Looking Into Jackson Browne
Tribute albums can be tricky. Artists paying their respects to the subject of their veneration on the album find themselves confronted with a decision about how faithfully they should hew to the artist’s original versions of a song. If they do veer too far from the original, how will audiences accept it? If it’s too reverential, then what’s the point in recording it all, since the original likely outshines any version subsequently recorded? How do you decide which of the artist’s songs to include on a tribute album and which to leave off? How will the honored artist or band accept this new version? Does it matter? Even more importantly, who decides who’s going to be a part of the tribute album? Friends of the artist? Musicians who have over the years acknowledged a deep and lasting influence to the artist whose music is being honored? In the end, can every single song on a tribute album both remain faithful to the spirit of the original version yet offer its own special and lasting take on that original? Or, must we simply acknowledge that some of these songs—no matter with what care or hagiographic spirit the artists construct their new versions—sound nice but will never live up to the original?
Such questions pose an even greater challenge when the subject of the tribute album is iconic songwriter Jackson Browne. He’s a songwriter’s songwriter, and ever since his first album, Jackson Browne (1972; sometimes mistakenly called Saturate Before Using), Browne has beguiled his listeners with his beautifully crafted stories—many of them based on personal events in his own life such as the death of a good friend (“Song for Adam,” in the wake of Adam Saylor’s death) or the suicide of his first wife, Phyllis Major (“Here Come Those Tears Again,” which he co-wrote with Major’s wife, Nancy Farnsworth)—his often achingly beautiful music—it’s hard to listen just to the music of “Your Bright Baby Blues” or “Jamaica Say You Will” without shedding a tear or being transported outside of yourself to a place of peace or tranquility—and his canny and deft compositions and arrangements. On his early albums, he gathered around him some of the early ‘70s very best musicians, from David Lindley, Jim Gordon, Waddy Wachtel, Albert Lee, and Clarence White to Leah and Russ Kunkel, Leland Sklar, and Sneaky Pete Kleinow. Friends like Linda Ronstadt, David Crosby, and the Eagles.
The greatest sign of Browne’s genius—and perhaps the most enduring tribute to him—is the number of artists who recorded his early songs: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Tom Rush, Nico, Steve Noonan, Gregg Allman, Joan Baez, the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, the Byrds, among others. When he was around sixteen, he wrote “These Days,”—whose original title was “I’ve Been Out Walking”—and gave it to Nico, behind whom he played guitar on her album Chelsea Girl (1967). His first album featured a song, “Doctor My Eyes,” that charted in the Top Ten as a single, as well as “Rock Me on the Water,” which received considerable airplay, and which several other artists, most notably Linda Ronstadt who released it as a single a few months before Browne’s album appeared, covered. In 1973, Browne released For Everyman, which contained “These Days” as well as “Take It Easy,” co-written with Glenn Frey of the Eagles, who had already had a major hit with it. Browne’s version of the song on this album replaces the Eagles’ flashy lead break, which is backed by Bernie Leadon’s driving banjos, with Kleinow’s soaring steel guitar. Late for the Sky (1974) is likely Browne’s greatest achievement, and perhaps his best album. From the opening track, “Late for the Sky,” Browne weaves themes of loss, despair, helplessness, desire for escape, redemption, community, and love through eight songs that range from mournful and downright “I’m-so-wounded -I-don’t-know-if-I’ll-ever-get-healed” dirges to lilting happy love songs to apocalyptic rockers about the end of self and world. When longtime fan Bruce Springsteen inducted Browne into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, he best summed up Browne’s achievement as a songwriter and musician: “As I listened that night I knew that this guy was simply one of the best. Each song was like a diamond and my first thought was, ‘Damn, he’s good.’ My second thought was, ‘I need less words.’”
Given Browne’s enduring stature as a songwriter and musician, it’s surprising that there’s never been an album recorded to give tribute to his influence. Now, thanks to the efforts of longtime Browne fan, Kelcy Warren, Jimmy LaFave, and Tamara Saviano, and a host of Browne’s friends (Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt, David Lindley, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa) as well as musicians who’ve been influenced by him (Lyle Lovett, Joan Osborne, Lucinda Williams, Ben Harper), we have the two-cd set Looking Into You: A Tribute to Jackson Browne (out in stores on April 1). As Warren points out, “I don’t know of anybody that admires Jackson Browne more than me. We really had fun with this, and I’m very proud of the final product…I think there’s a huge appreciation for Jackson’s music that’s a little under the radar.” While five of the twenty-three songs come from albums after 1976, the rest of the songs on the two cds come from Browne’s classic period, from his first album through the album Running on Empty, a recognition of Browne’s lasting influence.
The first cd opens with Don Henley with the young band Blind Pilot singing “These Days,” and their version captures much of the angst of Browne’s version, but on the bridge Dave Jorgensen’s trumpet, Kati Claborn’s mountain dulcimer, and Ian T. Krist’s vibraphone lend a brightness to the song missing on Browne’s own version. Henley praises Browne’s songwriting: “It is astounding to think that Jackson wrote this song when he was only sixteen years old, but then he was always a step ahead of the rest of us. I’ve learned a lot from him over the years, and am honored to be part of this album.” Bonnie Raitt and David Lindley team up for a funky reggae version of “Everywhere I Go,” while the Indigo Girls capture the foreboding tone of “Fountain of Sorrow” in a version that hews closely to Browne’s original in spirit and in form. Jimmy LaFave delivers a sonic version of “For Everyman” that seizes the transcendent spirit of the song and beguiles us with its simple complexities. Paul Thorn recalls Browne’s influence on his own music: “Growing up in Mississippi, Jackson Browne’s music was a big part of the soundtrack of my youth—‘Doctor My Eyes’ was all over the radio, and it really stuck in my head.” Thorn’s bright-eyed version of the song chugs along as it tries to keep up with Browne’s popular version.
Keb’ Mo’’s bluesy version of “Rock Me on the Water” kick off the second cd, which closes with JD Souther’s haunting take on Browne’s own closing song on his first album, “My Opening Farewell.” Bruce Hornsby delivers a bluegrass version of “I’m Alive,” while Lyle Lovett—in his second song on the album; he sings “Our Lady of the Well” on the first cd—carries off a spare and dry “Rosie,” Browne’s infamous tongue-in-cheek ode to masturbation. You can feel the pain, disgust, weariness, and regret on Lucinda Williams’ take on “The Pretender,” which features a searing lead guitar break by Doug Pettibone that incarnates the disgust of having to put on false pretenses to live in this society, even as you get up and do it again and again every day. Sean and Sara Watkins’ affecting version of “Your Bright Baby Blues” illustrates Browne’s ability to move from the simple to the complex from a song’s opening notes to its closing ones. Shawn Colvin’s spare—she accompanies herself on acoustic guitar—version of “Call Me a Loan” captures that song’s aching center of love and loss. “I’d do this song if only for the chorus,” she says, “it’s quintessential Jackson, summing up about a million emotions elegantly into four lines.”
While Browne’s fans will have some distinct opinions about which versions of songs work better than others, there is something here for everyone. If Looking Into You introduces a new generation of listeners to Jackson Browne’s music, the album will have served its purpose; it will have served an even greater purpose if it drives listeners to pick up Browne’s own albums and spin them.
I caught up with co-producer Jimmy LaFave a few weeks ago by phone at his home in Austin and talked to him about Looking Into You.
HC: Why did you decide to do this album?
LaFave: Well, I’m partners with Kelcy Warren, and it was really his idea. He’s probably the biggest Jackson Browne fan I ever met, and he’s always wanted to do a tribute album of Jackson’s music for years. I know he started thinking about this 8-9 years ago, and I came into the project a year or two later. I’ve always been a Jackson fan, and a song I’ve always included in my shows is “Your Bright Baby Blues.”
HC: Did you talk to Jackson about the album?
LaFave: You know, I saw him at a Woody Guthrie tribute a couple of years ago. At first, I didn’t know if I’d have a chance to talk to him, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to meet him and mention the project to him. When I told him about the album, he said, “Yeah, I’d be honored.”
HC: How did you choose the songs and the artists?
LaFave: Kelcy had all the songs and artists paired up, and he suggested songs to them that he thought would be good matches for them. He’s such a music genius. He really knows music; Kelcy can tell you the fifth songs on a John Prine album from five years ago. He has this deep musical knowledge; he doesn’t get involved in the actual playing of the music, but he has these great instincts. So, for this album, he studied the catalog of each artist. In the end, each artist did have free rein over song selection and the approach they wanted to take, and they all took it so seriously in terms of getting it just right. Kelcy simply asked the artists if they could do this song and do it “your way.” There are a few folks who asked to sing particular songs. Karla Bonoff asked to sing “Something Fine,” and Keb’ Mo’ wanted to do “Rock Me on the Water.” Lyle Lovett wanted to sing more than one song, so he sings “Our Lady of the Well” and “Rosie.”
HC: How did Tamara Saviano get involved with the project?
LaFave: I met Tamara at Cedar Creek Recording here in Austin when she was producing the Guy Clark tribute album, “This One’s for Him.” She was instrumental in getting Don Henley and Scott Crago [who plays drums on LaFave’s “For Everyman” and Griffin House’s “Barricades of Heaven,” as well as executive producing Venice’s “For a Dancer”] to participate; Don was the first artist she asked, and he agreed right away, recording “These Days,” with the band Blind Pilot. She put so much love into her production of this album, and I loved working with her.
HC: Why did you select “For Everyman”?
LaFave: Well, Kelcy said, “I hear you singing “For Everyman.” Like I said, I’ve always played “Your Bright Baby Blues,” and I figured I’d do that one for this album. But Kelcy brought in this great violinist and suggested beefing up the string section. The more I thought about and played it, the more I liked it; I changed a few guitar parts. I did the song in these three separate sections: the acoustic opening, those great pounding drums to carry you into the song, and then the dramatic ending with those swelling strings.
HC: What’s your favorite Jackson Browne album?
LaFave: “Late for the Sky”
HC: What is it about Jackson Browne’s songs and songwriting that endures?
LaFave: Man, some songwriters are so iconic, you know, and he’s one of them. I like his vocal phrasing, and the chord progressions in his songs can be complex and reveal his genius. When it comes to affairs of the heart, there’s nobody better at writing songs about them than Jackson. Once you get one of his songs in your head, it’s hard to get it out. He’s one of the greatest songwriters we’ve ever produced. I think our three greatest songwriters are Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Jackson Browne. I think this music of his will be played for years to come.
HC: What’s next for you?
LaFave: I’m going to be working on 25 songs of Woody’s that were never put to music; I’m really excited about this next project.