By Alanna Nash
Updated April 14, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

Waylon Jennings, the leader of the 1970s ”outlaw movement” in country music and a man whose personal style substantially influenced Nashville’s way of making records, was attending an industry event when a disc jockey from a Young Country station glad-handed his way through the room. ”When he got to me,” Jennings mused recently, ”he asked me who I was. I said, ‘I’m the one who gave you your job.”’ Jennings, who occasionally records with buddies Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson as the Highwaymen, doesn’t get played much on radio anymore. But on THE ROAD GOES ON FOREVER (Liberty), the Highwaymen’s third album in 10 years, Jennings and company have a lesson or two for country’s young guns-and for an audience that may consider them has-beens. The idea for the Highwaymen began when Jennings, Nelson, and Kristofferson went to Switzerland in 1984 to appear on a Johnny Cash TV special. The four jammed together for several nights and decided to record an album as part of a natural evolution: All four were longtime friends, and each had performed the others’ songs many times. The name of the impromptu group came both from a spin on their ”outlaw” image, gleaned from their renegade approach to commercial country music (spare instrumental backing, a blending of styles, and reliance on original left-field material), and from the first album’s arresting title song, ”Highwayman” (1985), which told the story of one soul wandering through four reincarnations. Spooky, powerful, and vaguely spiritual, that single won a Grammy and established the Highwaymen’s interlocking themes-a call for humanity, tolerance, and respect, and the recognition of a higher power-which the Highwaymen revisited with less success on Highwayman 2 in 1990. This third record, produced by Don Was, may not be as great an album as Was coaxed from Nelson and Jennings on their recent solo outings, but it’s a solid collection of unconventional and often introspective songs by Robert Earl Keen Jr., Billy Joe and Eddy Shaver, Stephen Bruton, Kevin Welch, Steve Earle, and the four principals. Building on the tone and feel of the first efforts, the new album veers from hymn-like meditations to honky-tonk shuffles to chugging country-rockers exploring acceptance (”It Is What It Is”), self-reliance (”The Devil’s Right Hand”), and universal love (”Here Comes That Rainbow Again”). The average age of these former hellraisers is 60, but they aren’t above youthful temptations, which accounts for the album’s secondary theme: the tug of war between right and wrong, best exemplified in Keen’s gritty title song of crime and passion, and in Johnny and son John Carter Cash’s duet, the metaphysical ”Death and Hell.” In the years since their first album, most of the Highwaymen have survived wrenching personal trials, and their weathered voices-buoyed by the comfortable camaraderie that permeates this project-evoke a world of experience. There’s something thrilling about the way Kristofferson, when he takes his turn at lead vocal, rasps out, ”Time has taught me this for sure/ Time itself is the only cure,” on the healing balm of ”Everyone Gets Crazy.” The strength of most of the performances isn’t just that country’s most macho dudes aren’t afraid to show their softer sides, but that they have really lived the hard knocks of which they sing. That’s what’s missing from the voices of most of the young singers that Jennings’ deejay acquaintance plays. Age has nothing to do with good music, but as the Highwaymen amply prove, neither, necessarily, does youth. B+

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