The Unusual Place Willie Nelson Wrote One Of His Most Famous Songs

The prolific Americana songwriters of the '60s, '70s, and '80s seemed to be able to write classic hits at the drop of a hat — or, in Willie Nelson's case, the drop of a barf bag (more on that in a sec). Indeed, Nelson's decades-long career and impeccable songwriting abilities have cemented his place in the canon of great American country artists of the last century. 

And in 1980, Nelson joined the ranks of musicians-turned-movie stars like Elvis Presley and David Bowie when he starred in his first feature film, "Honeysuckle Rose." Nelson played Buck Bonham, a character not dissimilar to Willie himself, clad with braided pigtails, a bandana wrapped around his head, and the days-old scruff of a musician on the road. 

Naturally, a film about a traveling musician ought to have a strong soundtrack. So, when executive producers asked Nelson to create a theme song for the film, he did so — but not in a place you'd readily expect.

Writing On the Road in the sky

In an interview with Uncut, Nelson recalled when he was first asked to write a theme song for "Honeysuckle Rose." He was traveling by plane with the film's producer, Sydney Pollack, and the director, Jerry Schatzberg. When Pollack and Schatzberg asked the songwriter if he had any ideas, he responded with a question of his own: What was the song supposed to say? 

"I think Sydney said, 'Can it be something about being on the road?' It just started to click in my head," Nelson said. "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 scratched down the lyrics of the song that would later win a Grammy Award for Best Country Song, top the Billboard country albums, and earn Nelson's highest ranking on the Billboard Hot 100 (at the time, at least — "Always On My Mind" would later rank 15 positions higher) on the closest thing he could find while riding high in the sky: a barf bag.

From barf bag brainstorm to a Hall of Fame hit

Despite its humble origin story, "On the Road Again" became one of Nelson's most iconic tracks of his entire career. Decades after its first premiere with "Honeysuckle Rose," the song has been covered countless times by amateur musicians and musical giants like Neil Young alike. And, of course, "On the Road" is still a staple in Nelson's set as he continues to perform live on tour with his talented son, Lukas Nelson.

In addition to the song's success in the musical world, Nelson was also nominated for an Oscar at the 53rd Academy Awards for Best Original Song along with Dolly Parton's "9 to 5" and Michael Gore's "Fame," the latter of which would ultimately take home the award. In 2011, the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. 

The meteoric rise of a half-formed song scrawled on a sick bag to a defining hit song is not unlike Nelson's entire career. His first-ever live performance was a disaster, but you'd never know it considering the accolades the red headed stranger can boast these days. Nelson's musical legacy is a testament to the idea that it doesn't matter where or when a song is written — as long as there's heart and soul in the music, it will reach the masses in due time.