Jimmy Webb Revisits His Past With Just Across the River

Legendary Singer-Songwriter Reflects on His Life and the Album He Recorded in Nashville

“By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston.”

Jimmy Webb wrote all of them, along with other classics such as “MacArthur Park,” “Up, Up and Away,” “The Highwayman,” “Didn’t We” and “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress.” Every so often, he’ll release a new album that’s anxiously-awaited by the devoted fans who have followed his recording career since 1970’s Words and Music.

The Oklahoma-born singer-songwriter recorded updated versions of several of his best-known songs, along with some newer material, for Just Across the River, considered by many to be one of the best albums released in 2010.

The project stemmed from Webb and Glen Campbell’s performance at Nashville’s Schermerhorn Symphony Center in 2009. After the two went to local studio to record a duet of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” Webb and producer Fred Mollin began thinking about inviting other guests to perform additional duets. Although most of the guest vocals were recorded elsewhere, the basic tracks were created in Nashville.

The guests include Billy Joel and Jerry Douglas (“Wichita Lineman”), Lucinda Williams (“Galveston”), Mark Knopfler (“The Highwayman”), Willie Nelson (“If You See Me Getting Smaller”), Linda Ronstadt (“All I Know”), Jackson Browne (“P.F. Sloan”) and other songs featuring Vince Gill, Michael McDonald and J.D. Souther.

Webb had previously recorded with other artists in Nashville, but Just Across the River marked the first time he recorded an entire album with local studio musicians. He was more than impressed with the experience.

“I became aware of lots of little interplays that were going on between the musicians that were a very private language that was being spoken right in front of us, but it was almost like the shell game,” he told CMT.com during an interview in Nashville. “It was like, ’Try to figure out what we’re doing if you can. We’re that good that we can do stuff here that you won’t necessarily be aware of.’ … They’re listening to each other, and they’re applying classical techniques to country music. And they’re playing like a chamber group on a very, very exalted level. On such an exalted level that it could even — I hate to put it like this — but it could even get past me.”

Webb was skeptical when Mollin told him they could record the basic tracks for the album in two days.

“I’ve always thought, ’I can understand sessions going well,’ but something always goes wrong even when they’re going well,” he said. “So if he says two days, I’m gonna say to myself four days or five days — and it’ll be more like a week when we’re done. I remember the first morning, about 10:30, Freddy looked at his watch and says, ’Well, we’ve got three cuts. Do you wanna go to lunch, or do you wanna cut another one?'”

Webb was a junior in high school when his family moved to Los Angeles because his father, a Southern Baptist minister, had long wanted to live and work there.

“I got out there in the summer of the Beach Boys,” he said. “The Beach Boys were wafting from every suburban window that was open. That kind of very gentle summer … 1963.”

A short time later, tragedy hit his family when his mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor and died five weeks later. His father resigned from the church he was pastoring in Colton, Calif., and moved back to Oklahoma. Webb opted to remain in California and still recalls his father’s farewell to him.

“I was about 16,” he said. “He gave me $40 and said, ’Son, I wish I could give you something else, but this is all I’ve got. This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.’ He got in the station wagon and took off. And there I was — at the Palm Motel in San Bernardino, Calif. Sixteen years old and had $40.”

Webb, who was attending junior college, stayed with friends and began trying to get his foot in the door in the L.A. music industry. His fortunes improved somewhat when the Everly Brothers recorded one of his songs and he began getting work in the recording studios.

“I’d pretty much abandoned the idea of ever finishing school because at least I was making a few dollars playing piano in the studio,” he said. “I moved in with some friends in L.A. I had a mattress that I slept on — on the floor — drove my old car and made the rounds to the record companies every day. It was pretty much the bottom rung of the food chain.”

He eventually got a job at Jobete Music, Motown Records’ publishing division.

“They were family,” he said. “They let me work with an orchestra. They paid for demos. Finally, I got this cut — probably the first significant cut of my career — on a Supremes Christmas album. It was called ’My Christmas Tree.’ It was a terrible, terrible song. You can listen to it if you don’t believe me.”

However, the accomplishment partially eased his father’s fears about leaving him in California.

“I can remember calling him back in Oklahoma and saying, ’Dad, you said I’d never make any money in the music business, and I just wanted you to know you’re wrong … because I just made some money.’ And he said, ’How much?’ I had just gotten a check from Motown, and I said, ’$354.’ He was real quiet for a while, and then he said, ’Well, that’s pretty good.'”

Compared to most music business stories, it didn’t take all that long for Webb to begin getting attention for his songs, thanks to Mark Gordon, who had hired him as a writer at Motown.

“One day, Mark came by, and he had this young, intense guy with him — very pale skin, and beautifully-made hands, very well dressed. It turned out it was Johnny Rivers. And when they left, they left with ’By the Time I Get to Phoenix,’ ’Up, Up and Away,’ a half a dozen other really good songs and my contract, and it had cost him $15,000.”

Rivers recorded the first title for his 1966 album, Changes, and presented “Up, Up and Away” to a new vocal group he was producing, the Fifth Dimension. Campbell, who at the time had enjoyed marginal success with John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind,” heard Rivers’ recording of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” on the radio and decided to record a cover version. Released in 1967, it earned Campbell a Grammy for best pop male vocal, and the recording was later inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Webb’s songs became musical signatures for both Campbell and the Fifth Dimension. In 1968, Webb followed it up with two more major hits — the Brooklyn Bridge’s “Worst That Could Happen” and Richard Harris’ “Mac Arthur Park.”

At age 22, Webb had established himself as one of the most successful songwriters of the ’60s. With his initial earnings, he did what any young person would do. He bought a house down the street from a famous Hollywood family.

“The religion of being a hippie — which was peace, love, share everything that you have with everyone else — I took absolutely literally,” he explained. “I mean, it’s hard to believe in this day and age. But the first home I had in L.A. was up on Camino Palmero, which was still a very nice street. Up at the end of the street was the Ozzie and Harriet Nelson house, and they were still living there.

“And I lived in one of the houses along the street and had 30 people living with me. And the crabs would go through that house like wildfire! The reality of communal living was not quite up to what … you know … Timothy Leary was preaching about. But I sincerely believed in all that stuff and believed that we were creating a new society. We were going to do away with war. In many ways, the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s was our bible.”

The idyllic life of the rich and famous came to a crashing halt in 1969 when Charles Manson’s followers perpetrated one of the most infamous crimes in American history. Actress Sharon Tate was murdered in her home, along with four others, including hair stylist Jay Sebring, who counted Webb among his many celebrity clients.

“All that [peace and love lifestyle] disappeared almost instantly,” Webb said. “So then I really went the other way so far that I became virtually a hermit.”

Webb released a series of solo albums during the ’70s and moved to Long Island, N.Y., in the early ’80s. Through the years, he made regular visits to Nashville and began spending more time during the past decade as a member of the board of directors of ASCAP, a performing rights organization.

“I always felt respected here,” he said. “And Glen, of course, was a fairly regular visitor to the studios around here. And in fact — depending on the way you hear the story — Glen says he played ’Highwayman’ for Waylon and Willie and Johnny and Kris. And that would have been probably five or six years after Glen recorded it.”

Webb was surprised that Jennings, Nelson, Cash and Kristofferson recorded his song about reincarnation, but he says Campbell has always had an uncanny knack for identifying songs that have some hidden commercial appeal.

“I think that, as an arranger, Glen is somewhat underestimated,” he said. “Because he could take a song almost out of thin air and turn it into a hit. Because as a session musician, he sat in on so many dates with [producer] Jimmy Bowen and people like that — and he learned. He’s highly intelligent, very quick, and many of those records that he played on, he was the deciding factor. It was what he contributed that made them hits for the Beach Boys and for Dean Martin and for those all artists. So the unknown factor about Glen is how potent he was as an arranger and what he could contribute to a track to make it airworthy. And that’s kind of a little secret that nobody talks about. But he did it for others, and he did it for himself.”

Jennings was one of Webb’s early supporters by recording “MacArthur Park” in 1969. He eventually recorded two other versions of it.

“Three times!” Webb interjects with a laugh. “A record that will never be broken!”

On Just Across the River, Nelson sings “If You See Me Getting Smaller,” a song Jennings inspired.

“The story’s about this television director and how he kept aggravating Waylon and saying, ’Get back on your marks, Mr. Jennings,'” Webb explained. “And he kept stopping the song. Finally, Waylon said, ’Well, let me tell you something, Mr. Director. If you see me gettin’ smaller, I’m leavin’.’ And I wrote this song, and Waylon cut it. It’s almost like … these are magical stories.”

Webb says he’s not sure exactly how many songs he’s written

“I don’t ever hear anybody admit to knowing how many songs they’ve written,” he said. “But I would say on the bottom end, probably a couple of hundred and on the top end, maybe 500 or 600. Probably somewhere between there.”

He’s less certain about many songs he’s thrown away.

“That’s where the problem comes in,” he admits. “I’ve thrown so many away that I’ve tried to forget. Every songwriter has tried to forget a song, and sometimes you can successfully do that. I’ve had somebody come and say, ’Do you remember “I Broke My Chair Over Your Head”?’ And I say, ’No,’ and they say, ’Well, you wrote that.’ And I say, ’No, no. I didn’t.'”

“I just deny it … but sometimes, curiously enough, somebody will bring up a title and I will not know whether I wrote it or not. But, I mean, we’re into the hundreds here.”

Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.