In 2010, legendary songwriter Jimmy Webb took a look back at some of his greatest songs, re-recording them with some help from his friends on Just Across the River.
The album featured Webb doing a duet with Glen Campbell on their '60s classic "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," Lucinda Williams joining Webb on a take of "Galveston," Billy Joel and Webb doing "Wichita Lineman" and Linda Ronstadt performing "All I Know," with Webb on what may be her final recording, given her recent announcement that she has Parkinson's disease.
"We ended up with a list of really glamorous people for that album that just kind of fell out of the sky and offered to come in," Webb says. "For me, it was like a rebirth of my interest in recording, because the last few years have really been anathematic to me. I don't like machine made records. I don't like stamped out things. I don't like tuners. I don't like drum machines. I don't like any of that s---."
Webb's back-to-basics approach received critical acclaim and did well on the Americana chart or as he jokes, "the geezer chart." Yet, when his current label eOne Music suggested a sequel, Webb wasn't so sure he could recreate the magic. "To be honest with you," he says, "I wasn't as enthusiastic, because I didn't know whether we could match it."
However, that changed once Webb got into the studio to start working on Still Within the Sound of My Voice, out September 10. With producer and longtime collaborator Fred Molin once again at the helm of a band of ace session players, Webb was soon convinced. "We went in and cut 14 track in two days, and the tracks were so good that I was standing in the control room with tears running down my face thinking, 'It just can't be that good,'" he says.
The crew of session musicians, which Webb dubbed "The Assassins," were given freedom that they're usually not allowed. "They don't get to play a lot of times what I'm willing to let them play," Webb says. "They take solos on my records, too." The most obvious example of this is dobro player Jerry Douglas, who is heard soloing on Webb's latest interpretation of his classic "MacArthur Park."
With the instrumental tracks recorded, a number of notable guests once again started turning up to duet with the man who is considered one of America's greatest songwriters. Although he admits, "This time we had to be a little more overt in approaching people, which made me a little bit uncomfortable."
And then there was the task of matching the artists with the songs. "The material needs to be somewhat familiar," Webb explains, "and the artist needs to be someone close to the heart."
In most cases, the artists are people who have worked with Webb before in some capacity. "Joe Cocker came in and sang an old song he and I sang together called 'The Moon's a Harsh Mistress,' and I dueted with Carly Simon, who I have produced on two occasions and performed with all over the place, and she and I did a song called 'Easy to Say,' which was a top 10 hit for Linda Ronstadt," Webb says. "There's a very fine spiderweb of relationship and inter-relationship."
In choosing the material, Webb picked songs from his catalog that had and could be altered to take on a distinct country-like feel. "It's not country. But it's almost country. It's smoked," he quips. "It's hickory-smoked."
Other pairings include Webb with Elvis Presley's backup singers the Jordanaires fittingly enough on "Elvis and Me," Keith Urban on "Where's the Playground," David Crosby and Graham Nash on "If These Walls Could Speak," and Art Garfunkel on "Shattered."
Yet Webb didn't only go after the big names. Relative newcomer Rumer joins Webb on the title track, and Del Amitri frontman Justin Currie is featured on "You Can't Treat the Wrong Man Right." Says Webb, "They were selected on merit. They're just too talented not to give them a place alongside everyone else."
In the case of Currie, Webb had no prior connection to the singer, best known as the voice of Del Amitri's '90s hit "Roll With Me." Webb says, "When I heard his voice, I said, 'I want him.' The only connection was that aural connection, that emotional connection when you hear someone's voice."
As for Rumer, Webb was familiar with her because she covered his song "P.F. Sloan." When he checked out her whole 2012 album Boys Don't Cry, he was impressed. "I remember saying, 'Wow, she's a fabulous singer. She has elements of Karen Carpenter, elements of Linda Ronstadt, elements of a lot of great singers, but really she's something different and unique.'"
When Webb traveled to the U.K. to play a few dates and pick up the 2012 Ivor Novello Special International Award for songwriting excellence, he also had lunch with Rumer, who promptly invited him to perform with her on "Later...With Jools Holland." "I said, 'That's kind of a hard show to get on, I don't think I'm going to be able to walk up and say, 'I'll be joining you tonight.'"
The following day Webb received a phone call from a talent booker from the show inviting to perform "P.F. Sloan" with Rumer. "She's something, man," Webb says. "She's one of the most terrific people in the world. It's like discovering gold."
Of course, Webb's signature song is "MacArthur Park" is a highpoint of Still Within the Sound of My Voice. He acknowledges that a country setting for the song, originally a number two hit in 1968 for Richard Harris, seems unlikely, but points out that the song was covered by Waylon Jennings four different times, not to mention Donna Summer's hit disco version from 1978.
While the instrumental performance Webb calls a "jaw-dropper" with "stunning musicianship" was complete, he wasn't quite sure how to finish it off. "I started thinking that the cool thing to do would to get Brian [Wilson] to come in and do those frosty choral parts that he does, but we probably couldn't get him to do that."
Mollin, however, thought it was possible that Wilson might agree to appear on the track. Sure enough, Wilson cut his classic Beach Boys-style backing vocals. "I'm not trying to blow smoke up anybody's openings, but it's a stunning record," Webb says. "Somehow the mix of the steel guitar and Brian's almost icy methodical arranging in the background and these beautiful lines, beautiful harmonies that you remember from Pet Sounds, all of a sudden it just becomes obvious that 'MacArthur Park' could have been done that way to begin with."
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- Jimmy Webb
- Linda Ronstadt