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Classic Tracks: Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again”

Like most country singer/songwriters worth their salt, Willie Nelson operates outside the Nashville mainstream not necessarily because he's a major rebel

Like most country singer/songwriters worth their salt, Willie Nelson operates outside the Nashville mainstream — not necessarily because he’s a major rebel like his friend and fellow Outlaw Waylon Jennings was, but because he just didn’t fit in. With vocal phrasing that owes almost as much to Tony Bennett as to Hank Williams, Nelson didn’t sound the way producers expected country to sound. The consensus in Nashville seemed to be that he had a great voice for songwriting.

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Nelson moved to Nashville from his home state of Texas in the early ’60s, after playing honky-tonks and DJ’ing for several years in the Fort Worth area. While still in Texas, he’d sold a song called “Family Bible” to a guitar teacher for $50. The song was later a hit recording by Claude Gray, and Nelson felt encouraged to try his luck in Music City. He found a friend and admirer in Hank Cochran, who helped Nelson get a publishing deal with Hal Smith’s Pamper Music.

“I started working in a garage at the Pamper office,” Nelson recalled in his 1988 autobiography, Willie. “There was a door, a window, a guitar and the walls. I started talking to the walls, like I had done when I was a child in Abbott [Texas], reading the pages of the Star-Telegram that kept the wind out. Hank walked into the garage, and on a piece of cardboard I had written, ‘Hello Walls.’”

The composition that began with Nelson writing simply “Hello Walls” became a monumental hit for country star Ray Price, and success began to follow success for Nelson: Billy Walker recorded “Funny How Time Slips Away,” Price recorded “Night Life” and Patsy Cline had an unforgettable hit with “Crazy.”

Nashville still failed to embrace him as a performer, but Nelson, itching to blow some of his sudden wealth and take a break from his home life (the moods of his marriage to first wife Martha Jewel Matthews apparently ranged from drunk to violent), won a spot in Price’s touring band, the Cherokee Cowboys. “I heard Ray Price’s bass player, Donny Young — now better known as Johnny Paycheck — had quit,” Nelson wrote. “I talked Ray into hiring me to play bass with the Cherokee Cowboys. Ray didn’t ask if I knew how to play bass, which I didn’t.”

The next 10 years were a professional and personal roller coaster for Nelson. He partied away piles of cash, divorced and remarried, scored a couple of Top 10 duet singles with his second wife, Shirley Collie, and became a member of the Opry. He changed labels a few times, releasing records with decreasing success, changed wives again and ultimately found himself back in Texas — Austin, this time — and ready to start the most fertile period of his career.

Nelson’s breakthrough album, Red Headed Stranger (Columbia, 1975), was a huge and surprising success — a concept album with spare arrangements, including Nelson’s heartfelt cover of Roy Acuff’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” Nelson soon followed this with one of the biggest-selling country albums of all time, the collaborative compilation Wanted: The Outlaws, which glorified the Nashville-outsider status of Nelson and his good friends Jennings, Jessi Colter and Tompall Glaser. The Outlaws became more than an album; it was a crossover movement that won the hearts not only of country listeners, but also of college kids, rock fans and hippies — outsiders all, and all under the radar of the Nashville establishment.

Nelson rode the success of The Outlaws to make his beautiful collection of standards, Stardust, which Nelson says moved his tough friend Jennings to tears and, like a handful of popular recording artists of the time, he was propelled to the big screen. He was tapped to make Honeysuckle Rose, a movie that’s part fiction, part concert film. Many of the songs to be used in the movie were already well-known, such as “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” and “Whiskey River,” but the filmmakers wanted Nelson to come up with a new song about touring to be the signature track.

Engineer Bradley Hartman, 1980

“I was on a plane with Sydney Pollack and Jerry Schatzberg shortly after I signed to do the movie Honeysuckle Rose,” Nelson recalled in Willie. “Sydney was the executive producer and Jerry the director, and they were talking to me about the music. They wanted a song. ‘What kind of song?’ I said. Either Sydney or Jerry said, ‘Well, some kind of song about people traveling all over the country making music.’ I said, ‘You mean being on the road again?’ They said, ‘Yeah, that’s it!’ I like to show off occasionally. I picked up an envelope, or maybe it was an airsick bag, and wrote:

“On the road again.

I just can’t wait to get on the road again.

The life I love is making music with my friends.

I just can’t wait to get on the road again.

“‘How about this?’ I said.”

For much of the picture, live shows by Willie Nelson and his Family Band were recorded before audiences filled with lucky fans who had won the chance to be “extras” in radio giveaways. They were real concerts, with real audiences, filmed to be part of a road movie about a fictional artist.

The recording engineer for the movie music and the soundtrack album was Bradley Hartman, who had been with Brian Ahern’s Enactron Studios for a few years. He had recorded and mixed Stardust, as well as other Nelson projects during the mid-1970s. “I wasn’t in the union, and movies always have to be full-union, so they always had to have union people hired to be there, but I was actually working the controls,” recalls Hartman, who also notes that the songs for Honeysuckle Rose were captured the way he’d record a live concert album: “Showco was doing the live sound, and we interfaced and did a split off their audio.”

Hartman recorded to a Stephens 24-track tape machine, using the Enactron truck’s Neve console. “It was one of the older, big Neve split consoles with the inputs on one side and the monitor section on the other,” he says. “It was all recorded 24-track with SMPTE sync to the film.”

Hartman says Nelson sang into a Shure SM58 microphone, and he remembers using some additional drum mics beyond what Showco had set up. “I used some 451s for overheads,” he says. “At that time, it was a crazy band that Willie had. There were two drummers — one playing stick and the other playing brushes on top of it — and two bass players. There were two guitar players and Willie and Mickey Raphael playing harmonica. It was basically Willie’s longtime band, plus a few extras.”

The signature song, “On the Road Again,” was recorded about a dozen times, in various venues and in front of different audiences, until Nelson, who was the producer of the tracks, and Hartman knew they had “the take.”

“We took the truck to Austin and San Antonio, and all around the Texas hill country on different locations to do the movie,” Hartman says. “There were a couple of clubs in Austin. We did the Hemisphere Arena in San Antonio. They found an old Texas-style dance hall out in the country in Fisher, Texas, where we did several days of shooting. But the one that ended up being on the album and the single was one that was recorded at a club in Austin called Soap Creek Saloon. I don’t believe it’s there anymore, but we worked there for two days. We set up and they brought in extras; it was like a free show. We recorded ‘On the Road Again’ two or three times there, and one take was just magical.”

Four months after the movie shooting was complete, Hartman took the tracks to New York City to help with post work. “I was involved in post-production on the movie because quite a few of the music performances are interspersed with dialog and action,” he says. Later, the project moved to L.A., where post was completed at Todd-AO Sound and Hartman mixed the album and single in Wally Heider’s Studio 4. “They’d just put in a new Neve 8108 console and a new Ampex machine there,” Hartman recalls. “They were calling it the ‘Studio of the Decade’ at that point.” He monitored on the studio’s UREI 813 mains and A/B’d with Yamaha NS-10 near-fields.

Going back and listening to the recordings they’d made on location confirmed Hartman’s opinion of which take of “On the Road” was the keeper. “It was just the energy that came off the stage,” he says. “This take of it just jumped out. I mixed it a couple of times and made sure the audience response was where it should have been; there were 451s, audience mics in the club, and I blended those to get the energy of the audience, but the performance is totally live.”

Shortly after the Honeysuckle Rose movie was released, Hartman left Nelson’s camp and became an independent engineer. “I did a few more things with Willie; I remixed a couple of singles for him, but that was pretty much the last thing I did. Pretty soon thereafter, he built his own studio [Pedernales] and moved all his stuff there.”

Hartman went on to record albums for Rodney Crowell and Rosanne Cash. His career later included a very settled period in the early 1980s, when he lived in L.A. with his wife and child, recording voices for a toy company called Alchemy II. “I recorded every word Teddy Ruxpin ever said,” Hartman says with a laugh. In the late 1980s, he moved to Nashville, where he now runs his own studio, Trace Sound, and records mainly acoustic singer/songwriters and bluegrass artists such as Tim O’Brien.

Nelson, of course, continued building a much-celebrated career on his own terms. He won a Best Country Song Grammy in 1980 for “On the Road Again,” which continues to be not only one of his trademark tunes, but also his way of life. “When I walk off the stage after a hot show,” Nelson wrote, “I’m so wired on a natural high that for the next two or three hours, my feet barely touch the floor. It used to be, when the regular show was over and everybody was roaring, we’d go to a bar or somebody’s house and the band would keep playing until we could see the sunlight through the windows and hear the birds singing outside. Now we get into our caravan of buses and leave town as soon as the show is over. There’s plenty of time to come down when you’re rolling all night on the highway.”