Highwaymen Reunite at Grammys (Sort Of)

Sunday night the 56th Annual Grammy Awards had various moments, including what was billed as a reunion of The Highwaymen. The two surviving members of the supergroup — Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson — were joined by Merle Haggard and Blake Shelton. But the performance was only partly a tribute to the band that released three albums and a recognition of its deceased members Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings, as most of the performance acknowledged the individuals on stage. That was okay, though, as it was good to see the three legends on stage with Blake Shelton giving the group a little shot of “youth.”

As you may see in the following video, the performance opens with the two surviving Highwaymen singing a little of the group’s hit “Highwayman,” a song about reincarnation written by Jimmy Webb. Then, they are joined by Haggard and Shelton, singing Haggrard’s “Okie from Muskogee” and “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” which had been a hit for Nelson and Jennings.

Many years ago, I saw the original Highwaymen perform at the Houston Astrodome. It was a memorable experience to see the country music legends all together, and at that performance they did a lot of individual songs too. So in a sense, the reunion continued that tradition of being more than just about songs by the Highwaymen. With Cash and Jennings gone, of course the band can never be the same. But like another Grammy sort-of reunion of another great quartet that had Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr playing together, we will take what we can get, while also remembering those who can no longer perform.

What was your favorite performance at the Grammys? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Ira Hayes Won’t Answer Anymore

    On January 24, 1955, Ira Hamilton Hayes died from alcohol poisoning near where he lived in Sacaton, Arizona. Even if you do not recognize the name, you have seen a photo of Hayes, as the 22-year-old Pima Indian Marine appears in the famous historical photo by Joe Rosenthal of soldiers raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi at Iwo Jima in 1945 during World War II.

    The image was also used as a model for the 1954 Marine Corps War Memorial near Arlington National Cemetery, where Hayes is now buried. The war image and what happened to Hayes after the famous flag raising have since been immortalized in pop culture.

    Ira Hayes in Movies

    If you were not born during World War II but recognize the name of Ira Hayes, you may have seen the movie about Hayes directed by Delbert Mann and called The Outsider (1961). In that movie, Tony Curtis starred as the Native American Hayes. [September 2015 Update: Unfortunately, clips from The Outsider are no longer available on YouTube.]

    Adam Beach portrayed Hayes in Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers (2006). The real Hayes played himself in the John Wayne film, Sands of Iwo Jima (1949). Here is a video of the flag-raising in the movie, even though you cannot single out Hayes in this clip.

    Ira Hayes in Song: “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”

    But most likely those of us in a certain generation recognize the name “Ira Hayes” because of a song.  Songwriter Peter La Farge, inspired by The Outsider film, wrote the song “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.”

    Johnny Cash then recorded the song and made it famous.

    Like many others, I first learned about Ira Hayes through the Cash song. My dad used to play an 8-track with the song on it, and he explained to me the story about Ira Hayes. While the song takes some liberties about Hayes, it captures the essence of his tragic life. Because of the photo, Hayes was hailed as a hero, but he wanted to live a normal life and did not consider himself a hero after seeing so many of his comrades killed.

    Hayes probably suffered from what we now know as post-traumatic stress syndrome.  He fell on hard times and turned to alcohol, resulting in his death.

    Cash’s version of “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” remains the most famous version of the song.  But other artists like Kris Kristofferson have covered the tune.

    Songwriter Townes Van Zandt captured the sadness in the song when he sang “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” as part of Solo Sessions, January 17, 1995.

    While one might complain that the song oversimplifies Ira Hayes by focusing on his downfall, the song remains as a fitting tribute to the man. It helps keep him in our memories, while also reminding us of some of the downsides of war and fame. RIP Corporal Hayes.

    Photo via public domain.

    What is your favorite version of “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Ray Price: Thanks For the Good Times

    When I was a kid, my parents and my grandma had 8-track tapes of country singer Ray Price. Perhaps because I heard those songs so many times back then, I never bought Ray Price albums myself when I grew up. But his music holds a special place in my memories and he introduced me to songwriters like Kris Kristofferson. So, I was sad to hear that he passed away this week at the age of 87.

    Long before I fully understood the sentiments in Ray Price’s classic recording of Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times” and back when “lay your head upon my pillow” seemed racy, I already knew all the words.

    For more on Ray Price, check out NPR’s story. RIP.

    What is your favorite Ray Price song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Cowboy Jack Clement: “I Guess Things Happen That Way”

    Cowboy Jack Clement passed away this week in Nashville from cancer at the age of 82. The singer, producer, and songwriter had a long career with connections to some important figures in music history. Early in his career, Cowboy Jack Clement worked as a producer and engineer for Sam Phillips at Sun Records, helping discover Jerry Lee Lewis and recording him on such songs as “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” He wrote Johnny Cash’s “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” and produced the singer’s recording of “Ring of Fire.” He also produced several U2 performances in 1987 for their Rattle & Hum album. And he continued producing music until his death, with his most recent work being on Cathy Maguire‘s upcoming 2014 album.

    In 2005, a movie called Shakespeare Was a Big George Jones Fan focused on Clement’s career using his home movies. He had been in the Nashville Songwriter Hall of Fame since 1973, and he was going to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame later this year.

    Among all of Clement’s accomplishments, the one that stands out for me is that he wrote the song, “I Guess Things Happen That Way.” The song was a hit for Johnny Cash in 1958. Almost four decades later, the song appeared on the excellent soundtrack to the underrated Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner movie, A Perfect World (1993). Here is Cash’s original version of the song. (A live 1994 version is also on YouTube, but I prefer the original recording with the background singers the 1950s slapback sound.)

    “I Guess Things Happen That Way” is one of the great heartbreak songs. In the song, the singer tells the listener about missing his lost love: “You ask me if I’ll miss her kisses./I guess I will, everyday.” He does not know if he will find another love (“I don’t know. I can’t say.).

    But what is great about the song is that amid the pain, the singer and the upbeat music — including the background ba-doo-pa-doo’s — contemplate life getting better: “You ask me if I’ll get along./I guess I will, someway.” And the wonderful refrain reminds all of the heartbroken that they are not alone, “I don’t like it but I guess things happen that way.” It is one of the most perfect songs about the contradictory agony and hope that comes from losing a love.

    Johnny Cash later recorded the song with Bob Dylan in 1969 while Dylan was making Nashville Skyline. “I Guess Things Happen That Way” did not end up on the album but you may listen to their version below. (Thanks to Michael Gray for pointing me to the Dylan-Cash collaboration.)

    Clement originally wrote “I Guess Things Happen That Way” from a man’s point of view: “Heaven help me be a man / and have the strength to stand alone.” But Emmylou Harris shows that the song is more universal by adding a few tweaks (“Heaven help me to be strong”) in this performance at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

    The song also may be performed as a man-woman duet, as shown by Kris Kristofferson and Norah Jones at a Johnny Cash tribute concert. The performance works equally well here as a tribute to Cowboy Jack Clement.

    Finally, here is a recent Clement performance of “Guess Things Happen That Way.” Paul Smith of Boundary Road accompanies Clement at the The Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa in Nashville, Tennessee.

    We are sad at the passing of Cowboy Jack Clement. But we are thankful for the work he created during his long career giving us a little extra joy and comfort for our short time here on earth. I don’t like it, but I guess things happen that way.

    What is your favorite Cowboy Jack Clement song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Columbia Records Drops Johnny Cash: “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”

    On July 15 in 1986, Columbia Records dropped Johnny Cash from its label after a relationship that lasted more than two and a half decades. According to the Los Angeles Times, Rick Blackburn, head of Columbia-Epic-CBS Nashville, explained, “This is the hardest decision that I’ve ever had to make in my life.”

    Cash had signed with Columbia in 1960, after the label convinced him to leave his first label, Sun Records. During the next few decades, Cash of course had a great career with Columbia, where he recorded many of his classic songs.

    But by 1986, the industry had changed and Cash was no longer producing hits. Cash’s final album with Columbia was Rainbow (1985). The album included Cash’s cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” and “Casey’s Last Ride,” which was written by Kris Kristofferson.

    Cash did not stay unemployed for long, and he was soon signed by Mercury Records. And then in 1994 he released his first album with producer’s Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label, beginning a major comeback that included several albums before Cash passed away.

    “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”

    I don’t know what Cash said when he heard that Columbia was dropping him, but I like to imagine it was something like, “God’s Gonna Cut You Down,” the title of a traditional folk song that he later recorded with American Recordings.

    “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” appeared on American V: A Hundred Highways (2006), which came out after Cash’s death. In the song, the singer recounts how one cannot escape God.

    “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” has been recorded by a number of artists, with some using the different title of “Run On.”

    As Cash and Rubin did with other songs, their version of “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”/”Run On” sounds quite different from other versions.  For example, the Cash version differs significantly from this version of “Run On” from another artist who started with Sun Records, Elvis Presley.

    The Blind Boys of Alabama recorded a version of “Run On” that appeared on Spirit Of The Century (2001).

    But the version of the song that most people have probably heard is a song from Moby’s mega-selling album Play (1999).  Moby’s song incorporated sampled vocals by Bill Landford & The Landfordaires.

    In the end, both Cash and Columbia Records managed to run on and do fine. Had Cash stayed with Columbia Records for the rest of his life, he might never have made the brilliant music he did with Rick Rubin at American Recordings.

    And in 2007, Columbia got a new co-head: Rick Rubin.  Rubin then left Columbia in 2012 to revive his American Recordings label imprint.

    What is your favorite version of “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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