Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Song of Songs from a Songwriter's Songwriter

Category: 50 Songs to Hear

SONG: Out to Sea
ARTIST: J.D. Souther
SONGWRITER: John David Souther
ALBUM: John David Souther
YEAR/LABEL: 1972, Asylum

Thank you. I really enjoy singing it.
(J. D. Souther, March 9, 2009, regarding the greatness of "Out to Sea")

John David Souther has had an interesting career, to say the very least. He began nearly 40 years ago on a small label called Amos with a fellow Detroit native by the name of Glenn Frey in a duo called Longbranch Pennywhistle. That act folded when Frey joined a drummer in another band on Amos Records, an outfit called Shiloh, to back Linda Ronstadt. The drummer's name was Don Henley. Souther ended up dating Ronstadt and being good friends with Henley and Frey in their new venture, the Eagles.

As with numerous singer/songwriters in L.A. in the early 70s, Souther found no trouble getting a record deal with Asylum Records. As other Asylum acts such as the Eagles, Ronstadt, and Jackson Browne went from cult acts to multi-platinum superstars Souther lagged in the background in terms of sales. His songs were well-known: he co-wrote a number of Eagles hits and wrote several songs that Ronstadt recorded (including "Simple Man, Simple Dream," the quasi-title track of her 1977 album Simple Dreams). Asylum dropped him in the late 70s and Souther found a new home on Columbia, where he scored his only top 40 successes: a duet with James Taylor, "Her Town Too," and his own 1979 hit, "You're Only Lonely" (which, to this day, people continually confuse with Roy Orbison's song "Only the Lonely").

One more album followed, 1983's spectacluar Home By Dawn, before Souther turned to acting for the better part of 20 years. He was a semi-regular on thirtysomething and appeared in numerous made-for-TV movies (including the one about the miraculous survival of the Pennsylvania miners after a cave-in). Then he came back to music in 2008, releasing a very unique album titled If the World Was Yours. The CD featured his typical sardonic lyrics, this time backed by a jazz ensemble instead of the country or rock flavor his music had always enjoyed.

When one analyzes Souther's material, the starting place is with his self-titled Asylum debut in 1972. The Eagles called attention to this masterpiece when they chose as the initial single from their first album in 28 years the song "How Long," a cover of one of the songs off John David Souther.

The outstanding feature of Souther's first album is the song that follows "How Long," the superb "Out to Sea." Just over five minutes in length, it is one of Souther's longer songs, and every second is delicious. Souther takes the listener on an autobiographical trip that begins where he "used to sing in Texas" and moves on "to California by the shining sea." His motive is fame ("I thought I'd write the song of songs") but he is quickly brought back to earth by "my baby's goodbye voice ringing out to me, 'Dear David, I hope you live that long.'" That is one of the great lines of Souther's career -- or anyone's.

All of the struggles of trying to become a success requires "a refuge where the holy winds are strong," and Souther claims that's the ocean. "We will bathe in the white foamy water and be pure as God's driven snow," he sings. He gets grounded in reality in the last verse where he realizes, "I might never sing a song that's good enough a thing to chase the doubts and fears away." All of these philosophical gems are augmented with harmonies from Souther's Longbranch/Pennywhistle duet partner Glenn Frey.

Souther might never give the world "the song of songs," but with "Out to Sea" he certainly came close.


The entire Home By Dawn album -- a duet with Linda Ronstadt ("Say You Will"), sarcasm ("Bad News Travels Fast"), and marvelous rock (the title track and "Night"). If Souther was going to stay away from music for a quarter century, he certainly picked a high note on which to leave.

The entire John David Souther album -- some people save their best for first. Souther's debut album displayed all the promise that he lived up to.

"Roll Um Easy" (from Rock and Roll Doctor: A Tribute to Lowell George) -- a terrific version of a great Little Feat song.

Nobody Eats At Linebaugh's Anymore
My Book of Memories
Lost to a Stranger
A Little Bitty Heart
Life Has Its Little Ups and Downs
Life is Too Short
I Want a Home in Dixie
I Lost Today
Down to the River to Pray
Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyeballs
A Death in the Family
Dark as a Dungeon
Bottomless Well

One More Song
New Delhi Freight Train

Long Way Home
Heart of Rome
Harriet Tubman's Gonna Carry Me Home
Entella Hotel
Desperados Under the Eaves
Crossing Muddy Waters
Cliffs of Dooneen
Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)
Baby Mine

1 comment:

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