By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Listening to Jimmy Webb's stable of once-upon-a-time hit songs — "Wichita Lineman," "Galveston," "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" — you'd think he had a GPS in his writing room.
The Oklahoma-born songwriter left home at age 16. In short order, he was writing songs for artists in the late '60s and early '70s, songs that became big hits, like "Up, Up and Away" for the Fifth Dimension and "MacArthur Park" for Richard Harris, Waylon Jennings and Donna Summer. Those other hits all belong to Glen Campbell.
Webb, 64, is on the road again, out playing some dates this month to support his first CD in a few years, "Just Across the River." The album features many of Webb's hits reborn in loose new arrangements and featuring guest singers such as Billy Joel, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Jackson Browne, Lucinda Williams, Campbell and more.
"We're in Chicago in a few days, then playing Largo in L.A. — I've got five sons and a daughter out there, plus my father, who's 87 — then Seattle, Nashville. I thought it was just a bunch of gigs, but I guess that's a tour," Webb says in his easygoing Oklahoma drawl. He's chatting from his home on the north shore of Long Island, N.Y., where he says he's really a homebody. But in order for home to have real value, you have to be glad to see it again.
Q. Why are you still traveling and touring?
A. Mainly because the alternative is to ossify and die. It sounds corny as hell, but music is my life. I've been lucky that I got away with this for so many years, that I've been able to do something I love doing and sometimes even get paid for it. To be honest, making music is not a real job, not like running a metal press on an assembly line somewhere. It's full of great moments of joy and passion, and interaction with the audience — which I enjoy more and more. Shaking hands, signing autographs, collecting anecdotes from people who've spent their lives on the other side of the speaker listening to what I have done and what my friends have done. I take a lot of energy from that. ... But at the same time, there's no place like home.
Q. Once Glen Campbell and the others had hits with those geographical songs, were you pegged as Rand McNally?
A. Success begats a certain kind of success. If you do a certain kind of photograph and it's successful in an ad campaign, you become known for that kind of photograph. It's like typecasting in movies. When I started writing about places, it was because I wanted to. I remember being a little uncomfortable once people started asking me to do it. [He pauses.] I started to say I don't do that anymore, but on Judy Collins' new album, which came out the same day as mine, she's got my new song "Paul Gauguin in the South Seas." So there I go again.
Q. Can you just not help yourself?
A. It's something at a very deep level in my consciousness. I tend to relate to places. I have a backlog of cinematic images and of places I've seen that I fall back to.
Q. Are your geographical references essential to the lyrics? Could the song have been "By the Time I Get to Seattle"?
A. It wouldn't have been a hit. [Laughs.] In that case, the location was important because I was in a real circumstance of having trouble in a romantic relationship, and I had decided to pack it in and drive back to Oklahoma. That whole song is about that trip back to Oklahoma, even though I never got around to making that trip. Phoenix is on Route 66, as is Albuquerque and Oklahoma City. I was born on Route 66 in a little town called Elk City. ... It had to be Phoenix for that song.
Q. Because you say, or because the song demanded it?
A. Sometimes these things, they make their own decisions. They take a certain line and you follow along and keep up because the song knows where it wants to go. Sometimes it's too good to be true and writes itself. Sometimes it's like scaling Mt. Everest, or being born and dying and being born again. ... "Gauguin" was a very difficult song to write. I knew the story was in there, and I knew I knew that story. I knew what it was like to work and have it unappreciated and want to run away from all the trappings of civilization. I Still sometimes pull my hair out with frustration at the whole urban groove and the rut we allow ourselves to get into, how hard it is to break out, how silly it is when you're sitting in, say, a place like Lanai, Hawaii, and thinking about New York. That's silly. But by the time you negotiate security and get yourself back on the plane, you've slowly indoctrinated back to the discipline and rigidity of the confines, the prison-like atmosphere of the urban areas we live in.
Q. So what places do you escape to?
A. Part of me is still an Okie. I like wide-open spaces. I like to get on my boat ... [On my end of the conversation, a siren screams through north Chicago streets. Webb pauses, hearing it, and says, "Speaking of the urban prison."] I like to have a nor'easter rattling my front teeth. I like to see nature acting out.
Q. You've revisited your catalog before, particularly in concerts. Why take the celebrity-guest approach on the new album?
A. It was never intended to have a lot of celebrity artists with it. That's a fact. If we discussed it at all it was to say let's not have celebrities involved. ... The main purpose of this album was to shed all the affectations of urban life, including the southern California pop roots I have. I at least have some capillaries. Some aspirations of my recording career have included the desire to make big production albums along the lines of Elton John or Billy Joel. Now that's silly. It's been done and done well by guys who will always do it better than I can. Freddy Mollin [the album's producer] said, 'We should go to Nashville, get top-line musicians, literally the very best, line 'em up and work it out so we're all in the studio on the same day.' These are busy guys. 'We'll cut 13 tracks in two days, and you'll have an epiphany. You'll have the most joyful time you've ever had in the studio.' He said, 'Just go back to the kitchen table in Oklahoma with your father sitting there strumming his old steel-string Silvertone guitar, singing "Red Sails in the Sunset," ... and let it go. It's the way you sound best.' I've learned Freddy is right most of the time. ... Sure enough, we had a ball. ... It was a nostalgic plunge into the swimming pool of memory and sentiment and the DNA of growing up as a country kid.
7 p.m. Saturday
Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln
Tickets: $25, lincolnhallchicago.com
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.