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Retro Redux: The Other Highwaymen

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A while back I wrote about the Highwaymen, the legendary bunch that was made up of country music icons Willie, Waylon, Johnny and Kris. But there was at least one other group with the same name, and it had a huge number-one hit long before the country music guys got together for their little adventure.

A fixture in the folk/pop music world for many years, the sweet-singing quintet known as the Highwaymen began their rise to fame in the late Fifties and found their biggest success in the next decade. They had a lot in common with groups like the Kingston Trio and the Brothers Four, guys who specialized in the softer side of folk music rather than the strident anti-establishment side of things.

The original members of the group — David Fisher, Chan Daniels, Steve Butts, Steve Trott and Bob Burnett — connected in Connecticut, at Wesleyan University. Even though the fledgling group was popular in area appearances, the guys couldn't get much interest from record companies at first, but did eventually manage to hit the studio after adding some better songs to their act.

The group still wasn't an instant success but among the songs they'd added was an old spiritual called "Michael, Row The Boat Ashore," and over a period of time it began to climb the charts. The listening public must have liked their soft harmonies because the record ended up hitting the top of the charts in 1961.

That mild approach was on display again with the group's other big hit, "Cotton Fields" (clip), which was issued the following year. It might have seemed odd for the preppy Highwaymen to record a classic Leadbelly blues piece about growing up in a family of cotton pickers, but it did give the tune a much wider audience. It became very popular and would later be covered by performers like the Beach Boys and Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Although the Highwaymen have continued to perform from time to time through the years, the group never again hit the charts in a big way. However, they did for a while have a bone to pick with that new country music bunch also calling themselves the Highwaymen. Happily it was resolved, and the two groups even performed together in 1990. In the years since, the original Highwaymen have continued to entertain their many fans.

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