When Ray Charles recorded his groundbreaking album Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music, in 1962, he turned to some of the founding fathers of country songwriting for the song selections. As well as picks from the indispensable Hank Williams (‘Hey, Good Lookin’ and ‘You Win Again’) there were classics written by Curly Williams (‘Half As Much’), Don Gibson (‘I Can’t Stop Loving You’) and Eddy Arnold And Cindy Walker (‘You Don’t Know Me’). Charles celebrated country music throughout the rest of his career, and by the time he came to record the album Volcanic Action Of My Soul, in 1971, there was a more contemporary, and equally indispensable, songwriter to interpret: Jimmy Webb. Charles cut versions of Webb’s ‘See You Then’ and ‘Wichita Lineman’.
It is fair to say that Americana, a melting pot of classic country, folk, bluegrass, Celtic music, Southern rock and Delta blues, has its own equivalent of The Great American Songbook – The Great Americana Songbook, if you will – and pre-eminent among the titan songwriters of that genre is Webb. He was a musician who could also do what Irving Berlin had: compose the iconic music to his own brilliant lyrics.
Webb has compared the craft of songwriting to that of a prized Swiss watchmaker, and it is no surprise that he grew up loving 20th-century Songbook standards. Webb particularly admired Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer and Cole Porter, and says that songwriting is so ingrained in his mind that sometimes he even “thinks in rhymes”.
Born in Elk City, Oklahoma, on 15 August 1946, what makes Webb’s music so distinctive is that he has always prided himself on being what he describes as a “cross-genre writer”. Webb was just as open to taking influence from the original stars of country music – giants such as Woody Guthrie, Lefty Frizell, Marty Robins, Bob Wills, Roy Acuff, Buck Owen and Loretta Lynn – as he was to learning from a folk singer-songwriter such as Joni Mitchell. (He said that for three years he was “hypnotised” by the quality of her work.)
Another formative influence on Webb was Motown. Webb ignored the advice of his Baptist preacher father, James Layne Webb, who warned him that “this songwriting thing is going to break your heart”, and took a job as a young man working for Jobete Music, the publishing arm of Motown.
Webb says Motown “was my college”, a place where he learned the nuts and bolts of songwriting and the finer points of constructing hooks in songs. Among those he wrote were the single ‘This Time Last Summer’/‘Please Don’t Turn The Lights Out’, recorded by Danny Day – a pseudonym for songwriting legend Hal Davis. If he ever produced “airy fairy” songs, he recalled, he was brought sharply back to reality by Davis, who would say: “OK, kid, but what’s the message of the song?”
That ability to tell a story, to infuse a song with deep meaning, is at the heart of the very best Americana songwriting. As Willie Nelson – the man behind so many classics, including ‘Crazy’ and ‘Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground’ – once said, “You can’t make a record if you ain’t got nothin’ to say.”
Into this category also comes the magnificent Merle Haggard, whose 38 Billboard No.1 hits include ‘The Fightin’ Side Of Me’, ‘Kentucky Gambler’ and ‘Mama Tried’. Country star Vince Gill said, “Merle is the Poet Of The Common Man. Through words and music, he tells his life story, which is, in many ways, America’s story. The one common thread through all of it is truth. His songs truly are the standards.”
Jimmy Webb takes pride in his stories being about blue-collar guys who did ordinary jobs: “They came from ordinary towns. They came from places like Galveston and Wichita.” His songs would be the perfect soundtrack for an American road trip.
Though Webb is also a singer, his most famous hits have come from seminal renditions by other artists. On songs such as ‘Wichita Lineman’ and ‘Galveston Bay’, Glen Campbell’s voice married to Webb’s lyrics were sensational. Motown had been unable to make Webb’s song ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’ work for soul singer Paul Peterson, so they let Webb take the rights to the song with him when he left the company. In the hands of Campbell, it became a triumph. “Glenn could come up with great intros and solos, and he was very good at commercialising my songs,” said Webb.
Webb had his first major hit in 1967, when The 5th Dimension’s recording of ‘Up, Up And Away’ won several Grammys. He acknowledges the importance of his work with that band and also the debt he owes to Frank Sinatra, who recorded four of Webb’s songs and always gave him full credit. As Webb recalled, “My name became known because guys like Mr Sinatra would go on stage and say, ‘Now I’m going to do a song by Jimmy Webb.’”
However, not all Webb’s songs are about the common man. The nearly eight-minute-long zany delight ‘MacArthur Park’ – a song about a cake left out in the rain – was a hit for rambunctious actor Richard Harris, whom Webb had met at an anti-Vietnam war rally with actors Mia Farrow and Edward G Robinson. Webb recorded the song in London, in a recording session fuelled by a gallon bucket of Pimm’s. The song was later a best-selling disco track for Donna Summer, a country hit for Waylon Jennings and a noted jazz recording for Stan Kenton.
The list of performers who have covered Webb’s songs reads like a Who’s Who of top musicians: Nina Simone, Tom Jones, Smokey Robinson, R.E.M., James Taylor, Art Garfunkel, Nick Cave, Isaac Hayes, Sammy Davis Jr, Nanci Griffith, Tony Bennett, Carly Simon, Linda Ronstadt, Barbra Streisand and Joe Cocker (with a fine version of ‘The Moon’s A Harsh Mistress’) and even Kanye West. Sadly, contractual problems prevented Elvis Presley from recording ‘MacArthur Park’, though Webb says his bootleg copy of The King Of Rock’n’Roll singing that song is one of his prized possessions.
There has always been cross-pollination within country music, something exemplified by the work of Nelson, Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash – a quartet who would all be considered masters of The Great Americana Songbook. Revered record producer T Bone Burnett says Cash has “the stature of Walt Whitman or Ralph Waldo Emerson”, but the man who wrote ‘Ring Of Fire’ also had immense respect for Jimmy Webb.
The quartet named their country supergroup tour The Highwaymen after one of Webb’s famous songs, which was written in England while Jimmy Webb was mulling on the legend of robber Dick Turpin. The song was the perfect vehicle for them, containing four verses, with each person able to play a different character, almost like a theatrical production.
Webb won a Grammy for his song ‘The Highwayman’, describing it as a “big turnaround” to have a hit in the 80s, a time when a new set of alternative country musicians was beginning to make their mark.
Country music is sometimes derided as being based around simplistic songs about heartache, drinking and ailing pets, but, at its finest, the songs can be subtle and evocative delights. Webb, along with giants such as Townes Van Zandt, Gram Parsons, Rodney Crowell, John Harford, John Prine, Dolly Parton and Guy Clarke, can be considered songwriters of the very highest order. Sometimes, like Robbie Robertson and The Band, with masterpieces such as ‘The Weight’, they can have a lasting influence on popular music.
Americana has continued to evolve in the past half century, when talented writers such as Nanci Griffith, Rosanne Cash, Dwight Yoakam, Steve Earle, Patty Griffin, Ryan Adams, Gretchen Peters, Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, Lyle Lovett, Lori McKenna and Jason Isbell have come to the fore. There are also scores of other talented Americana writers who deserve wider recognition, including Richard Shindell, Danny Schmidt, Robby Hecht, Dar Williams or Rita Hosking.
But when it comes to providing inspiration, we need look little further than Jimmy Webb, who is still playing, writing and – hopefully – ready to provide new entries in The Great Americana Songbook.
Follow the All Time Greatest Country Hits playlist for more country classics.