JD Souther photo by Erick Anderson The Kid's Back in Town
Classic ’70s songwriter JD Souther plays Levitt Pavilion as part of Make Music Pasadena
By Carl Kozlowski 06/17/2010
“Go with the musical questions. I never tell the truth about personal stuff.”
It’s with those words, uttered with sly sarcasm in a laconic drawl, that JD Souther greets a reporter by phone while riding through the streets of Austin, Texas. Yet it’s those simple words that explain much more about the legendary songwriter, who helped craft dozens of classics like “New Kid in Town,” and “Best of My Love” for The Eagles, and other greats for artists like Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor, before entering a 25-year self-imposed exile from recording in 1984.
But now he’s back, with a new studio album called “If the World Was You” released last fall, and a new live concert EP called “Rain –– Live at the Belcourt Theatre” that not only bring his sterling roots-based songwriting back to the fore, but also put him on stage at Pasadena’s Levitt Pavilion Saturday night for a free show as part of the Make Music Pasadena festival.
“Hearing you say I sound better than ever is completely reviving,” he says. “I wouldn’t be back in the studio if I didn’t feel we had something to offer. Now I’ve got two more albums planned, with seven songs in good shape, but we have guys who can still tweak more tunes in rehearsals, and then we record live.”
Souther discovered his passion for music while growing up in the Texas Panhandle, where the high elevation and flat terrain enabled some of the nation’s greatest radio stations to be heard. Reeling off memories of call letters like KOMA (“the Oma in Oklahoma”), WLS of Chicago, and “Louisiana stations that I heard when the wind was right from the Gulf,” he recalls being immersed in a spectrum of sounds that took the place of formal musical training.
“My musical education is like Duke Ellington: He said there are only two kinds of music; good and bad,” says Souther. “Jazz guys came in and said, let’s play the way we want as well as we can, and the rock and blues guys felt the same. It goes to show; anyone’s best bet is the truth about themsleves. If you play the music that’s truly in your heart, you can’t go wrong.”
Souther moved out to Los Angeles at the start of the 1970s and quickly found himself writing and recording with a bevy of breakout artists. Glenn Frey of The Eagles was his roommate, and between the two young performers a nonstop string of top-quality jam sessions ensued in their apartment and at the pads of their friends.
“I find it interesting that a lot of people think that this particular time in our young lives was interesting, because that time [his early-20s] was interesting in everyone’s lives,” recalls Souther. “It just occurred for us on a bigger scale. It was before two or three corporations owned all the stations, so you could flip around the dial and find anything to your taste. So many kinds of music were allowed then. FM didn’t have to play Top 40 hits, so you could hear Hendrix followed by the Flying Burrito Brothers and Hank Williams, all in a row. I long for the time when diversity was a positive, not a rarity on radio.”
After a decade of writing and occasionally recording smash hits, including his one solo Top Ten hit “You're Only Lonely” and a duet with James Taylor called “Her Town Too” which hit No. 11, Souther decided to walk away. The question of where he went and why has been one of the enduring musical mysteries of the past three decades, but his answer is surprisingly simple and straightforward.
“I just didn’t have anything I wanted to record,” he explains. “There were a lot of things I wanted to do, a lot of places to go in the world, and I built my dream house. But then I went to Cuba in ’98 and started playing again, started listening to a lot of Cuban music, and I had books and books of poems that I could turn into music. I found a band made out of great jazz musicians who turned out to know each other, rehearsing and rehearsing and did gigs for a month, got a remote truck and recorded the CD live in one room.”
Souther is excited to be playing Pasadena, a place of many fond memories from his 30 years in Los Angeles. He has never played a local venue before, a fact that keys excitement in him that one might expect to hear from a star about to play Madison Square Garden. But then again, these days he’s enthusiastic about coming back, and about the fact that his kind of music has found an enduring audience.
“It’s a great time for music, because there’s more ways to release your own work and that democratizes it, with less money paying off but it exposes the phonies,” says Souther. “The year I came out, 1,000 records came out and now 115,000 come out. They can’t all be good and very few make it. But if you do, you feel blessed.”