Stars caught in Jimmy’s Webb

Kris Kristofferson
Kris Kristofferson
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MANY may not immediately recognise the name but plenty more will know his songs – dozens have helped some of music’s biggest stars to shine.

So it is only right the legendary musician should be on a solo tour that celebrates his incredible hits tally, sending this son of a baptist preacher to Sheffield’s Memorial Hall on February 9.

Songwriter: Jimmy Webb

Songwriter: Jimmy Webb

But, as he explained from his home in the Long Island beach town of Oyster Bay, he is not just roaming with past glories. Many of those who have given life to his songs returned the favour for his new album Across The River, including Jackson Browne, Billy Joel, Vince Gill, Willie Nelson, Mark Knopfler and Linda Ronstadt.

While he cannot hope to lure them on the road with him - “that’s just a rumour, I’ll see what we can do, though” - the show will feature classic songs such as Galveston, Highwayman and MacArthur Park.

He may even perform The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress, the song he gave to Joe Cocker for his classic album Sheffield Steel. “I always thought that was a cool name for an album. It sounds like Sheffield is a strong environment to grow up in,” Jimmy says before asking if it is “a real city like New York City” and if there are still steel mills. He mentions Billy Joel’s Allentown, which touches on the USA’s own receding manufacturing industry.

You get the impression Jimmy has probably got a song to encapsulate most situations. He, like Springsteen, has a knack for touching the spirit of old and new America.

Webb Brothers

Webb Brothers

“Some of our most cherished Americana/stereotypes are evaporating in front of our eyes here, in terms of the small farm, which is where I grew up. And this album is a reaching back for that almost untouchable thing.

“I did a lot of hard work on my grandfather’s farm. For the cotton we pulled he paid us three cents a pound.

“From that I got to Hollywood and made a pretty good living as a songwriter and I’m still getting away with it. I still have the wool pulled over their eyes.”

Although Jimmy is also a performer – and the only artist to have won a Grammy for music, lyrics and orchestration - has it ever felt frustrating seeing others have greater success with his work?

Westoe's James Clark.

Westoe's James Clark.

“Not really because the people I have worked with have clearly been at least some of the greatest vocalists who ever lived.

Mr Sinatra, Glen, Linda, Arty, I cut my teeth with great singers.

“I always knew I was surrounded by people who had exceptional chops and I just came along in my own way and took my own time, communicating my songs the way I always have. I try to sing in tune, with a lot of feeling.

“I don’t feel I’m that far from a Carole King as someone who used to pitch material and transcend it into a professionalising of some pretty basic talents in that department.”

On his album notes, bearing great stories about each song and guest, he claims producer and long-time collaborator Fred Mollin has him sounding as good as he can.

Like many of his career highlights, it seems songs tend to choose their singer. “They did but it’s almost – and I don’t want to get into the realms of voodoo - these people match themselves with these songs.

“Then I’ve known everyone for so long. Jackson Browne...I was already moving out of Hollywood as he was moving in. David Geffen introduced me to this kid. Jackson was cross-legged on the floor and sang a song called Opening Farewell. It’s one of the most beautiful songs I ever heard.”

Now in his mid 60s with his sons established performers as The Webb Brothers, it seems this master songsmith has no appetite for retiring. He plans to pen new music and the Nashville-recorded Just Across The River What signals a final updating of past glories.

“This is probably the last time I’m going to deal with this material,” he concurs. “Glen and I singing By The Time I Get To Phoenix together is pretty much the heart and soul of this record. I don’t see how you can say any more about that and the country crossover vibe.

“Not to be too immodest, I like to think I was part of Glen’s transition into the mainstream of pop music.

“He amounted to the first country crossover and laid the path for a lot of other acts like Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. All of a sudden it became okay to be country and top 40. You listen to Wichita Lineman today and it still makes it.”

To Webb’s credit – as a glance down a list of those who have recorded his music confirms - he has long been a writer of variety, while embodying the spirit of Americana.

“It’s my blessing,” he says modestly. “I’m just the fortunate guy who at a fairly early age felt bumped around enough that I didn’t want to play this game of being stylised, put in a box. I never wanted to be in some world where I couldn’t listen to Miles Davis, but I loved Jimi Hendrix, and my favourite rock and roll band is still the Stones.

“I always had these tastes, plus I listen to classical music about 90 per cent of the time. My world was one where I enjoyed for a while moving from music community to music community.

“My first job was at Motown. I wrote 45 songs there, got a Supremes cut. That to me is a priceless experience; to have been able to do these things is a gift.”

But to unlock part of the secret of Webb’s success is to examine his origins. And that includes the native American blood in his system, confirmed by his research to link to the Cherokee tribe in Oklahoma.

Does he believe this has informed his connection with the land about which he has so often written?

“I heard when I was a little kid rumours of an Indian grandmother. One day I woke up and wanted to know about this.

“Also I was born on Route 66 in Elk City, so I think I know what Americana is. I don’t like people telling me I’m not authentic. I’m just singing from my soul songs that I feel, since I was a kid raised in west Texas with tarantulas and chalk roads.”

Webb also clarifies himself as a romanticist. His canny use of vivid imagery simultaneously captures and involves his listeners’ emotions. He states humbly: “I like words, the way they clash around together and bang up against each other, especially in songs.”

Some of the collaborations on the new album took 10 years to happen and its host still yearns to work with other people.

“Years ago, back in the Jurassic era, I was staying in the Playboy Club in London and Paul McCartney called and asked if I would write a song for Mary Hopkins. I always regretted not following up on that. I was doing all kinds of other things, but it would have been a good time for me to have co-written.

“I look back and think ‘Maybe you could have played that a bit differently’ because I love the Beatles like everybody else.”

Then there’s that former Sheffield gas fitter. “Sure, I’d work with him any time,” he says of Cocker.

“He’s the salt of the earth. Knowing him was a really great experience and I’d love to butt heads with him again. I bet I’ve got a nice little ballad he could just tear into shreds. It’d be glorious.”