Danny O’Keefe – The trick as an artist is to figure out how to be continually creative
“Some gotta wiiiiiin, some gotta loooooose…”
When Danny O’Keefe stretches out those words in the classic chorus to his 1972 hit “Goodtime Charlie’s Got The Blues”, it can settle a chattery barroom to a reverent hush, his soaring tenor floating gloriously above the melancholy resignation of the refrain. Some songs are timeless, and “Goodtime Charlie” clearly has proven to be in that category — from O’Keefe’s Top-30-charting original version, to subsequent ’70s renditions by Waylon Jennings and Elvis Presley, to Mel Torme’s reading on an episode of the ’80s TV sitcom “Night Court”, to Dwight Yoakam’s take on his recent Under The Covers disc.
“Goodtime Charlie” is the crown jewel of O’Keefe’s considerable catalog, which also includes songs such as “The Road” (covered by Jackson Browne in 1979 on his classic Running On Empty album), “Never Got Off The Ground” (a co-write with David Mallett that appears on Alison Krauss’ 1999 disc Forget About It), and even a collaboration with Bob Dylan called “Well Well Well”.
Those last two songs appear on Runnin’ From The Devil, which was released last year on Miramar Records and is O’Keefe’s first album of new material since 1984. It’s a fine return to form for an accomplished songwriter who had largely retreated from public view in the past couple decades, living in relative obscurity on Vashon Island in the Puget Sound (a 15-minute ferry ride from downtown Seattle).
Much of O’Keefe’s time and effort in recent years has gone toward establishing the Songbird Foundation, a nonprofit organization that, to quote the mission statement on its website (www.songbird.org), “seeks to raise awareness among coffee growers, distributors, retailers and consumers of the effect sun-grown coffee has on migratory songbirds and the Latin American rainforest on which they depend for essential habitat.”
I. I PROBABLY HAVE WAITED ENORMOUSLY TOO LONG
NO DEPRESSION: I was reading a passage on the All-Music Guide website about Tim O’Brien regarding a song of yours he’d covered, and it referred to you as “the elusive Danny O’Keefe.” Is that an accurate characterization?
DANNY O’KEEFE: For a lot of people, it was a revelation that I wasn’t dead. That rumor circulated for a long time. Remember that magazine called US? They had reported one time that the Little River Band was working on the soundtrack to the Danny O’Keefe story. They had me dead some years prior. Fortunately, it was a guy named Johnny O’Keefe, a very strange and wild guy, kind of like a Jerry Lee Lewis in Australia.
ND: Is this perception of you being a recluse something that was intentional on your part? Were you content just to lay low for a long time?
DO: If you’re not out there working a lot, if there isn’t a publicist or a record company interested in promoting what you’re doing, it’s pretty easy to slip into oblivion. And I was doing lots of other stuff. Certainly writing all the time. But, I sort of thought at one point that it would be satisfactory, or satisfying, just to write songs if other people would record them. And I don’t know if that wouldn’t have been true, but not enough people recorded them.
ND: When Runnin’ From The Devil came out last year, it had been 15 years since you made a new record. What was the main reason for there being such a gap between albums?
DO: I ended up doing different things. For awhile I was a contract writer. I also don’t think there was an enormous amount of interest. I wasn’t getting calls on any kind of a regular basis. I just thought stepping back from it made the most sense. I didn’t really have a reason or a drive to be out there. And the reason now is largely I probably have waited enormously too long a period.
ND: Most of the songs on the new record are co-writes, whereas your records from the ’70s were basically songs you wrote yourself.
DO: Yes. From, oh, probably ’91 or ’92, somewhere in that period, I started to do a lot of what essentially was contract writing. I worked for Dylan’s company for a couple years; that’s where the opportunity to write a song with him [“Well Well Well”] came about. And I worked with a couple other publishing companies in Nashville.
I’d never written with people before, partly because I didn’t really understand how to do it. You know, it was sort of this long tortured artist process. But the great thing about working with somebody else, particularly the way they do it in Nashville, is that someone brings something you wouldn’t have thought of into the mix. After awhile, you start to play the same chord sequence too many times, and you bore yourself. The trick as an artist is to figure out how to be continually creative.