I was in London, finishing an album, El Mirage, with [Beatles producer] George Martin. My friend Harry Nilsson was there, and we were doing some professional drinking. He left my apartment one night, and I went to sleep and had an incredibly vivid dream. I had an old brace of pistols in my belt and I was riding, hell-bent for leather, down these country roads, with sweat pouring off of my body. I was terrified because I was being pursued by police, who were on the verge of shooting me. It was very real. 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.
Nilsson hated that line, “Along the coach roads I did ride.” He said, “You mean, ‘Along the coach roads you rode?’” (Laughs) In that particular case, I felt it was justified because it was kind of an antique way of speaking.
I didn’t know where the song was going. Then I realized that this guy doesn’t really die in the first verse. He’s reincarnated. I thought, “Where does this soul go?” The verses started to evolve. He becomes a sailor, then a dambuilder. Then the best idea for me was switching the tense into the future and say, “I’ll fly a starship across the universe divide until I reach the other side.”
After I recorded it, the song languished for years. This is encouragement for young writers with great songs and nothing happens to them. You can’t sit around and brood about it. You move on and write more. Eventually, Glen Campbell did “The Highwayman.” He actually left Capitol Records, because they wouldn’t put the song out. So the song not only didn’t get recorded—the only guy who recorded it couldn’t even get his label to release it (laughs).
Eight years later, Glen played it for Johnny Cash. He was making a quartet album with Willie, Waylon and Kris Kristofferson. There were four verses to “The Highwayman.” Talk about predestination. I don’t know how they decided who would take which verse, but having Johnny last was like having God singing your song (laughs).