(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
I think a majority of songwriters — working in country or anywhere else — would agree that Jimmy Webb is one of the greatest songwriters in popular music in recent decades. If not possibly and arguably the greatest songwriter. Eight Grammys his first year? C’mon.
His new Just Across the River project is both a retrospective of his career and a return to recording, with some new material added. His last recording project was 2005’s Twilight of the Renegades.
Consider a few of his songs. “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” “Galveston.” “Up, Up and Away.” “Worst That Could Happen.” “Wichita Lineman.”
His song “Highwayman” was the only No. 1 hit by the country supergroup the Highwaymen (who named themselves after the song). It also represented the last career No. 1 song for Highwayman members Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings and it was one of Willie Nelson’s handful of No. 1 songs in the last two and a-half decades.
Webb was a small-town Oklahoma church kid who grew up playing piano and organ in his father’s church. He never grew far away from those bedrock themes in his songwriting.
His first commercial success came with his composition “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” which earned Glen Campbell a Grammy.
He was hired as a staff writer by Jobete, the Motown publishing firm, and he wrote “Up, Up and Away,” a Top 10 hit for the Fifth Dimension and one of five songs he contributed to their debut album.
His lush, epic tale “MacArthur Park” was commissioned by the pop group the Association, which summarily rejected it. It bordered on the psychedelic songs of the Beatles at the time but became an unlikely No. 2 pop hit as sung by the Irish actor Richard Harris. (Webb produced the recording.) Then up-and-coming country singer Waylon Jennings covered it and won a Grammy for his own melodramatic performance with his backing group the Kimberleys. The song appeared on the Jennings-Kimberlys 1969 album Country-Folk. Other Webb songs that Glen Campbell recorded and made memorable were “Galveston,” “Wichita Lineman” and “Cowboy Hall of Fame.”
What I especially like about Just Across the River is the utter free spirit and sense of adventure it exudes. It’s not perfect, and that’s part of the appeal. This sounds like a heartfelt musical roundup from a guy who’s been around for a long time and felt rejected as a recording artist and now accepts being what he is. I knew that, early in his career, he wanted to be a superstar recording artist, like one of the Beatles or the Beach Boys. Now, he says he’s finally tired of trying to sound like Billy Joel or Elton John and just tries to sound like himself. And that’s a country kind of guy. He has finally realized he’s not going to be a star and has accepted that and just wants to sing some of his songs. With some of his friends.
Of course, they turn out to be famous musical friends. Willie Nelson and Billy Joel and Vince Gill and Mark Knopfler and J.D. Souther and Linda Ronstadt and the like. Jackson Browne joins Webb on one of his seldom-heard masterpieces, “P.F. Sloan.” Michael McDonald shows up to showcase a new Webb song, “Where Words End.”
In his liner notes, Webb includes little vignettes about each song. I especially liked the one about the history of the song “If You See Me Getting Smaller.” Jennings had recorded it on his 1977 album, Ol’ Waylon. Webb writes: “Waylon and I were always fairly close. He was there with Doris Day and Michael Douglas and Larry Coryell for a daytime TV tribute to me. He told me about a TV director who kept nagging him about his marks. … ’Mr. Jennings, we almost had a perfect take there, and then you walked off your marks!’ … This happened about three times, and then Waylon said, ’Mr. Director, if you see me getting smaller, I’m leaving!'” Webb’s duet here is with Willie Nelson, especially noteworthy since the lyrics begin: “Willie, you’re my constant companion.”
Webb writes about his duet here with Campbell: “Every time I listen to this version of ’By the Time I Get to Phoenix,’ I am reminded that there are singers and there are singers. I have worked all my life to get better. … HOWEVER, when one gets to the second verse of the song and Glen Campbell makes his entrance. I humbly retire to the wings and make way for the real deal, probably the greatest natural entertainer and performer that America has ever produced!”
This is a wonderfully exuberant album that at once looks back over his career but with new interpretations of his songs, and it also forges ahead with a bit of new material. It’s also a virtual love letter to Nashville. It was recorded here with such steadfast sidemen as Stuart Duncan, John Hobbs, Bryan Sutton and Paul Franklin. Webb’s liner notes are very reminiscent, and they are interspersed with photographs of such Nashville landmarks as the WSM radio tower, the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, the Union Station Hotel, the old Hewgley’s Music building downtown, Lawrence Record Shop and Hatch Show Print. It’s a tableau of an enduring — if slowly fading — past. One that he’s obviously come to treasure.
His composition “All I Know” was a large hit for Art Garfunkel. Here, Webb does a stately and lyrical duet version with Ronstadt. They sing, “Endings always come too fast/They come too fast/But they pass so slow/I love you, and that’s all/It’s all I know.”