaboration. And by the time they got to the studio, both Jennings (who had recorded three albums with Nelson in the 1970s) and Kristofferson had joined the project.

"There's safety in numbers," says Nelson. "We all bring a little bit to it. Plus we all get along well, as much as four egotistical maniacs can on the road."

Adds Jennings: "It actually helps our regular shows. It gives us a breakaway from that, and where you can relax and have a good time. You kind of get bogged down sometimes on the others."

A common thread among the four is a commitment to plain-spoken, but meaningful, songwriting. Cash's songs of sometimes grim observations on American life have made him one of popular music's most important figures through four decades of recording (including last year's acclaimed "American Recordings" album).

Together, Jennings and Nelson epitomized the "outlaw" movement of the '70s, which sought to bring country music back from the commercial slickness already then dominating Nashville. And that often meant singing emotionally direct songs written by Kristofferson, now 58, author of "Me and Bobby McGee" and "Help Me Make It Through the Night."

Standing together as the Highwaymen, says Nelson, simply "means that we're all still here. It means that we didn't get run off or scared off with all the new things that are happening.

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"We've all hung in there, and we're still out on the road. Everybody seems to be in pretty good health, and you couldn't ask for anything more than that."

In this current era, the slick sounds often emerging from the country music establishment actually bear little resemblance to the standards set by Hank Williams Sr. and Patsy Cline. If country music today means sounding more like a Las Vegas lounge act--and results in artists like Nelson and Cash appearing rarely on the country charts--that hasn't meant much change for the Highwaymen.

"It's important that you stay true to whatever you're doing and whatever you believe in," says Nelson. "It's important not to sell out just for the bottom line. You might spend a whole lot of time to create something that is commercial and it would still be a piece of [junk]. I hear a lot of that on the air.

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