Country-rock architect J.D. Souther returns not a moment too soon

[6 November 2008]

By Len Righi

The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) (MCT)

Having just celebrated his 63rd birthday on Nov. 2, J.D. Souther agrees, albeit reluctantly, to take a few moments to assess his long career in music.

“I seem to look with equal affection in both directions,” says Souther from Nashville, where the SoCal transplant lives with his wife of four years and his stepdaughter. “I’ve been accused of not having a nostalgic bone in my body. But luxuriating in this new album and how fabulously I was treated by these extraordinary musicians who worked with me, I have to believe I am in middle of best work I have ever done.

“It’s always easy to look back,” he continues, “maybe because you embrace the moments you shine, and repress the moments you don’t. But I always think the colors that are dancing in these leaves right outside my windows are as pretty as I’ve ever seen. ... Just watch an animal. There’s no past or present to what my dogs do. Their spontaneous life exceeds what I could plan for them.”

“If the World Was You” is the title of the new CD that has Souther so enthused at the moment. The disc, released on Oct. 14, is Souther’s first album since 1984’s “Home By Dawn,” and he is performing material from it on a one-man club tour.

Souther, who in the early 1970s was instrumental in creating the Southern California country rock sound, will be using three new JD Model Gibson guitars to also play some of his best-known material.

He has lots to choose from, including “Best Of My Love,” “New Kid In Town,” “Heartache Tonight,” “Victim Of Love” and “How Long,” all recorded by the Eagles (the latter, written in 1972, was chosen as the first single from the Eagles first new studio album in 28 years, “Long Road Out of Eden”). Then there’s “Faithless Love,” recorded by Linda Ronstadt, and “You’re Only Lonely,” his own Top 10 hit from 1979.

“The beauty of playing alone, besides the intimacy, is the comfort level,” says Souther, whose songs have been recorded by the likes of Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, George Strait, Brian Wilson, Brooks & Dunn, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Roy Orbison, Trisha Yearwood, Warren Zevon and The Dixie Chicks.

“I can take (the show) in any direction I want. I am still as interested in the way I perform ‘Prisoner in Disguise’ (the title track of Ronstadt’s 1975 album) as much as I am ‘The Border Guard.’”

“The Border Guard,” one of the best tracks on Souther’s new CD, is a melancholy mood piece inspired by the young prostitutes he observed on Maricon Road in Havana while staying at the Hotel Nacional.

Souther began writing “If the World’s” 11 songs in 1998. During his hiatus from record-making he studied acting. He appeared occasionally on ABC’s “thirtysomething” and in a handful of films, including Steven Spielberg’s 1989 romantic fantasy “Always.” He returned to music because, he says, he again had something to say.

Souther’s new CD has a few trademark country-rock tracks, including the lovely ballad “I’ll Be Here at Closing Time,” which he says was inspired “by watching a waitress walk, literally,” and the life-affirming “Come On Up.”

There’s also some New Orleans-style funk and Cuban- and Latin-influenced jazz (Souther was a jazz drummer while growing up in Amarillo, Texas).

But perhaps the most intriguing track is the 12-minute-plus closer, “The Secret Handshake of Fate,” a fanciful meditation on love and eternity.

“That version on the record is the only time the song’s ever been played,” says Souther. “It came at the end of a long, fun night. ... We had recorded ‘One More Night’ and were feeling saucy ... I had a poem with double-long verses, so I sat at a piano and told them go with me. I started playing that little (three-note) figure ... I’m used to musical conversations, so I try to create a space where everyone can speak, and we got into this kind of dark, but playful word-jazz thing ... The interplay between the horns, it’s like crows in the tree.”

When it is suggested that the Eagles would be wise to use “I’ll Be Here at Closing Time” on their next album, Souther quips, “Oh, you think there will be a next album?”

He adds, “Our paths very seldom cross, except for e-mails,” which he exchanges with Glenn Frey and Don Henley.

Souther then explains how the Eagles came to use “How Long” on “Long Road Out of Eden.”

“Cindy, Glenn’s wife, and son, Deacon, were watching old Eagles concerts from Holland on YouTube and they heard ‘How Long.’ Can you believe it? It used to be in their set list. So Cindy said, ‘What song is this? Why don’t you guys cut it? You know, Glenn, I think it’s a classic Eagles tune.’ Last year at (Eagles manager) Irving Azoff’s birthday party, I told her, ‘Cindy, you’re my best song plugger.’”

Recently, as part of Rock the Vote, Souther himself has done some plugging to get people to participate in the electoral process. Asked about his involvement, he says, “The general perception is correct that I’m always somewhere on the left because government is always somewhere on the right. Maybe that’s unchanging, or just that the interests of business and government too closely coincide so that ordinary citizens are not benefitting from incredible riches this country has.”

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