WhatsUp Interview: Songwriting Legend Jimmy Webb Coming to Greenwich Odeum October 25th

You grew up with his songs whether you realize it or not….

Jimmy Webb is one of the greatest songwriters of the modern era. Songs like “MacArthur Park,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Highwayman,” have been recorded by hundreds of artists from rock to country. Webb was a Grammy Award winner in 1967 for “Up, Up and Away” which he wrote while still a teenager.

He won a second Grammy Award for his song “Highwayman,” the song title that was later used as a name for the country supergroup made up of Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson in the 1980’s.

I spoke to Webb earlier this week after he completed a multi-night run of shows on the West Coast. I started by asking him about the new “version” of that group, The Highwomen, a female supergroup based on Webb’s original song from 1975. The group of Brandi Carlise, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris, and Amanda Shires made their debut at the 2019 Newport Folk Festival with their song “Highwomen,” breaking ground as a classic response to Webb’s original.

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“I’m quite pleased, pleased as punch,” noted the Oklahoma born songwriter. “I had heard some rumors about a supergroup that was forming and thought maybe I could write something for them. I still write all the time. It was as if it was meant to be, someone called and said these women wanted to rewrite the lyrics and I said go ahead and do it.”

He continued, “When I finally got the record, I was really so bowled over, so overcome by the lyric that I sat and held my wife and we both just had a good cry. I’m glad I stayed out of the process and let them do it.” 

Songwriting in the 21st Century

The craft of songwriting in the digital age is certainly not what it used to be. I asked Webb what advice he had for aspiring songwriters. 

“There’s no easy answer,” he replied, ”It’s definitely a lot harder to pick up a guitar and write a song and get it recorded; it never was easy, but the degree of difficulty is significantly higher over the last decade.”

“My standard response to this question is, ‘Is it really the truth.’ I’ve always said that I never did a record that I wasn’t personally involved in. They don’t just come floating down from heaven, In 99% of the cases, there’s some sort of connection made with the artist.”

Networking in the music business is more important than ever explained Webb. “It’s always from personal networking that the results come, that’s why you’ll find so many songwriters near the places where the records are made – Nashville, Los Angeles, New York. It’s very important to be on the scene and mixing as much as you can.”

“Talk to artists as they are developing, not after they become Elton John or Billy Joel or Toby Keith. By then, it’s a little too late. If you cultivate relationships with artists your age, as you grow, they remember who you are, and somewhere along the line, maybe you come up with a song for them. I know that sounds awfully hard, but it’s the only way that I know is to become a part of it.”

Webb’s had a brilliant career in music with numerous highlights. He reflected on a few.

“‘Highwayman’ is one. I think It was probably the most unusual subject matter that ever comprised a country record. I think that “MacArthur Park,” 7 minutes and 21 seconds on AM radio, was kind of a milestone. I’m very proud that I was the youngest member Songwriters Hall of Fame inducted. I think I was 40 when I went in there. I’ve been on the ASCAP Board for 20 years now.”

Slipcover

His latest project is Slipcover, “my attempt to create Volume 2 of the ‘Great American Songbook,’” he explained. It’s just the first in a series of albums that will hopefully be instrumental and deal with the meat and potatoes of songwriting.”

“These songs were every bit as good as some of the songs of the 40s and 50s. The album is my first move to put those songs in their own honorific place. There’s a Billy Joel song, a Joni Mitchell song, a Paul Simon song, Brian Wilson, Warren Zevon, Stevie Wonder… These are songs that impacted me personally as I grew up in the business. I was never immune from the impact of the songs.”

“I’m writing songs for an album which is about a year out… I had all my lyrics in a notebook that I had on the road with me, I had never lost a notebook in all my years … on this tour last year, I think I slipped it into the pocket of the seat in front of me on a plane, and I lost it. It was all the lyrics for this new album, so right now I’m re-creating those lyrics. That’s a job I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. I’m thinking about calling it “The Lost Notebook Songs.” 

Everyone who’s ever lost an important document on their computer can understand. Webb however remains optimistic about the situation, “Sometimes things turn out better, that’s what I’m hoping for,” he explained. “I love the business I’m in and all these things are meaningful to me, are things that have happened in the music business.”

Don’t miss Jimmy Webb at the Greenwich Odeum Thursday October 25th. Bristol singer-songwriter Allysen Callery opens. Tickets and further details available here.