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Jimmy Webb’s Story Behind “The Highwayman”

| August 15, 2012 | 10 Comments

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).

From Performing Songwriter Issue 100

Category: Behind The Song

Comments (10)

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  1. Alan Cassaro says:

    You’ve got the best version on your El Marage album Johnny Cash singing about piloting a starship was laughable, but I guess he’d be the only one sober enough of that group to do it.

  2. Dam Corner says:

    Bought the Glen Campbell album at a Tokyo record store a decade or more before the Nelson/Cash/Jennings/Kristofferson version came out. Glen’s is the one that has me coming back again and again and again for more. Awesome

  3. Ash says:

    I was introduced to this song by Albert Lee at a live gig. Still my favorite version, if you get the chance, see him play. WHat a perfect song.

  4. As a Glen Campbell fan, I got his version as soon as it came out. I was a little disappointed in his performance. I don’t recall now if I had already gotten the Jim Webb version, or if his album was issued after Glen’s. At any rate, of all the performances, Jimmy’s is the best. The Waylon, Willie, Kris, Cash version was fun, if only that all of those iconic singers were doing cameos on the same song. I noted at the time that it seemed a bit odd for Cash, a “born againer”, to be singing about reincarnation. Still, I think it’s a great song, and I was glad to see it finally become a hit by someone, although Jimmy Webb had the best reading and orchestral arrangement of the song, thanks to George Martin’s genius.

  5. Jill Bulman says:

    I first got to hear this song at a gig done by Albert Lee and Hogan’s Heroes. He sings this song at most of his gigs now I believe!! It was really interesting to find out why it was written – and it makes this song even more interesing and poignant.
    Thanks so much Jimmy for writing it!

  6. Amy Y says:

    This along with “Moon is a Harsh Mistress are my favorite Jimmy Webb songs Glen Campbell has recorded. I just melt when I hear them. This video is great, but there is something so haunting and grabbing about the arrangement Glen recorded with the full orchestra.
    Oh, and you’ve hooked yet another generation, JImmy. My 11 and 15 year olds are big fans now. We all just attended Glen’s Goodbye tour too.

  7. BJ & The Cat Toys says:

    Stupid cool- when great songs are recognized and re-discovered. Thanks-

  8. Tim Simmons says:

    Wonderful! I have always loved the song…love it more now that I know a bit of how it came to be.

  9. Nancy Kelel says:

    Total knockout! That was just awesome! Another great story shared by ‘Performing Songrtiter.’ Thank you!

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