Jimmy Webb – For the sake of the song
But they aren’t full of hits — not even his own hits. Indeed, for all the chart successes he had in the late 1960s, the single most remarkable thing about Webb’s solo career was that he never recorded his biggest songs. Only “Galveston” — in a startlingly revealing, slowed-down version on 1972’s Letters — appeared on any of the ’70s records. No “Wichita Lineman”. No “MacArthur Park”. No “By The Time I Get To Phoenix”. No “Worst That Could Happen”. No “Didn’t We”. No “All I Know”.
At long last, Webb finally remedied that situation last fall by releasing Ten Easy Pieces, a mostly piano-and-vocals-only affair that includes all the aforementioned songs plus a couple other classics from his catalog. Perhaps definitively, Ten Easy Pieces showed these selections to be simply songs at heart, stripped down to the basics of a writer’s voice and instrument, before any embellishments or bells and whistles were added to shift them more toward this genre or that genre, this radio format or that one, this section of the record store or that one.
While Webb has been rewarded (both artistically and financially) by having his songs end up in nearly every section of the store, he still doesn’t quite cotton to the limitations brought on by genre classification. “From the country point of view, what I’d have to say is, you don’t hear a lot of experimental songs in country music. You just kind of hear, ‘This is what we do down here, folks.’ And really, that’s one of my objections to it,” he says. “Country sometimes cuts off its nose to spite its face. Linda Ronstadt calls it the guys in the hats. What is it about country singers — why do they have to wear hats? Because they’re not cowboys. My family, I’m descended from cowboys, and I know these guys aren’t cowboys. I mean, I doubt if they even change a tire!”
Furthermore, the Nashville modus operandi of songwriters tailoring their work to suit top-of-the-chart artists doesn’t really fit Webb’s much more singular writing style. As often as Webb’s songs have been cut by others, he rarely writes with a specific performer in mind. “I’ve tried, but I’m really not very good at it,” he claims. “I can explain it this way: I wrote ‘If These Walls Could Speak’ for Waylon Jennings — and Amy Grant ended up recording it. So I don’t even worry about it anymore. I just write songs, and if somebody does it, fine.
“But I understand that there are rookeries of songwriters in Nashville just sitting around trying to crank out a song for Reba. I can’t imagine doing that! First of all, I wouldn’t be very good at it. Secondly, I couldn’t stand it. That would drive me crazy. If that’s what somebody wants to do, that’s all right with me, but I couldn’t possibly do that. I would go crazy. I would rather die. I think that you’ve gotta sit down and write a good song. I cannot see going out and cutting a demo and saying, ‘This is for Reba, let’s get a girl who sounds like Reba, let’s make it sound like her last hit,’ and all that.”
While Waylon never did record “If These Walls Could Speak” (though Glen Campbell, Shawn Colvin and Nanci Griffith did, after Grant’s version), Jennings has in fact had a long association with Webb’s material. In fact, though Richard Harris’ 1968 recording of “MacArthur Park” is probably the most recognized version of that song, and most people also recall Donna Summer’s chart-topping disco remake in 1978, it was actually Jennings who won a Grammy with the song, in 1969. (He cut a different version of it, under the title “MacArthur Park (Revisited)” on an album in the 1970s.) Jennings also recorded Webb’s “If You See Me Getting Smaller” and, with Willie Nelson on their WWII record, “Mr. Shuck ‘n’ Jive”.
In 1985, Jennings teamed up with Nelson, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson, who dubbed themselves the Highwaymen in reference to the Webb tune “Highwayman”, which was also the title track to the album they released together. The song (which Glen Campbell had recorded previously, and which also appears on Webb’s new record as well as his 1977 George Martin-produced album El Mirage) went to No. 1 on the country charts and remains one of the artist associations Webb is most fond of, even though he says he’s never really been good buddies with the four country outlaws. “To me, they’re kind of like the most unavailable people in show business. I don’t ever see them,” he says. “I would really like to hang out with them, and I wish they’d invite me over — ‘Hey Jimmy, come over to the house, and let’s play some songs!’
“But I love them dearly. Waylon still has a really nice piece of turquoise that I gave him when I met him backstage at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe about 15, maybe 20 years ago. And they’re nice guys. I had a ball one time, when I was invited out to Farm Aid [at Texas Stadium in Dallas, in March 1992]. I got out there and the Highwaymen were there, and apparently Johnny Cash was sick….And I’m standing around backstage and all of a sudden, Willie walks up to me and he says ‘Jimmy, Cash is sick, why don’t you come out and sing his part on “Highwayman”?’ And I said, ‘Man, I couldn’t do that, there’s 50,000 people out there!’ There was one of those big screens, like 50 feet tall. And he looked at me, and, it just happened that that day I’d worn kind of a New York uniform which was all black; I mean, I usually wear black in New York, like most people do in New York, for whatever reason. And so Willie says, ‘Well hell, Jimmy, you’re wearin’ all black, just go out there and they’ll think you’re Johnny Cash!’ So I did — I went out there, and I was one of the Highwaymen. It was one of the great moments of my life. I remember looking up at this 50-foot billboard and seeing my picture up there with Willie. Me and Willie up on the 50-foot screen; this cannot be real. And I restrained myself, I didn’t go, “[rumbling] I-I-I-I was a Highwayman-a-a-n” — I didn’t do my Johnny Cash impression! Which is not very good anyway.”