If you were asked which “lady or gentleman of the canyon” — the iconic 1970s-era singer-songwriters of Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon — had recently delivered a late-middle-age masterpiece, you’d probably guess Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Carole King, Don Henley, CS&N … basically anyone but JD Souther.
That’s partly because Souther, 64, isn’t that well-known, despite having written or co-written such classics of L.A. Folk and Country Rock as The Eagles’ “Best of My Love,” “Heartache Tonight” and “New Kid in Town”; Linda Ronstadt’s “Faithless Love” and “Prisoner in Disguise”; and his own (with James Taylor) “Her Town Too.” He also had a solo hit, the Roy Orbison-influenced “You’re Only Lonely,” in 1979.
It’s also because Souther stopped recording for 24 years before releasing If the World Was You — the album that’s winning such acclaim now — in late 2008. Even then, the Great Recession struck just as the album came out on the small Slow Curve Records label.
But, slowly, he’s been capitalizing on strong reviews and increased touring to get the word out, including a stop in Fairfield Saturday playing solo (with just guitar and piano).
The solo show means one aspect of what makes If the World Was You so strong won’t be heard live — the sometimes-modal, Cuban-influenced Jazz arrangements that Souther and his group recorded (mostly) live-to-tape in a Nashville studio. But the album’s many other strengths will be heard: Souther’s voice is supple yet tough, capable of a high-pitched sweetness but also as earthy and lonesome as the Texas plains where he grew up. His songs show his knack for exploring that space between major- and minor-key melodies (think “New Kid in Town”) is undiminished.
Souther didn’t stop writing songs for others during his long recording layoff and he also did a lot of traveling and even some acting. But he lost interest in furthering his own performing career (or writing for himself) after releasing Home By Dawn, his fourth solo album, in 1984.
“I just stopped making records and touring,” he says by phone from Nashville, his current home. “I didn’t feel like working, and I don’t think I was crazy about what was happening in music as the MTV period got in full swing and became the primary way of connecting an audience to music. It was a little less satisfying to me. I took Sonny Rollins as an example — when people began to question his playing, he’d just retire and go practice for a few years.”
His songwriting/performing ambitions were rejuvenated by a 1998 trip to Cuba.
“That lit the fuse again,” Souther says. “ I was there a little over a week and the music was so infectious and so wonderful and reminded me so much of music I liked as a kid, because I was a Kazz drummer growing up. I always played Jazz. I was a tenor player, too.”
Born in Detroit — his grandmother sang opera and his father a big-band singer — the music-loving John David Souther moved to Amarillo at a young age where he loved listening to everything, from the Great American Songbook to Texans Orbison and Buddy Holly.
“And after that I discovered Ray Charles and felt like I found a new world,” he says. “I think he’s the dominant musician of the late 20th Century in America.”
In Los Angeles in the late 1960s, Souther and another Detroit-born aspiring musician — future-Eagle Glenn Frey — became close friends and formed a duo called Longbranch Pennywhistle. They quickly became immersed in the city’s burgeoning singer/songwriter culture and released an album.
When it went nowhere, David Geffen, then a Rock manager starting his own label called Asylum Records, bought their contract.
“I think David suggested to Glenn he put together a band,” Souther says. “I was filling in as a drummer for Linda Ronstadt — she was my girlfriend and needed a drummer — so I played, but I really didn’t want to do that. I would rather have been home writing.
I had just bought a piano, had a little cottage across the courtyard from Jackson Browne, and we were just writing furiously. Glenn wanted more people in our band, I wanted less. I just wanted to stay home and write. So The Eagles grew out of (Ronstadt's) back-up band.”
As The Eagles became successful, Geffen thought he could do the same thing with Souther, and he put together the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band with Chris Hillman of the Byrds and Richie Furay of Poco. They had a hit with 1974’s Furay-penned “Fallin’ in Love,” but the band lacked the chemistry of The Eagles and soon fell apart. Their second and last album was aptly named Trouble in Paradise.
Today that band is viewed as an egregious example of record-industry hype of the period: a “manufactured” supergroup.
“I’m not sure what’s manufactured and what’s not,” Souther says, pointing out The Eagles, too, were put together at Geffen’s suggestion. “When David suggested the Souther-Hillman-Furay Band to me, I thought, ‘Yeah, that might be a good idea.’ But I think I held back a little bit. Richie and Chris thought I was sometimes giving my best songs to The Eagles rather than bringing them into our recording sessions, and it may have been true, but probably the reasons are obvious. They were already selling records and I had no doubt about the way they were making records.”
Now that he’s resuming his career as a singer/songwriter (he’s already working on new material) in his 60s, Souther acknowledges there are creative challenges.
“As you get older, luck comes in smaller batches,” he says. “You tend to get really big splashes of color just by chance when you’re young, because you haven’t had that much experience and your senses are more untouched and, consequently, not so calloused over. Now you have to constantly keep hitting the refresh button, making sure the snow we just had here, for instance, is every bit as beautiful and mysterious as it was years ago.”
JD SOUTHER plays the Fairfield Community Arts Center on Saturday as part of the Sojourner Concert Series. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.