The Highwaymen exhibit an enthusiastic optimism that can seem overly sugarcoated in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate world. How many groups today would attempt to sing a song like "Big Rock Candy Mountain" without a heavy dose of irony? But the Highwaymen were young when they started performing and made their first two albums, The Highwaymen and Standing Room Only!, in 1960 and 1961. Songs like "Santiano" and "Michael" have the same tight harmony and joyous presentation as the early material of the Kingston Trio or the New Christy Minstrels. Their version of "Cotton Fields" has little in common with Leadbelly's, but few people listening at the time would have been aware of the original version. Neither would these listeners have thought it odd that five clean-cut college boys were singing about being in "cold iron and shackles" in "Take This Hammer." The Highwaymen must be understood and appreciated for what they attempted to be: popular interpreters of folk songs. Just about everything on their first album, The Highwaymen, sounds fresh and energetic, and the arrangements are simple and straightforward. Standing Room Only! varies this formula with less success. This album sounds "more produced" and the song choice less inspired. The guitar lead on a dulcimer-driven "Wildwood Flower" almost sounds electric. (And this is at least four years before folk-rock!) Musically, listeners will also notice that many of the tracks on both albums have drums. All nitpicking aside, these are fun albums that will transport the listener back to the heights of the folk revival when it was still "cool" to sing songs filled with hope.
The Highwaymen/Standing Room Only! Review
by Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.