“The Lure of Irresponsibility”: Willie Nelson’s Honeysuckle Rose Turns 40

Loosely based on the 1939 film Intermezzo, the Red Headed Stranger’s hit Hollywood turn introduced him to a new generation of music fans

Honeysuckle Rose film card (1980)

“On the Road Again,” the song that kicks off the soundtrack of Honeysuckle Rose, is a simple ode to the touring life, a life that, at the time of the album and movie’s release in the summer of 1980, Willie Nelson was well-acquainted with.

Honeysuckle Rose isn’t “about” Willie Nelson, even though the review of the album in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide says Nelson “expertly played himself”: he actually plays a less-famous country singer named Buck Bonham, but you can understand the confusion, since the songs he sings (all recorded live) are the same ones Nelson was doing in concert, with the same backing band, and the soundtrack overlaps with the track listing of the 1978 album Willie and Family Live. The crowds sound the same, too.

Honeysuckle Rose is like another 1980 Warner Brothers movie, One Trick Pony, in which Paul Simon pretends to be a stuck-in-limbo singer-songwriter, Jonah Levin, who makes the rounds of small clubs with Simon’s real-life band, but Simon’s self-written screenplay and score presents an alternate artistic life for Levin. He doesn’t sing “The Boxer.” Bonham sings “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” “Whiskey River,” and “Bloody Mary Morning.” As a document of where Nelson and his band were at the end of the ’70s, Honeysuckle Rose is as lively and varied as you’d want, with the bonus of performances by Hank Cochran, Johnny Gimble and Emmylou Harris. There are also vocal contributions by Dyan Cannon and Amy Irving, Nelson’s co-stars in the film.

 

VIDEO: Intermezzo–A Love Story (1939)

To the extent that Honeysuckle Rose has a plot, it’s borrowed liberally from the 1939 film Intermezzo, in which married violinist Leslie Howard falls for his young pianist, Ingrid Bergman. So substitute Willie for Leslie, Kris Kristofferson songs (Nelson duets with each of his ladies on a Kris tune) for Edvard Greig’s Concerto in A minor, throw in Slim Pickens, and buy into the notion that Willie, beard, braids, bandana and all, is this magnetic romantic hero, caught between Cannon’s blouse-bursting bombshell and Irving’s dewy hero-worshipping ingénue. The arc of the movie is predictable, but director Jerry Schatzberg takes a leisurely approach, doesn’t demand much of Nelson-as-actor (he doesn’t need to: unlike Paul Simon, Willie doesn’t seem at all anxious on screen; it’s just another gig), and allows the music to pick up the dramatic slack.

Each of the four sides of the Honeysuckle Rose original double-LP soundtrack is like a separate act of the film. With the Oscar-nominated song “On the Road Again” (it, as well as Dolly Parton’s “9 To 5,” lost to the title theme from Fame), the movie and the album bring us into Bonham’s world, to the tour bus, the hours between gigs, the moments on stage. It’s what film critic Robin Wood, writing about director Howard Hawks, called “the lure of irresponsibility”: the all-male troupe, just out there doin’ their job, unencumbered and untangled. “Like a band of gypsies we go down the highway,” Willie sings. “Insistin’ that the world keep turnin’ our way.” Even though he has Dyan Cannon (who’d have been a perfect Hawksian woman) waitin’ at home, and a kid, he just can’t wait to get on the road again. “Pick Up the Tempo,” he sings, and Johnny Gimble plays “Fiddlin’ Around,” and Jody Payne takes lead vocal on “Working Man Blues.” That’s what they are: men at work.

Willie Nelson & Family Honeysuckle Rose, Legacy Recordings 1980

On side two, Buck/Willie plays the audience favorites (“Whiskey River,” “Bloody Mary Morning,” both from Nelson’s pre-breakout period on Atlantic Records), and Nelson and Cannon sing their couples-song, Kristofferson’s “Loving You Was Easier.” Side three commences with Amy Irving’s siren song, “If You Want Me to Love You I Will”; she and Willie do their Kris number (“You Show Me Yours and I’ll Show You Mine”); and Nelson sings his beautiful “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.” You know where this is heading: there’s a big concert at the end, the inevitable showdown between the rivals for Buck’s favors (on the LP cover, there’s an illustration of the two women sizing each other up, while the guy stares off into the distance, and his bandmates wait patiently by the bus until this whole kerfuffle passes). Cannon sings “Two Sides to Every Story,” and the penultimate song is Willie, alone on guitar, singing Leon Russell’s “A Song for You”: happy ending, with a gospel (“Uncloudy Day”) climactic kicker.

Willie Nelson in 1980 was well on the way to becoming an American Institution, a figure like Bing Crosby, Ray Charles, or Louis Armstrong. With Stardust, his 1978 album of standards, he’d earned a license to take his music anywhere, to show that he owed as much to Django Reinhardt and Hoagy Carmichael as to Harlan Howard and Hank Williams. He used his clout to collaborate on albums with Leon Russell and Ray Price; to do a whole album of Kristofferson songs, a Christmas album (Pretty Paper), a gospel album (Family Bible), and a breezy Stardust sequel (Somewhere Over the Rainbow), all between 1979 and 1981, with Honeysuckle Rose smack in the middle. In the midst of all this, he made his movie debut in Sydney Pollack’s The Electric Horseman (1979), and his songs in that film—including a hit version of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Midnight Rider”—made up one side of the soundtrack album.

Honeysuckle Rose, the album, was a huge success (#1 country), and the film did okay, but about six weeks before it opened in theaters, another country-music movie, Urban Cowboy, came out and offered a different angle. (It was a big year for cinematic country: in March, Coal Miner’s Daughter, with Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn, was released, and Any Which Way You Can’s soundtrack was country-heavy.) What Honeysuckle Rose feels like is a summing-up, a last hurrah for the Outlaw Country movement that shook up the Nashville establishment in the ’70s, when Willie and Waylon Jennings and the boys took over. 

 

VIDEO: Willie Nelson and Dyan Cannon perform “A Song For You” and “Uncloudy Day” in a scene from Honeysuckle Rose 

Late in the decade, it was already showing signs of self-parody and self-reference: 1977’s W&W duet “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to The Basics of Love)” and their ’78 “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys” are perfect singles, but smugness was seeping through, and you know that what they mean is: cowboys like us are the real men, too wild to tame. Waylon could see the problem: in late ’78 he wrote and recorded “Don’t You Think This Outlaw Bit’s Done Got Out of Hand.”

As the ’80s began, John Travolta put on a cowboy hat, Debra Winger straddled a mechanical bull. Outlaws? What Outlaws? Welcome Anne Murray, Kenny Rogers, Johnny Lee, and Mickey Gilley. And Willie? He just kept rollin’ down the highway. And rollin’, and rollin’…

 

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Mitchell Cohen

RockandRollGlobe contributing writer Mitchell Cohen began writing about music and films for various publications in the mid-’70s, including Creem, Film Comment, Take One, Fusion, Phonograph Record Magazine. He is the co-author of Matt Pinfield’s memoir All These Things That I’ve Done, and a contributor to the website Music Aficionado. Follow him on Twitter @mitchellscohen.

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