Even before he turned 90 two months ago, Willie Nelson was one of America’s most recognizable personalities.
Now that he’s a nonagenarian, he has entered territory associated with the likes of Betty White, Jimmy Carter, Bob Hope, George Burns and Carol Burnett — loved by nearly everyone and pretty much beyond reproach. So messing with one of Nelson’s signature songs is hazardous; it won’t harm Nelson, but the artist who plays with it is taking a risk. Thus, Jake Owen admits he felt nervous about recording “On the Boat Again,” an interpolation that twists Nelson’s crossover classic “On the Road Again.”
“You never want to tarnish something that was always great,” he says
But he also liked the challenge it represented, and it didn’t hurt that when he reached out to Lukas Nelson, Willie’s son gave it a thumbs-up and passed it along to his dad, whose publisher worked out a royalty agreement with the writers. Likewise, Owen had some history with interpolations: “I Was Jack (You Were Diane),” which borrowed from a John Mellencamp classic, topped the Country Airplay chart five years ago.
“It was like, ‘It’s going to be dangerous,’ you know, but I then understood the point of it,” he remembers. “And it was a great point in my career.”
“On the Road Again” has done well for Nelson. He wrote it on the back of an airbag during a flight with movie producer Sydney Pollack, who needed a song about the touring life for the movie Honeysuckle Rose, in which Nelson starred. Nelson earned synch royalties for its use in the picture, performance income from country radio and other formats after it crossed over, royalties for other interpolations and corporate revenue from its use in several commercials.
It was likely one of those ads that inspired this latest wrinkle in the song’s story. Songwriter Blake Pendergrass saw that spot and thought it would be good for a laugh to rewrite it as “On the Boat Again,” and when two different writing appointments were scrapped on Music Row in June 2022, the four writers who were still around got together for an informal, no-pressure Friday session. All the participants — including Devin Dawson, Rocky Block (“For What It’s Worth,” “Broadway Girls”) and host Kyle Fishman (“Down to One,” “Small Town Boy”) — wanted to keep it light, and Pendergrass dropped the “Boat” idea on them. The original is repetitive enough that revising the chorus was a snap; “making music with my friends” quickly became “drinking cold beer.”
“Once you say, ‘On the boat again,’ that’s three of the four lines,” notes Block. “You know what the melody’s going to be, so it was just about finding two hooks, and that ‘boat’ rhyme with ‘float’ — once we got that, that’s all you really had to do for the chorus.”
After the first chorus, the second and third occurrences expand from four lines to eight, with the “Boat” version including a slight melodic change, dropping the final note in the “float” line for a slight variation.
“I can’t say that that was purposeful,” Block says. “It may have just been an oversight, but it just kind of felt like what it needed to be.”
But where Nelson’s original starts with the title, the interpolation needed new verses to work properly, holding the familiar part of the song back to create an “aha” moment. “It’s a nice situation to just leave it to the imagination until the chorus gets there,” says Pendergrass. “It draws you in when the chorus hits, and then I think people get hooked on it after that because it’s so familiar.”
The lower-pitched verses feel a bit like an Ernest Tubb melody, with the song’s humor showing itself at the outset. A blue-collar worker pines for a weekend escape, only to be stuck in traffic on a trip to the lake. But it’s worth it when he gets out on the water with the same revelers from the previous weekend. At one point, the writers played with the phrase “tie one on” — alluding to both beer consumption and the dock — but when it didn’t work in the verses, they retrieved it for a climactic bridge.
“This is what the beauty of co-writing is,” Dawson observes. “I think I said, ‘Lord knows it won’t be long ’til I go and tie one on/ On the boat again.’ I said ‘on’ twice, you know, and then Kyle was like, ‘Just say “on” once, and go into the chorus.’ It just rolled perfectly.”
The whole thing was completed in roughly an hour, and the guys pulled together a quick work tape with vocal and four guitars. Their initial targets were Owen and Luke Bryan, and since Block writes for Big Loud, he took it to producer Joey Moi (Morgan Wallen, HARDY), who recognized it would be an interpolation simply from the title. Once he heard it, he thought it was ideal for Owen.
“There’s no in between,” notes Dawson. “It’s either going to be a single, or it’s just never going to get heard. So we got lucky.”
Owen didn’t know it incorporated Nelson’s song until he heard it, but the way it was built pulled him in.
“It just made me smile,” he says. “And quite frankly, it’s a life that I’ve lived since I was 10 years old, just being on boats back in Florida.”
They recorded it in the fall at Nashville’s Blackbird Studio with drummer Jerry Roe, bassist Jimmie Lee Sloas, keyboardist Dave Cohen and guitarists Ilya Toshinskiy and Derek Wells. “We couldn’t let it take itself seriously — people would mock us to death,” says Moi. “It just had to smile the whole time, and it had to have that kind of summertime beach feel that Jake has without totally leaning on beach/aquatic musical clichés.”
Wells’ slide guitar parts and Cohen’s circus-like use of a pipe organ tone to accompany the bass gave it a woozy feel similar to Toby Keith’s “Red Solo Cup.” “Originally, the solo section that we had, we were having way too much fun when we were tracking and we made it way too goofy,” Moi says. “We had a bass solo and a [Hammond] B-3 solo. We had this four-instrument solo fight going on. I opened it up a couple months later, when Jake was coming to sing, and like, ‘Oops, we might have ran a red light on cool.’ We ended up cutting it back, and I had Derek come back in and write a new solo.”
During the process, Owen made the connection with Lukas, and Sony Music Publishing worked out the copyright issues, allegedly giving Nelson’s team half the royalties, according to two of the composers. “As a writer, it’s cool to have our names beside Willie,” says Pendergrass, “even if it was in a Frankensteined, kind of piecemealed way.”
Owen and the label had several options for the first single from his Loose Cannon album, released June 23, but a radio executive insisted “Boat” was the one. “They’re like, ‘Jake, stop ignoring the obvious,’ ” recalls Owen.
Released to country radio via PlayMPE on May 25, it sails to No. 41 on the Country Airplay list dated July 8. Owen would love to see the song emulate the chart run of his Mellencamp interpolation.
“Willie just turned 90,” he reasons. “That’d be so cool, he’s out here with a song on the radio that goes No. 1 and he’s a writer on it. That’s pretty awesome.”