Of course, it’s not surprising Webb has tales, a man who made records with the Supremes, Johnny Rivers, the Fifth Dimension, Thelma Houston and Carly Simon, whose song recorded by Nina Simone, “Do What You Gotta Do” was turned into Kanye West’s takedown of Taylor Swift, “Famous” (a story he delivered with hilarious ambivalence), whose work is all-but-inextricably tied up with the heights of Glen Campbell’s career, and whose 1977 song “The Highwayman” inspired two country supergroups, 1985’s collaboration by Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson, The Highwaymen, and in 2019, The Highwomen, featuring Brandi Carlisle, Natalie Hemby, Maren Morris and Amanda Shires.
He led off with that "Highwayman" song, feeling like a nod to all the fine women songwriters in country today. He also wanted to get to this story about Waylon Jennings hung over in the studio, laying back on a couch, muttering with his cowboy hat over his face. Webb was giddy over the success of the new Highwaymen record but a little concerned that he was having problems with his own voice. Jennings grumbled, “How can you tell?”
It's funny because Webb doesn't sing like Jennings, but Webb’s voice is fine. It's tough to sell songs that have been recorded by the finest vocalists in the business—from Frank Sinatra to Isaac Hayes to Art Garfunkel to Donna Summer. But he had fun with it. He freely acknowledged his own limitations, calling out, “now help me here!” when he broke into the high-reaching refrain of “Up, Up and Away” with its “beautiful balooooon!”
He also didn’t mince words. He introduced “Galveston” as a “thinly veiled antiwar song” after asking how many veterans were in the house tonight. He added, “Many vets have told me over the years how much it meant to them.”
He took it a little further. “Music is about more than politics. Love what you love and hate what you hate, but don’t love it or hate it just because of politics.” This received applause. It was the right note, and it was, in its own way, a higher level political statement than can typically be found among the smokescreens and gamesmanship of the nightly news.
All night long, his touch on the piano was stunning, and he eventually did a gorgeous cover of Billy Joel’s “Lullabye, Goodnight My Angel” as an instrumental. This is on Slipcover, Webb’s all-instrumental tribute to what he calls “The Great American Songbook, Volume II,” featuring music by Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Warren Zevon, the Beach Boys, the Beatles and the Stones.
Of course, Webb’s original “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” also deserves its place on that album because Webb just about wrote a new Great American Songbook on his own. Bruce Springsteen’s obviously spent the last few years leafing through it, and British music journalist Dylan Jones just wrote a book about one of those songs, The Wichita Lineman: Searching in the Sun for the World’s Greatest Unfinished Song. Yeah, that’s right, it is unfinished, and perfect. Webb drew out the ending last night, repeating the modified refrain, “hanging on the line,” perhaps suggesting where it might go, certainly underscoring the perfection of form and content—that song’s left all of us caught up for five decades. It’s agonizing and perfect as it is.
Still, I might have to read that book, too.
Looking more than ever himself like a young Glen Campbell, opener John Fullbright played solo guitar and piano on a greatest hits of his own. As fine a bandleader as Fullbright can be, there’s something unparalleled about the power of his solo performances. I turned to a guy who was clearly rocking in his heels, having never seen Fullbright before, and I said, “This was my dad’s favorite,” on “Forgotten Flowers." The first time I saw Fullbright do a whole show, I was with my father, and I remember how he kept talking about that one; it felt like a bridge between our worlds. That guy was high-fiving me all night, too.
Of course, the night was about bridge building and the many forms it takes. Long after recalling how he and Dustin Welch wrote “Gawd Above” so it could either be “a Christian song for atheists or an atheist song for Christians,” Fullbright covered Frankie Laine’s “That Lucky Ole Sun.” Though the song isn’t strictly gospel, he then remarked, how he didn’t think that much of gospel until he lost his faith; then it became just about his favorite thing. In the current climate, Fullbright’s “Fat Man” felt like some sort of political pipe bomb, but, if anything, it seemed to unite the crowd.
At Oklahoma City’s The Blue Door, music lover and club owner Greg Johnson made sure that Fullbright encountered Jimmy Webb’s music early in his career, and Webb and Fullbright seem deeply bound together today. It makes sense. They both write timeless music that absolutely defies the boundaries that form pop genres while sounding nothing at all like today’s pop, ironically disproving the concept that we have arrived somewhere “post-genre."
When I think of now and then, back when I first heard Webb's music, having no idea the songwriter was from my home state of Oklahoma, I think of those strings on those Webb/Campbell records. I think of sitting in the Penn Theater or the Eastland Twin in my hometown, waiting for the lights to go down and the movies to come on. Those Wrecking Crew strings were so cinematic, I could imagine them moving from a Glen Campbell record to the muzak before the movie to eventually back him on the screen in True Grit.
While Webb clearly identified with the rock and roll generation (when he first met his musical hero Campbell, the singer told him he stank and he needed to cut his hair), he made music that dared to serve whatever intuitive leap the songwriter wanted to make, and those strings are absolute signatures of that ambition. Whatever you think of “MacArthur Park’s” cake in the rain, its wildly ambitious vision lit the imaginations of artists as varied as, yes, Richard Harris, but also Andy Williams, Waylon Jennings, The Four Tops, Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer….and this little kid, sitting in an Okahoma movie theater or the backseat of my parents' car. I was enchanted by it all then and I am even more so today, when it seems such wide open visions, particularly among artists dealing with adult, universal themes, come fewer and farther between.
“Until You Were Gone”
“Very First Time”
“I’ve Seen Stars Before”
“That Lucky Ole Sun”
“The One Who Lives Too Far”
“When You’re Here”
“Up, Up & Away”
“Where’s the Playground Susie?”
“The Poor Side of Town”
“Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)”
“Do What You Gotta Do”