He was born into a musical family, cut his teeth on jazz music and continues to work a strong helping of jazz styles into his solo work. Always pushing forward, J.D. wasn't excited to talk about his past, but indulged us with some great stories about creating these famous songs, and about the spectacular women in his musical (and in the case of Linda Ronstadt, also personal) life. A guy can learn a lot spending time with Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt, Nicolette Larson and Judy Collins.
Souther doesn't think in terms of formats or music genres, those constricting measures of industry categorization. He says Levon Helm's Ramble is "the greatest gig in America," and we believe him. His influences include George Jones and Miles Davis – at the same time. He practices what he preaches when he claims to prefer musicians who are "not so locked off in their own corners." In other words, he enjoys mixing it up a bit when it comes to creating music.
Songfacts (Dan MacIntosh): This interview is for Songfacts.com, so we like to talk about songs and songwriters, and you fit into that category extremely well.
J.D. Souther: I've heard. I looked at your site, it's good. You guys have some very interesting stuff on there. And I liked your conversation with Chris Isaak, I thought it was particularly good.
Songfacts: Thank you. That was so much fun. It was hard to keep from laughing.
Souther: Yeah, he's a nice guy. He's prone, like myself, to sometimes find the best defense is to not take things too seriously.
Songfacts: I wanted to talk about the song that was a hit for Don Henley, "The Heart of the Matter." Did he call on you to help finish that song?
Souther: Yeah. There's nothing particularly unusual about that. Somebody starts it, somebody calls one of the other guys, and we all finish it. Actually, Mike Campbell started that song and sent Don the track, which was really finished. The track is really directed the way you hear it. And it was just beautiful, just a really gorgeous track. And Don brought it over to my house and said, "Well, listen to this." And I'm like, "Jeez, this is great." So we went to work on it.
Songfacts: Did you draw upon any relationships that you've been through to help create the mood and the lyrics for that song?
Souther: Well, I can't really tell you where any songs come from. But at that particular moment it was an easy song for both of us to work on, because we had both, within the last year or so, broken up with our fiancées. We'd both been in love and engaged at the same time and both his relationship with his girl and me with mine ended in the same few months. And it's pretty much what the song says, they had both taken up with somebody else. And that's not easy to hear, but at the time it made a good source material for that song, because it seemed to be really universal and it seemed the only way to really survive your first reaction to hearing news like that or having those kind of feelings is to remember that the first person to benefit from forgiveness is the one who does the forgiving. And, actually, that was Don's idea. I have to give him full credit for that forgiveness theme. The first time he sang that forgiveness chorus over and over to me, I didn't get it. Kind of went, "Yeah, I guess." And then it sort of sunk it that it was exactly the point of the song.
That was really, really good work on his part. He got the point of that song very early on, he just took it - attacked, I should say, because it's really a direction that pulled us all the way through it. Okay, enough about that, now let's do some funny stuff.
Songfacts: Well, before we get there, you were talking about how Mike Campbell started that song, and it really does have a distinctive riff that sounds a lot like some of the slower Tom Petty songs. What is it like to work with him as a songwriter?
Souther: It also sounds like some of the slower songs of mine and some of the slower songs of Henley's. We're all using the same vocabulary, musically, in a lot of those instances. And we didn't really work with him on it. The other song that Mike wrote with Don was "Boys Of Summer." Mike's MO, his tendency was to do the track at home and give it to somebody. He was very, very good at that. He's an extraordinary musician and he has a great ear for recording, and he had all the stuff to do it with. So that's very often the way writing with him went, I think at least in the two songs that I know about.
Songfacts: I know you want to move on to some lighter stuff, but let's get one more heavy song out of the way, and then we'll move on. I wanted to ask you about "Her Town Too." You sang a duet with James Taylor on that one, right?
Souther: Yeah. James and Waddy Wachtel and I wrote that.
Songfacts: Do you care to talk about who that song's about? Can you clarify as far as…
Souther: Of course not.
Souther: Of course not.
Songfacts: So you're going to keep that close to the vest? Okay. (laughs)
Souther: Of course. You think after all these years suddenly I'd rat somebody out?
Songfacts: No, that wouldn't be fair. Let's talk about "Heartache Tonight," which you worked on for the Eagles. I tend to look at the words to the songs, and that kind of attracts me first. But the recording of that song is so much fun, it's so rhythmic, and it's like a foot-stomping kind of a rocker. Can you tell me about the experience of writing that song and where that came from?
Songfacts: I didn't know that.
Souther: There's not much to it. I mean, it's really just two long verses. But it felt really good. You can get a feel for how something's going to come out sometimes. We didn't get to a chorus that we liked within the first few days, and I think Glenn was on the phone with Seger, and he said, "I wanna run something by you," and sang it to him, and Seger just came right in with the chorus, just sang it and it was so good. Glen called me and said, "Is four writers okay on this?" And I said, "Sure, if it's good." And he said, "Yeah, it's great. Seger just sang this to me," and he sang it to me and I said, "That's fantastic."
Songfacts: That's pretty interesting. I guess sometimes you need to come in to help finish a song and other times you need someone else's help.
Souther: Well, it's kind of cliché, but the greatest value in bringing in other writers is that the song actually gets finished. A lot of people who are careful and plotting, the way Jackson [Browne] and I are, take a long time to finish a song, and sometimes it just helps to get another perspective, "Let's go here, let's try this." And that very often pulls off something that's exactly what you meant to begin with, but also just turns the corner and opens some new possibilities.
Most of the songs I've written, I've written by myself. But that group of collaborators was a particularly successful one. Glenn and Don and I were very good at getting together and being both cooperative and competitive at the same time. And I think it probably brought out the best in us, at least for those kind of soft songs. Jackson was a great collaborator for me, Zevon was a great collaborator. James and Waddy. But it doesn't happen very often, because it's such a trust thing; you turn your song over to somebody else. Once you bring in somebody else as a team writer, if they make some contribution to it, whether you like the contribution or not, it's very hard to say, "No, I don't think so, I want to take my piece back." So I'm cautious about it and I'm very careful and try to be fair.
Songfacts: I talked to another songwriter the other day and he was telling me that writing with another writer sometimes is almost like you're naked, because you're being very vulnerable. Do you find that sometimes?
Souther: Well, especially if you don't know someone really well. That's the way some songwriting in Nashville goes down, it's tough when guys just meet and bam - throw down some stuff. And occasionally it works for me, but generally, that was my most consistent group of collaborators right then, because we all knew each other really well. We were all in the trenches together, so there wasn't much hiding the way any of us felt from each other. So it probably wasn't such a gamble to reveal ourselves that way.
But in my case, the most revealing songs that I've written are always songs that I've written by myself. I have to say, in some way, I had an emotional collaborator on some of the early ones, just because I was with Linda [Ronstadt] so much, and she has such great ears and such a good heart and also she's brilliant. She had a really deft brain for separating the wheat from the chaff - the things that she encouraged me to finish and the things that she liked. I was around really great women in those days; Joni [Mitchell] and Bonnie [Raitt] and Nicolette [Larson] and Linda and Judy [Collins], and all of them had a lot of influence on me as a songwriter.
I love women and I listen to women, and those five girls were very present in my life at the time. Particularly Linda and Judy. Judy had a lot of effect on my writing as a writer, and Linda a lot as a musician. Linda and I played music for each other constantly. She played me most of the country music that I'd been aware of, because I didn't grow up listening to country music. My parents hated country music, so we never had it in our house. My dad was a big band singer and my parents were swing kids. My dad's mother was an opera singer and I was a jazz kid. So I didn't really get into country music till I got to California, and I never even held a guitar till I was 23 or something like that.
Souther: No, I was a tenor sax player and a drummer. I was playing her Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Mose Allison, and she was playing the Louvin Brothers and Jim and Jessie and the Carter Family and George Jones, which was a very good cultural exchange. Although Linda is very well versed in all kinds of music. She believes in a good balance, and Duke Ellington once said there's only two kinds of music, good music and the other kind.
Songfacts: It's interesting that you mention that, because the success that you had with the Eagles recording your songs may never have happened had you not had that relationship with Linda and that introduction to country music. Because the Eagles, by today's standards, are almost a traditional country band, if you think of what's happening in Nashville.
Souther: Yeah. So it seems, doesn't it?
Songfacts: Did people think you were a lot more country than you really were because of your association with the Eagles?
Souther: Yes. Although the first solo album I made, I have to say the records I was listening to the most before I made that record were a couple of George Jones records and about a half a dozen Miles Davis records.
Songfacts: That's a weird combination.
Souther: Well, it's pretty logical from a musical point of view. They're both very sparse and they both had extraordinary tones; George is a singer, Miles is a player. And a really unique approach to attacking the note, bending the note, holding the note, leaving space around it, just singing like necessarily, applying what's necessary. So I think I was very much in the thrall of that little dozen or so records I was listening to before I went in the studio with this one.
Songfacts: The song "You're Only Lonely" very much shows the inspiration of Roy Orbison.
Souther: Yeah, it does.
Songfacts: Can you go back that far to remember when you first heard that amazing voice and what that meant to you?
But then I started playing drums all the time, and I got so fascinated with jazz, I didn't really think much about singing or making rock and roll records for quite a few years. The first song I ever heard called "Only the Lonely" was this song that Frank Sinatra sang. It's a Johnny Mercer song; it's on a Sinatra album called Songs for Only the Lonely. There are a lot of songs with that name. But the beat that I used for "You're Only Lonely" is that rockabilly beat. That sort of break in it was taken from another Roy Orbison record called "I'm Hurtin'" that I really love.
But I loved Roy and his music. Everybody did, I think. You'd certainly think so, judging from that TV special that we did for him. Every single person that was asked to appear, appeared, including people who canceled gigs to do it. It was quite an event for everybody.
Songfacts: And you got a chance to meet him, then, right?
Souther: Yeah, we wrote some songs - Will Jennings and he and I wrote some songs together.
Songfacts: Which songs did he record that you wrote together?
Souther: He wrote two. One that's called "Coming Home" and I can't remember what the other's called. We wrote three and he recorded two on one of those last albums. Because he died not very long after he had recorded those songs. But the song "Coming Home" is really good, and it turned out to be kind of prophetic. It alluded to death and going home that way. And sure enough, to everyone's shock and sadness, he did soon afterwards.
Songfacts: I think his widow just passed away. I think I read that in the news.
Songfacts: Yeah, I think so, I think she had pancreatic cancer. [Barbara Orbison died on December 6, 2011.]
Souther: I didn't know that. I know Barbara. I usually run into her about once a year. I hadn't for a while, but I'm terribly sorry if that's true. Okay, when do we get to the funny part?
Souther: I have no idea. It probably does. I think being a better songwriter and just getting older has helped me become a better actor. I have a movie that's coming out in February, it's called Deadline. With Steve Talley and Eric Roberts. Very good movie.
Songfacts: Wow, that's a good cast. What do you play in that?
Souther: I play John Seigenthaler. Do you know who that is?
Souther: John Seigenthaler is one of the last of the old liberal Southern publishing lions. He was a freedom writer with Dr. King in the '50s, very active in civil rights, and he was also very vociferous in reporting on the injustices of those times. And then he was later in the Kennedy Administration, and he was a journalist for the Tennessean, and ultimately the editor of the Tennessean. And now he's the chairman emeritus of the Tennessean newspaper. But as you probably know, most of the news outlets in the South have become very conservative and John Seigenthaler wasn't. In fact, he and Ken Paulson, who's at USA Today now, used to sponsor a First Amendment concert here in Nashville every year called Freedom Sings. And a lot of us who lean in that direction would show up and sing songs relating to free speech. So that's who I play in this movie. It's really interesting because all the other parts I've played have been somebody that was either my age or ten years younger than me, and this one I'm playing someone 15 years older than me. So it's really interesting. And then I get sick and die, and it's cool. It's a fun thing to do.
Songfacts: (Laughing) So much for getting to the fun parts, J.D.
Souther: It's fun for me. Acting, man.
Songfacts: I want to talk about a few of the big hits for the Eagles, and maybe you could kind of just give me your memories of those experiences.
Souther: I don't have any. My memories are all blurred. So let me talk about what I'm doing now.
Songfacts: I don't believe that for a minute. So tell me about "New Kid in Town." Is there a story behind writing that song?
Souther: Nah, we were just writing about our replacements.
Songfacts: That seems to be a running theme, though.
Souther: With who?
Songfacts: With your songwriting.
Souther: How so? What other songs are like that?
Songfacts: "Heart of the Matter," right? Talking about the one that got away.
Songfacts: Who came up with the line in "Best of My Love," the "wake up and worry" line? Was that you?
Souther: I have no idea.
Songfacts: You can't remember?
Souther: Can you talk about any new songs, or is this strictly like a classic station kind of thing?
Songfacts: OK, what songs are you most proud of that are relatively recent? I'd be glad to talk about some of your newer songs.
Souther: Well, if you haven't heard the last two albums, you probably won't know much about them.
Songfacts: Well, you can tell me the highlights.
Souther: The highlights. Yeah, you should listen to that song from the 2008 album called "Journey down the Nile." The album was called If the World Was You. I know it's not great English, but it means exactly what I wanted it to say. And there's another song on that album called "Rain." It's also the name of the live album we did at the Belcorte Theatre the next year, 2009. But I could make up any story I wanted about those songs, because you haven't heard them.
Songfacts: You can tell me why you're particularly proud of them.
Souther: No, you listen to them and you tell me. They're good songs. That's all. Hey, listen, I'm not very sentimental. I always think the best thing that's happening is the one that's about to happen. That's just the way I'm built. I don't have any great longing for a golden age in California or anything. Although we certainly had more fun in less time than probably any group of people in history. Actually, maybe what I mean is more fun for a longer period of time than any group of people in history. But I'm still not particularly sentimental about any one thing or any one time, because it's not the way I live. I've got a guitar lesson tomorrow, I've got to do some practicing today, and I'm working on songs for another album that we're going to cut in the spring.
Songfacts: You live in Nashville?
Souther: I live on a farm outside Nashville.
Songfacts: I know that George Strait has recorded "Last in Love." Who are some of the other more mainstream country artists who have recorded your songs?
Souther: Well, the Dixie Chicks cut "I'll Take Care of You" on their Wide Open Spaces album. So that was a nice Christmas. I think that album sold 13 million records. There's always somebody cutting the songs. You know, India.Arie made a beautiful record with "The Heart of the Matter."
Songfacts: You really like her version of that?
Souther: Yeah, very much. I like both versions of it. If somebody does a good job of something I write, I really don't care. I just heard Rita Wilson just cut two songs of mine on her new album that's coming out. She cut "Faithless Love" which she sang with Vince Gill, and she cut "Prisoner in Disguise" which I sang with her, and she's a wonderful singer. She's Tom Hanks' wife. Very good actress. But turns out she's a really good singer, too.
Songfacts: What are some of the most unusual covers of your songs?
Souther: Hugh Masekela
Songfacts: Oh, really? What did he do?
Souther: "Best of My Love."
Souther: Uh-huh. And Michael Bublé cut "Heartache Tonight." Tom Jones also cut "Heartache Tonight."
Songfacts: He did? He could really do that.
Souther: Yeah. Well, Bublé's record is really good, too. It's a big band record, so it's a really classic big band chart of it, which is maybe a little closer to the way me and my guys do it on stage. We do it a little bit more New Orleans, we don't do the big "boom BOP ba boom BOP," we don't do the stadium version like the Eagles.
Songfacts: That's interesting. You mention Michael Bublé doing more of a big band thing, and that's kind of coming full circle to how you started out, loving that music and being a child of a big band singer.
Souther: Quite true. Well, there's an awful lot of young musicians now that are playing this sort of hybrid music that's got touches of bluegrass and a lot of respect for the sort of American songbook of the '30s and '40s and '50s. There's a young girl named Phoebe Hunt out of Austin that, if you don't know about, you should. She's was in a band there called the Belleview with her sister, Stephanie, and I think she's on her own now. And she's a great fiddler, too, really good violinist. I saw something on YouTube the other day of her singing a Peggy Lee song. And also a Duke Ellington song. She did a great version of "Don't Get around Much Anymore."
Songfacts: Which Peggy Lee song was that?
Souther: "It's a good day for singing a song, and it's a good day...everything's good, nothing can go wrong, it's a good day from morning till night." (singing)
Songfacts: A friend of mine gave me an old Peggy Lee album and it's got her version of "Black Coffee" on it.
Souther: Yeah, that's a great song. Actually, that's her song, I think. She wrote a lot of cool songs. She wrote that song, "I love the east, I love the west, the north and south, they're both the best." (singing) "I Love Being Here with You" was the name of it. She was a good writer.
Songfacts: Yeah, people know her for that song "Fever," but she did a lot of different stuff.
Souther: It's a great record. She also made a fabulous record of that Lieber and Stoller song "Is That All There Is."
Songfacts: Right. I think I've heard that, too.
Souther: Very talented woman. Great jazz singer.
Songfacts: You mentioned that you're getting ready to record a new album. So what can you tell me about that?
Souther: It's a work in progress. I have a lot of songs written. I'm not sure which ones are going to be exactly right for this album. The original plan was to do this next album as a trio album, like the Nat Cole feel, just guitar, piano and bass. And it may - I think it's going to adhere kind of closely to that as its base configuration. But two or three of these great players that I know, they're always on my new albums: Jeff Coffin is a great sax player, and Victor Krauss is a great bass player, and Dan Immel is a great bass player. And Rob McGaha is probably the best trumpet player in the southeast, Chris Walters is a stunning piano player. I've been working with a new piano player named Mason Embrey. So I don't know who's going to exactly be personnel on it yet, but there's just no shortage. I mean, between here and New York, there's a high concentration of real high quality players who can play anything. I went up and played Levon Helm's "Ramble" about two months ago.
Songfacts: That must have been fun.
Souther: It's the greatest gig in America. It's just the coolest. First of all, he's the nicest guy that ever lived. And the band is just fun, Larry Campbell's the band leader, the guy that used to be Dylan's band leader. He's fantastic, and Levon still plays killer drums, and the guys that came and sit in - John Scofield came and sat in. Someone introduced us and I said, "You're one of the few guitars players that survived playing in Miles Davis' band." So I keep meeting more and more musicians that have this love of non-sectarian music. I don't respect any kinds of lines or genres or styles that separate people and make it easier for marketing music. So when I see somebody like CB Hunt, who can play really good western swing and also sing really good standards and play great bluegrass, or somebody like Chris Thile who is a bonafide great bluegrass mandolin player, but also just plays sensational jazz; he can play anything. I think the best in music are things that are not so locked off in their own corners, and maybe even Nashville is waking up to that a little bit. The more people at the table, or the more types of music at the table, the more exchange there is between the musicians, and it tends to enhance everybody's music and make everyone happier about what they do and probably better at what they do.
Songfacts: What kinds of things are you writing about for the new album?
Souther: I don't talk about what I'm writing till it's out.
Souther: Can't do it. And I never tell song titles, because if I do, sure enough, I'll run into you a year from now, the album will be out and you'll say, "You didn't put that song on the album." And I'll have to say, "Well, it just didn't fit or I didn't finish it," or something like that. So I don't know, a lot of times I try to pack a lot of topics into one song. It's probably a mistake, because it dilutes the essential political methods of it, for the songs that have that in it. But I like a really rich weave, I like texture, and I think if you can cram politics and religion and sex and death all into one song and make it make sense, you've got a good story there. You might have a good story.
Songfacts: Let me ask you this question, JD. Is there one song that you can think of that comes immediately to mind as your most misunderstood song?
Souther: So of the old songs, probably that one. How would I know how people understand my songs? They come, I play, I do the best I can, I hope they like it.
Songfacts: It sounds to me that you're still excited about making music and working with different players.
Souther: I'm a lifer. Playing violin in the fourth grade. I never had a plan B. I was never going to be anything else.
Songfacts: When you say lifer, it's not in the pejorative sense, it's like you're in because you want to be. It's not like a sentence, like a prison sentence.
Souther: Yes, it is. But it's self-imposed. I'm a lifer because I want to be. I come from a family of musicians and I always wanted to be a musician, and I'm a musician.
Songfacts: I'll tell you what, it's been a real treat just to be able to talk to you and talk about these songs. I can't wait for the new album.
Souther: Get the last two first, get yourself up to speed.
Songfacts: All right. That'll be my homework. I'll do that as soon as we get off the line.
Souther: The 2011 album is called Natural History, and then the live EP from 2009, it's called Rain, and the album with all the great jazz guys on it from 2008 is called If the World Were You. And they are all available everywhere.
We spoke with J.D. Souther on December 8, 2011.
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