Willie Nelson could turn just about any song into a hit back in the day.
On this date in 1980, he was at #1 on the country charts with one of his classics, “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.” It was featured on the tracklist for the 1979 film The Electric Horseman, and became Willie’s fifth #1 single after topping the charts.
The original version of the song was first featured on the 1976 album Wanted! The Outlaws with Waylon Jennings on lead vocals, but became even more popular when Willie recorded it for the aforementioned movie.
Originally written by Sharon Vaughn, she told The Tennessean that it took her less than 20 minutes in total to finish:
“I was just told to go home and write a cowboy song. Seventeen minutes. I don’t know how I remember that, but from the beginning to the end, it was a gusher.
Seventeen minutes, and it was done.”
But the most intimidating part of the whole process was having to play it for Waylon the first time when she was trying to get him to record it. Sharon was also a recording artist at the time, and had just cut a song called “Back In The Country” that was written by W. Jennings and Troy Seals. She thought the “W” stood for Waylon…
She figured it would be a great idea to just run by his office and ask him to record the song herself:
“I went in there and said, ‘Mr. Jennings?’ You shrink around Waylon Jennings because he was such a forceful and powerful personality.”
I can only imagine… I’d be shakin’ in my boots:
“He was in this giant, black Naugahyde chair, and he took the record and played it and said, ‘That was nice, Sharon, but I didn’t write it. That’s Will Jennings.’
So, shrinking, shrinking, shrinking, I said, ‘Well, while I’m here,’ and before he could say no, I ran out to my car, grabbed my reel-to-reel demo of me singing ‘Heroes,’ flung it across his desk and said, ‘I wrote this just for you,’ which I didn’t.”
You have to imagine the man who fought tooth and nail to make it in the music industry and do it his own way admired her pluck and moxie to keep trying until she gave him a song he really loved enough to record.
And considering that Waylon didn’t like to have other people write his songs for him, especially in the earlier half of his career, that was no small task.
For some reason, he couldn’t get in into his mind that she wrote the song by herself, though:
“He puts it on, and plays the first part of the first verse, and he stops it and whirls around in that big black chair and says, ‘Who wrote this song?’ I said, ‘I did.’ He goes, ‘OK.’
He plays it up through the first chorus, and stops it, whirls around again: ‘Who wrote this song?’ This went on about two or three more times, and finally, I’m getting a little hacked off. I said, ‘I wrote the song!'”
He ended up liking that song so much, in fact, that he decided he wanted to record it that night:
“He picks up the phone after playing it twice all the way through and calls Cowboy (Jack) Clement in Beaumont, Texas. He says, ‘Colonel, you’d better get in here tonight. We’re cutting a song.’
And he cut the song that night. It wound up being (song) one, side one, on ‘Wanted! The Outlaws,’ which was the initiation of the outlaw movement.”
Pretty damn cool that she got not only, but two, of the most recognizable outlaws in all of country music to record her song.
Here’s Willie performing it at the US Festival in 1983: