Reinventing the Past
One could imagine how this record was conceived. America is the land of reinvention, and who could be more American than that great songwriter of the nation’s history, small towns, cities and dreams, Jimmy Webb? He’s the guy who made the words of a Civil War soldier into an anti-Vietnam statement by turning a letter from his great-grandfather, which evoked his love for a woman and the shorescape of Galveston, into a pop masterpiece. Webb’s the artist who made the dreary life of a telephone lineman in Kansas into the golden stuff of melodramatic angst, and the road map that took one across the country to Phoenix into a heartbreaking journey away from love. He also wrote that one about the highwayman, sailor, dam builder, and astronaut as the national archetypes of our collective journey into the unknown.
Webb reinvents these songs, and other hits from the past, on his latest album, with a flurry of big-name guest stars like Billy Joel, Willie Nelson, and Lucinda Williams. There’s something desperate about such a strategy. Why not write new material and have these musicians collaborate? Certainly we’ve heard enough other artists famously cover Webb’s oeuvre. Great musicians as varied as Frank Sinatra and Reba McEntire have recorded his songs, not to mention talents as different from each other as Richard Harris and Urge Overkill. There’s little to be gained by re-recording “Galveston” with Lucinda Williams, “Wichita Lineman” with Billy Joel or “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” with Glen Campbell (again). Webb’s original recordings are much better, and the majority of these songs have been better recorded by other artists as well. Webb’s voice was never great to begin with, which is why he gained fame as a songwriter, and it has not improved with age.
While there is not a song here that has not been done better previously, there are some pleasurable moments. Webb and Jackson Browne’s version of “P.F. Sloan” offers a double perspective on a forgotten rock and roll star. Webb and Browne both deserve the title of rock legends for their past works, but now are little different than P.F. Sloan to a younger generation of music consumers. The two men sing the lyrics as if they understand the experience of seeing time, and their glories, move past them, and graciously accept their fate.
Vince Gill and Webb also do a moving “Oklahoma Nights” that makes you yearn for the rural southwest even if you never lived there. Getting behind the wheel of a Mustang with a bottle of wine and heading out to see old friends and old haunts is a road trip we all share in our imagination. They capture the joy of early rock and roll and innocence about the ways of the world in a way that does not seem corny or contrived.
These two songs are the exceptions. There are cringe-worthy moments as well, including a painful rendition of “The Highwayman” with Mark Knopfler on guitar and the aforementioned collaborations with Williams and Campbell. Webb may still be an entertaining live performer, but he probably should not bother competing with his old recordings.