If the terms Laurel Canyon, Asylum Record sand Doug Weston’s Troubadour ring familiar to you, then you already know J.D. Souther. A key figure in the same music scene that hatched the careers of Linda Ronstadt, Warren Zevon and Jackson Browne, Souther has found success as both writer and performer in his 40-year career.
In addition to charting with his 1979 mega hit “You’re Only Lonely,” Souther co-wrote several Eagles hits, including “The Sad Café,” “New Kid In Town” and “Best Of My Love.” These days, Souther is revisiting these songs and others from his back catalogon his recently-released album Natural History.
“As Chuck (Mitchell) at the record company reminds me, ‘How many guys get to makean album of their own standards?’ That was justanother way of saying, ‘You’re really old’,” Souther says with a laugh, speaking by phone from his Nashville home. “I don’t feel any different about the music than I did in 1969. It’s the first time I ever got to make a crooner album and really just think about singing. I just decided I’d played guitar enough and it freed me so much to just be a vocalist. All I had to do was think about reinterpreting—just interpret the way we we’re doing them now in 2011.”
On Saturday, June 11, Souther will perform at Workplay with Caitlin Rose opening the 8 p.m.arts culture show. Not only will the show mark Souther’sWorkplay debut, he states it will be the first Birmingham performance of his career. Given that the original versions of his hits are forever etched in the memories of pop music fans, I ask Souther if there is a challenge in maintaining the integrity of the older versions while placing a new stamp on them.
“Yes, I think so,” he says. “You use every inclination you have to meet that challenge. The truth is I’ve evolved into what I started out as—a jazz musician that loves to have everything written down, rehearsed, gigs played and then you get to push the ‘Go Wild’ button. After everybody knows the song so well that they can play it in their sleep, then you can take that structure and improvise. Every night before we go on stage, I just look at (the other musicians) and say, ‘Let’s go do what we do’ and we walk out there. It’s modeled on the way the Miles Davis Quintet was playing in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. We don’t have a set list. If I say, ‘Rhythm & Blues in F#,’ we all know what to do and when to do it. If I sit down on a stool and say, ‘Let’s play Bye Bye Blackbird in F, they know what to do.”
Being surrounded by a talented crop of Nashville musicians has inspired Souther to breathe new life into his older songs. After many years of living in Los Angeles, Souther relocated to Nashville in 2002 and now lives on a farm. I ask him what prompted the move after living on the West Coast for so many years. “The straw that broke the camel’s back was traffic,” he says. “I thought, ‘I’ve constructed a paradise in the middle of a traffic jam.’ As long as I didn’t leave I was fine. The house I had built was perfectly suited to my needs, but every time I came down off the hill onto either Santa Monica Boulevard or Sunset Boulevard, the traffic would just stop. I realized my dream was evaporating into a test to see whether I was patient enough to sit in traffic to get to where I wanted to go.”
Not only has Souther seen a change in his living conditions in the past few years, he has also seen tremendous changes in the music business. Given his lengthy perspective, I ask Souther to give his take on the current climate of the industry. “We’ve traded in good sound for portability and accessibility,” he offers. “Anyone that has even half an ear knows that an mp3 sounds like crap compared to a full-size wave file or a vinyl record. But I’ve got thousands of songs on my iPod, and I can take music with me wherever I go. You can’t fight technology—it’s a monster with many heads and it will carry on with or without you. So, even though it means less pennies per song in my pocket than it would have15 years ago, it also means that more people can get more music, so in good conscience I can’t be against that. It’s a sheer reflection of the numbers—mathematics is the universal language. The year I put out my first record, there were about a thousand albums released. In 2009, there were 115,000 albums released. Anything goes but anything might not necessarily work.”
Once a young artist searching for a label, Souther can relate to today’s artists seeking exposure in a revolutionary time for the industry. “It’s like a crude version of the old days,” he says.“But in my case, the old days was Jackson Browne, Judee Sill, Warren Zevon and I looking for a deal, but all of us were thought to be too odd to fit into (record labels) Columbia, Capitol or Atlantic. David Geffen borrowed some money from Ahmet Ertegunand started Asylum Records and said, ‘Come in here—this is an asylum for artists. Make whatever kind of music you want and I’ll do what I can with it.”After a lengthy hiatus from recording and performing, Souther is glad to be making musicand touring once again. Furthermore, he has a good problem for a musician—more great songs in his catalog than he can fit into any one performance.“
You know me—everything in extremes,” he says. “When I stop making records and playing, it’s for 20 years. When I start again, it’s a record a year. Since I’ve been out playing again, we obviously do some old songs and there are too many that people want to hear to do them all. I don’t have the stamina of Springsteen.”
Tickets to the 18+ show are $17–$20 day of the show–and can be purchased at www.workplay.com
Brent Thompson writes about popular music for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org .