A Webb of classic, influential songs

All but lost on the younger generation, songwriter Jimmy Webb remains a force in the music business

September 16, 2010|By Erik Maza, The Baltimore Sun

Music producer Fred Mollin first saw acclaimed singer/songwriter Jimmy Webb live in 1972.

The author of classics like "Wichita Lineman" and "Galveston" was performing at a New York City club, and Mollin, 17, was probably the youngest person in the room. Webb didn't seem comfortable onstage, Mollin recalls, but he was mesmerized anyway.

"He's an American treasure," he said. "No one's able to put words to music the way he does."

It was not a popular opinion at the time. Of all the singer-songwriters who became famous during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Webb was perceived as perhaps the squarest. James Taylor and Kris Kristofferson were heroes to the anti-war left, but Webb was associated with old-fashioned country singer Glen Campbell, who had memorably performed several of Webb's songs and made him a commercial success.

Despite three Grammys and several top-10 hits over a 40-year-career, that perception has stuck. Webb is a virtual unknown among young listeners today, while contemporaries like Taylor have been passed on to kids by their boomer parents.

When the 64-year-old kicks off two nights of shows here in Baltimore on Sunday, he'll do so at the intimate — read: small — Cabaret at Germano's Trattoria.

The cascading lyrics and nuanced politics in his new anthology album, "Across the River," might make him hopelessly retro in a mainstream market that lacks introspection and likes its musicians wearing meat dresses (a la Lady Gaga). But Webb is as relevant today as he was then — if just as misunderstood.

Asked what he's been listening to lately, Webb doesn't recite boilerplate boomer mush; he name-checks Radiohead, one of the most innovative mainstream bands out there.

"I feel like I commiserate with Radiohead's struggle," he said. "I feel like I was one of the pioneers" in using the studio as a laboratory.

But the writer of "By the Time I Get to Phoenix," a 45-year-old song, isn't just listening to hip music. He's also working behind the scenes to influence the way artists are paid in the digital age.

Webb acknowledges the new album isn't challenging in the same way as his last album of new material, 2005's "Twilight of the Renegades." But that album didn't make so much as a ripple in the charts. This time around, Mollin, who went on to become Webb's producer, wants to remind listeners of the singer-songwriter's legacy.

"I called three record labels, and I pitched the following," Mollin said: "We're not looking for a lot of money. We know we're not Jay-Z. I just need enough money to do a great Americana album."

Lucinda Williams, Billy Joel and Mark Knopfler were the only boldface names that were promised in that original pitch, but Webb and Co. found plenty of volunteers soon enough.

The resulting 13-track album, fashioned over a couple of weeks in Los Angeles, features duets with Willie Nelson, Linda Ronstadt, Michael McDonald and Jackson Browne, most of whom have covered Webb's songs but had never collaborated with him.

To promote it, Webb is going on a 16-city tour, which includes his Baltimore stops. He said his audiences are mostly people of his generation.

"Sometimes they're better at remembering songs than I am," he said. "They understand what it's like to forget something. They put their wallets in the fridge sometimes too."

Though the album is not likely to make him retroactively hip, he's not embracing the wilderness of retirement.

That is evident in his work with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, where he's vice chairman and has been trying to alter the way the record industry conducts business.

"The reimbursement of artists online isn't working," he said. "This is a struggle that I've been working on since the days of Napster."

Webb hastens to add that he doesn't think the album format will ever die. The question is, will musicians be able to make money from their work?

"That's a question I'm trying to answer with my life, with my brains, with my actions, and I try to answer it every night when I sit at the piano onstage and talk to people about it," he said. "It's personal."

ermaza@baltsun.com

If you go

Jimmy Webb performs Sunday and Monday at Germano's Trattoria and Cabaret at 300 S. High St. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. Sunday's show is sold out; tickets for Monday are $40. Seating is limited. For tickets, go to Germano's or call 410-752-4515.

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