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He's back in the saddle

J.D. Souther doesn't rush. He does things his way. It's all there, in this country guy's first album in 24 years.

October 11, 2008|Randy Lewis | Times Staff Writer
  • PROLIFIC HITMAKER: J.D. Souther has written songs recorded by the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, James Taylor, Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Dixie Chicks.
PROLIFIC HITMAKER: J.D. Souther has written songs recorded by the Eagles,… (Ken Hively / Los Angeles…)

Most musicians, even country-leaning ones, know more about horsepower than the power of one horse. But on a recent visit from his Nashville home, J.D. Souther -- who helped lay the foundation for the Southern California country rock sound nearly four decades ago as part of the musical community that included Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt and future members of the Eagles -- took an afternoon off and rented a horse for an impromptu ride into the hills of Griffith Park.

He said it felt good to be back in the stamping ground where he co-wrote "New Kid in Town," "Heartache Tonight" and "The Best of My Love" for the Eagles, "Faithless Love" for Ronstadt, his own Top 10 hit, "You're Only Lonely," and many, many more recorded by Raitt, James Taylor, Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Dixie Chicks.

It had been a while since he'd been in the saddle, yet Souther wasn't hurrying to hop aboard his palomino quarter horse. "A lot of people walk right up to the horse's face, then try to jump on and ride. The horse is thinking 'Who the hell are you?' You need to take some time, just hang out and let him get to know you."

He's taking an equally judicious approach climbing back into the musical saddle. It's been 24 years since he last put out an album, but on Tuesday, his latest, "If the World Was You," lands in stores. A couple of weeks after that, he'll start a tour of clubs that brings him back to L.A. on Dec. 12 for a performance at McCabe's in Santa Monica.

Why'd it take so long?

"I probably quit making records because I thought that making records was making me crazy," Souther, 62, said earlier, at a Studio City cafe. "Turns out I was crazy anyway," he quips. "So when I had something to say, I thought I might as well start making records again."

A quarter of a century is an eternity in today's music business, but Souther's voice is uncannily youthful on the new album, which brims with smartly executed jazz-conscious arrangements.

In "I'll Be Here at Closing Time," "In My Arms Tonight" and "Come On Up," he sounds right back at home with the gently reassuring country-rock amalgam he and his cohorts brought to the pop world in the early '70s.

But there's also the New Orleans funk of "One More Night," and lots of Cuban- and Latin-influenced jazz from his six-piece band, which recorded the songs live in the studio without overdubs or extensive post-production work. He started writing some of the material almost a decade ago on a visit to Cuba, where he experienced the Buena Vista Social Club on its home turf.

Before taking up guitar full time, Souther was a jazz drummer while growing up in Amarillo, Texas, where his family relocated not long after he was born in Detroit. He came to California less out of driving ambition than wanderlust. "You know that saying about how they tipped the country on its side and everything loose slid down to California?" he asked with a wry smile.

Despite his history with Glenn Frey -- before the Eagles took flight, he and Frey were in the L.A. folk-country group Longbranch Pennywhistle -- Souther never joined the Eagles, though he often functioned as an adjunct member.

"Ah, the Eagles," he said. "I suppose it will take me another record or two to stop having to deal with that. Yes, [Asylum Records founder] David Geffen asked me to be in the band, sort of. I considered it and we rehearsed a set and played it for David, [managers] Elliot Roberts and Ron Stone at the Troubadour one afternoon, and truthfully, it took all of a minute afterward to say, no, the band was exceptional as it was and I was quite happy to stay home and write. I think they were relieved, as well."

He did form a band in the mid-'70s with a couple of other country-rock pioneers, Byrds-Flying Burrito Brothers founding member Chris Hillman and Buffalo Springfield-Poco original member Richie Furay, in the short-lived Souther-Hillman-Furay Band.

He remains close with Frey and Don Henley, and it was a song he wrote in 1972, "How Long," that the Eagles chose as the first single from their first new studio album in 28 years, "Long Road Out of Eden," which has since sold 3.1 million copies.

Today, when discussing sources of creative passion, he's more likely to invoke the names of his favorite writers -- John Steinbeck, Philip Roth and his good friend, novelist Jim Harrison -- than those of fellow musicians. Still he does drop names of the ones he most admires: Ray Charles, Miles Davis, Hank Williams, George Jones. "Language is my meat," said Souther. "I agree with Jim Harrison: Forget sending me someone with an interesting experience; send me someone drunk on words. It would be a better book."

To some extent Souther's return to the recording studio sprang out of his experience in Hollywood. He appeared on and off in ABC's "thirtysomething," landed his first movie role as a singer in Steven Spielberg's 1989 romantic fantasy "Always" and went on to appear in a handful of other films.

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