The Highwaymen may be better known now as a country music super group formed in the mid-80s. In fact, the first Highwaymen music group was so forgotten by the time the other one former, they didn’t even bother trying to sue the new group – that’s the rumor anyway.
The first Highwaymen were small but mighty force on the folk scene. They cashed in and got right back out, scoring a Billboard #1 along the way. Of course, certain members would get the band back together as a nostalgia act over the years. But, as a working band, recording and touring, they only lasted from 1961 – 64.
On this record, the boys put on a concert. Sometimes on these kinds of records, there can be a studied amateurishness, or a casualness that rings false given the studied nature of the act. That is the asides and quips are presented as improvisational, but the delivery is so practiced its obvious that it isn’t really off the cuff.
This record actually feels like a front room concert. The intro is quite informal – coupled with the photo on the front - it’s all designed to give you the sense of being at a party
Some of the songs:
“Raise a Ruckus Tonight” this song highlighted the incongruity of the folk revival, at least among the popular folk groups, the all-white, middle-class groups like this. The kind of ruckus this groups raises is so staid and muted that a song like this starts to feel ridiculous.
“Shaggy Dog Songs” – if there is a reputation for the popularizers not respecting the source material, this would be exhibit number 1. It’s just a bunch of nonsense.
“Cotton Fields” is where the Highwaymen really shine. Obviously, I should acknowledge the incongruity of Columbia University students singing a song that by most accounts was composed extemporaneously by Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter while he was singing at a concert. But, their blending of genres here is what makes it groove (to whatever degree we can apply this term here). Part pop vocal group, part rhythm and blues and in the framework of a pop folk group, the arrangement manages to blend all these influences into a coherent whole.
The beach boys would have a minor hit with Cotton Fields a few years later, and while their song blends in still further influences, the bones of the Highwaymen version is found in that iteration.
The record has a couple of sit-in artists, most prominent are two women vocalists.
Ann Morrill, introduced as the wife of one of the group’s university professors, has a sweet voice. Some might describe her as underperforming, or somehow simply singing the sing. However, she sings the songs in a lovely straightforward manner, it made me realize how much many other singers in the revival felt the need to put their own personality into the song. I think it betrays a lack of trust in the material. But Morrill *just* sings the song, which allows the song to shine through.
Mayo Muir (credited later as Ann Mayo Muir and holding the baritone ukulele on the cover), is more what I think of as a folk-soloists. She has the style and perspective of an artists. I think she could do more interesting stuff if she was given control – I need to check out her solo stuff.
The record has a strange unceremonious ending, I suppose just like it started. Usually with these live albums, the group ends with a big sing-along and thundering applause into a fadeout. But this album ends as it started, with a half hearted sing-along to “Roll on Columbia”.
There’s not much here for anyone outside of the most dedicated folk collector. The highwaymen weren’t particularly good live, and this record shows that.
Label: United Artists
The Highwaymen: Robert Burnett, Steve Butts, Chan Daniels, David Fisher, and Gil Robbins
Additional Vocals: Mayo Muir, Ann Morrill
Liner notes: Ed McCurdy