J.D. Souther is never very far from his past.
There are the obvious connections — his integral contributions to the Laurel Canyon folk-rock scene of the 1970s, a creative ally of Jackson Browne and Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles. But his own musical life is much more eclectic and surprising than years spent writing songs in Southern California.
As a child, Souther, who was born in Detroit and whose family lived for a time in Dallas before settling in Amarillo, grew up surrounded by music: His father was a big-band singer, performing under the stage name Johnny Warren, before becoming an agent for MCA.
The younger Souther began his lifelong sonic odyssey by picking up the violin, followed by the clarinet, the saxophone and, ultimately, the drums.
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An aficionado of classical music and jazz, the man perhaps best known for collaborating with country-rock musicians didn’t even touch a guitar until his early 20s.
Through it all, from the early days spent learning scales in his family’s Amarillo home, to open-mike nights at the famous Los Angeles club the Troubadour, to his underrated 1972 debut album, John David Souther, the singer-songwriter has been working without a net.
He is, was and has always been an artist chasing his muse from one side of the country to the other, rootless yet firmly planted in the grand tradition of artists making music primarily for an audience of one: himself.
“There was no Plan B,” Souther says from Nashville. “I’ve been a musician as long as I can remember. I never had any other mode of expression. I can’t draw. I mean, I can’t draw a circle with a protractor or a straight line with a ruler. I have no visual acuity as far as an artist. I just had a natural affinity for every kind of music.”
A little ‘Tenderness’
His comfort within a variety of genres informs Souther’s latest solo effort, the Larry Klein-produced Tenderness.
Nine songs redolent of the 69-year-old musician’s past — Come What May blossoms beautifully in the speakers, simultaneously evoking his rustic rock glory years and his affinity for jazz — also inform his present.
Souther, now known to a new generation of fans as recurring character Watty White on ABC’s hit series Nashville, is touring to support the record. He will perform Sept. 13 at the Kessler Theater.
For all he’s accomplished — Souther, who was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2013, shares credit on some of the most indelible songs of the past 40 years — the singer-songwriter admits that his journey is being conducted without a map.
Songwriting, I think, it’s just sometimes blind luck. You get a thought, and it works out.
“The common thread is that it’s all still a little bit mystifying,” he says. “I was working with someone the day before yesterday. He was asking me what my methodology was. I said, ‘Well, I’m embarrassed to say I don’t have one.’
“Songwriting, I think, it’s just sometimes blind luck. You get a thought, and it works out. Sometimes you get a thought that seems brilliant at 2 in the morning that actually doesn’t hold water the next afternoon.”
Fortunately, most of Souther’s ideas have held up in the light of day.
He helped the Eagles write New Kid in Town, Heartache Tonight and Victim of Love, and penned Faithless Love for his onetime girlfriend Ronstadt. (The Eagles in particular have continued to rely upon Souther’s song craft: The band’s 2007 comeback double album, Long Road Out of Eden, plucked its lead single, How Long, from Souther’s eponymous 1972 debut.)
What’s most striking about Souther’s work is how durable it has proved to be.
Listen to his solo work from the 1970s and 1980s, and almost without exception, the songs are as fresh today as when they were first released.
That ineffable, timeless quality extends to his recording philosophy. Much of Tenderness was cut live, with all of the handpicked musicians playing in the same room, wired with 19 microphones.
The result is intoxicating, a record full of smoke and shadows, Souther’s plaintive crooning nestled amid horns, brushed drums and sweet strings.
“I met a bunch of these guys, and we started rehearsing these tunes,” Souther says. “The tunes began to adapt a little more to this little sextet. The guys adapted very well to the tunes. I don’t know if it’s a jazz album or not, but it’s certainly played that way.”
Touring as a trio
While Souther would dearly love to re-create the lush, delicately rendered instrumentation heard throughout Tenderness — Souther says he still sends every record he makes to Ronstadt for her feedback, and the legendary vocalist can hear “the rosin on the bows” — the brutal financial realities of touring have necessitated scaling back to a more portable trio.
Oh, and there’s the matter of hearing his beloved hits, like his terrific 1979 single You’re Only Lonely: “I don’t play an awful lot of the songs that are that old. There are a few songs [that are] so well known that people are disappointed if they don’t hear those, so I have to play some of them.”
Souther’s sanguine attitude about his storied past as it relates to the here and now is as surprising as it is refreshing. (Some of his contemporaries have a decidedly more bitter view: “I don’t know if we would’ve made it in today’s climate,” Don Henley told me back in 2008. “I’m not sure that we would have wanted to.”)
The sense of wonder can still be heard in Souther’s voice as he talks about strapping his guitar to his back, settling down on his Triumph motorcycle and riding into Los Angeles, writing down his name on the call sheet for the Troubadour’s open-mike night and marveling at the parade of then-unknown talent crossing the stage.
Just think of it. In the course of probably 14 months we heard Carole King, Tim Hardin, Kris Kristofferson, Elton John [and] Laura Nyro.
“We just wanted to get up there and play,” he says now. “It was a great year to play. Most of ’69 and ’70, when Glenn Frey and I still had a band [Longbranch Pennywhistle] and we were playing open-mike nights — the sheer number and quality of songwriters that came through the Troubadour.
“Just think of it. In the course of probably 14 months we heard Carole King, Tim Hardin, Kris Kristofferson, Elton John [and] Laura Nyro. My god. Judee Sill, Jackson [Browne]. These fantastic songwriters — it was songwriting school.”
As the decades passed and the music industry shifted away from men and women with something to say and the means to convey it, toward personality-driven acts better equipped to promote brands than perform music, Souther has ridden out the changes, even if he acknowledges the business he’s in now doesn’t much resemble the one he came up in.
“There’s more desperation to create an impression of some kind and have that impression repeated as often as possible,” Souther says. “Things didn’t move quite so quickly in the ’70s. There was no such thing as The Voice or America’s Got Talent or American Idol or anything like that.
“I’m not such a grumpy old codger that I think that’s necessarily bad, but I think it forces one to be alert to the natural world in very deliberate ways that you didn’t necessarily have to be then.
“I think you have to make some contact with the natural world now to avoid being just overwhelmed by media and representational versions of the world.
“The danger, taken to the extreme, is sitting in a room watching a fake fireplace on television. Or thinking that something that you see on YouTube that someone’s done in their living room has a global importance that its availability would make it seem to have.”
As it was when he was vying for time at the Troubadour, so it is now that he’s headlining shows supporting his eighth studio album: Making music, the writing and performing of it, is an ultimately unknowable pursuit.
Indeed, an artist may channel a frequency that he didn’t know existed — or maybe had just forgotten about.
Such a notion was reinforced by something Souther noticed as he played shows just before the release of Tenderness — in particular, the response to Dance Real Slow, a song from the record.
“The room would just go completely silent. It was like something they were really waiting to hear. In fact, they’d never heard it before. I must have tapped back into something that was familiar in that way. I don’t know how. It’s all a mystery to me.”