Dare to Dream – Modern Country’s New Highwaymen

Lately, I’ve spent time thinking about 1990-91’s Clash of the Titans tour and the icons of thrash metal that necessitated such a tour. Thinking about the kinds of machinations that had to take place before that tour would coalesce and how much the press attention as much as the mutual admiration finally got those bands to come together on that road. Looking back, it seemed to take the nudges of chart success, media coverage of said success, and, last but not least, ample fans to pony up marquee (for the time) prices for concert tickets. It had to be big and demand had to be high. It was and history was made when Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax hit the road together.

That got me to thinking about some of my other favorite music: country and “the Highwaymen” – Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson – four legends who combined their powers over the course of 10 years to produce 3 albums: Highwayman, Highwayman 2, and the Road Goes On Forever. While these albums never surpassed the greatest works of any one of these artists it did give a long look into what it sounds like when a legitimate supergroup works together.

We now reside in a time of renewal for this particular brand of “country.” Some prefer to call it “Americana” or another such genre title but at its core it is simply singer-songwriters of the (usually) American variety sharing traits with an ability to trace the roots directly back to the four artists above. The original Highwaymen were a combination of supergroup and four distinct artists bringing their individual shows into one lean package and there are few indications besides possibly a pure lack of interest from the four interested parties but that’s not how dreams work.

Supergroups aren’t a new thing and we’re seeing more and more of them today. We just reviewed Lock Up, a grindcore supergroup, and hard rock and metal are littered with several other “supergroups” further illustrating this point. That said, *good* supergroups can be few and far between which makes calling for one a challenging thing.

With the renewal of interest in the so-called Americana style we’ve seen artists such as Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, and to a somewhat lesser extent, William Elliott Whitmore, gain traction with increasingly larger audiences. Stapleton’s rise to fame has been well documented and Simpson has taken up pole position as the voice of the genre through the popularity of his latest album, 2016’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, with subsequent appearances on the late night circuit.

Isbell and Whitmore, however, still remain largely niche artists filling clubs and concert halls with their sounds. The former gained a mainstream foothold with 2013’s Southeastern and cemented that place with 2015’s Something More Than Free with both scoring over 100,000 in album sales and top 25 spots on the mainstream U.S. charts. In contrast, Whitmore’s 2015 release, Radium Death, landed at the 22 spot on the U.S. charts. These numbers indicate that the audience is there for both of these artists to remain relevant on coming releases.

Getting from the individual careers of these artists to an operational supergroup or even a joint tour is a pretty far bridge from where these artists currently sit. Considering that the discussion here is somewhere between wishful thinking and an academic exercise celebrating the respective successes and backgrounds of these artists. In examining these four it’s not dissimilar to the recognition of the moment that the four thrash “titans” had thrust upon them as their albums and work began to be recognized by the masses. We may be nearing a similar point of interest for these artists as well as their genre.

This quartet, with a few possible exceptions (looking at you Ryan Bingham and Ryan Adams) would make up a more than formidable new Highwaymen. Isbell has the added allure of having worked in his own little kind of, almost supergroup, the Drive-By Truckers from 2001 to 2007 writing (and co-writing) a number of the Truckers most well-received songs particularly “Decoration Day”, “Outfit”, and “The Day John Henry Died”. That experience informed his assemblage of the 400 Unit for his 2009 album alongside players from such acts as Drivin’ and Cryin’ and Son Volt before breaking out fully on his own in 2011 with Here We Rest. That said, he’s returning to the 400 Unit for his upcoming release, The Nashville Sound. All of this is to say, if Isbell were up for doing it again alongside these three emerging giants it could be to the benefit of all our ears.

Blending Stapleton’s more traditional second-wave country with Simpson’s urgency, Isbell’s pop sensibilities, and Whitmore’s ability to throw curveballs into a well-worn style could be compelling. At the very least, it would behoove Nashville to get these four onto the same stage even if only briefly. In addition to Isbell’s case we can look more in-depth at the (potential) contributions from the others.

Chris Stapleton is the relative latecomer to this bunch having spent much of his earliest time cutting his teeth in the songwriting arena before stepping out on his own to front the Steeldrivers from 2010-2013. He hit the charts with that band but then decided to go on his own for 2015’s Traveller and though the temptation here is to assume that people know about what has happened for him since then but for our purposes it’s worth noting that since the title track from that album and “Tennessee Whiskey” proved to be breakthroughs he has handled the fame well. In addition to that he has proven songwriting chops and frontman experience. That would see him well-placed to be the “frontman” for this New Highwaymen.

Sturgill Simpson, as a Grammy award winner from a blue collar upbringing, has fashioned his spot in country music by challenging norms and, like Stapleton, started his music career as part of a bluegrass group. After that group disbanded in 2012 he went on to release High Top Mountain in 2013. An interesting footnote to that album is the presence of guitarist Robby Turner who had previously played with none other than Waylon Jennings. Furthering that connection, Simpson has been compared to both Jennings and Merle Haggard while having had the opportunity to open for the latter and Willie Nelson. Of anyone, Simpson has perhaps accrued the most capital towards having the right “pedigree” if something like this were to come off.

At the other end of the spectrum we have Whitmore who has perhaps the most “cred” with the underground heavy music community. His love of hardcore punk and previous work with artists including Converge, Clutch, and Red Sparrowes (speaking of “supergroups”) has been pretty well documented. His voice is unmistakable and his reputation as a man of and from the land is fairly evident to anyone who digs into his music. That he has a tendency to push at the conventional boundaries of the style pairs well with his vocals in a way that would enhance by magnitudes any potential group compositions if somehow these four managed to get into a room for playing, picking, writing, and grinning purposes. Imagining Whitmore sliding up to the mic for a performance of “Don’t Strike Me Down” halfway through a show featuring these four…. Well, have a listen and just use your imagination.

While these artists are great on their own it’s not that difficult to get a little greedy hoping to see these four talents hit the road like those “titans” did back in 1990-91. The odds of it happening are probably slim and none… and slim looks like he’s about to leave town. Sometimes, though, it’s nice to daydream about such things. Regardless, Americana, country, cow-punk; whatever you choose to call it, has never been in as interesting a place as it is right now and for that we should be grateful.

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