Artists have written songs in an array of absurd and preposterous places for as long as time. Once that first seed arrives, no matter where you are, you need to hunt it down and uncover whether there’s a great song hidden within that thought — something Willie Nelson found out when he wrote ‘On The Road Again’.
Nelson is not just one of America’s most notorious cannabis entrepreneurs and smokers; additionally, he is one of his land’s most natural storytellers. He has a rare gift that most songwriters envy who yearn to draw in and captivate listeners as Willie can. Nelson’s yarns have a warm texture in his music, and his southern drawl can have a hypnotising effect that locks you into a trance.
The emotive ‘On The Road Again’ is an exemplary moment in Nelson’s glittering career. Every sense is triggered as a listener in the song, making you smell the tire burning on the highway beneath you and the looming whiff of petrol as you pull in for a pit stop. Meanwhile, your mind wanders through a picturebook of previous summers, thanks to Nelson’s majestic narrating.
However, the song came to him in the most peculiar place while he was 30,000 feet in the air with nothing but a sick bag to hand. Most people use plane journeys to catch up on a film they’d missed at cinemas or some sleep. Nelson instead used his time more economically by penning a timeless classic.
Nelson was travelling by plane with Jerry Schatzberg, the director of Honeysuckle Rose, and the film’s executive producer Sydney Pollack. “They were looking for songs for the movie, and they asked me if I had any idea,” the singer recalled to Uncut. “I said, ‘What do you want the song to say?’ and Sydney said, ‘Can it be something about being on the road?’
“It just started to click,” he continued. “I said ‘You mean like, On the road again, I can’t wait to get on the road again?; They said, ‘That’s great. What’s the melody?’ I said, ‘I don’t know yet.'”
Nelson starred in the film as a country singer, which is a role that he knew all too well. He added a wealth of authenticity to Honeysuckle Rose, and his work on the soundtrack only enhanced the film further. Although he wrote the majority of the song as the shot of inspiration arrived at him while he was in the sky, the melody took rather longer to get finished. Nelson didn’t even bother thinking about that part of the song until the day before he was just to record the song.
“I saw no reason to put a melody to something I wasn’t ready to record,” he explained in his 1988 autobiography, Willie. “I knew I wouldn’t have any problem pulling the melody out of the air.”
Nelson’s nonchalant way of songwriting only works when you are graced with the spellbinding adroitness he has masterfully built up over decades in his delightful Texan twang. Only Willie Nelson could be blasé enough to carve gold from some scribbles on the back of a sick bag, and it’s a fitting epitaph that epitomises his relaxed approach to life.