Count JD Souther among the many who have been influenced by the music of the Everly Brothers. As he points out, it’s a lengthy list of folks, including Sir Paul McCartney, that have loved the music that the Everlys have created across the decades. Souther is no songwriting slouch himself — you’ve heard his work with the Eagles countless times on the radio — he wrote and co-wrote songs like “Heartache Tonight,” “Best of My Love,” Victim of Love” and “New Kid in Town.” There was no shortage of songwriting and studio work to keep him busy over the years as he collaborated with artists such as Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Brian Wilson, Crosby, Stills & Nash and Warren Zevon. But this weekend, he’s in Cleveland as one of the many musicians on tap to pay tribute to the Everly Brothers’ legacy at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s annual Music Masters concert event on Saturday night at the State Theatre. We spoke with Souther earlier this week to get his thoughts on the group and its impact on his career as an artist. He also shared a few details on an upcoming album that he’s just wrapping up which will be released early next year.
When did the Everly Brothers first come across your radar?
Let’s see, I think the first hit was in ‘57, so they probably had records before I even heard ‘em. But I think when I became aware of them was maybe just listening to the radio in maybe sixth grade or middle school. I was a jazz kid, so until I had my own radio, which I somehow inherited a big old Stromberg Carlson radio from one of my grandparents. I only heard radio in the car [prior to that] and my parents listened to jazz and big band music and Broadway musicals. My grandmother was an opera singer, so I didn’t really hear as much pop music as maybe some of my contemporaries. I never heard country music, because my parents couldn’t stand it, so I never heard that at home. But once I got to California, I started hanging out with Linda Ronstadt, Waddy Wachtel and Warren Zevon, the latter two of which were bandleaders for a late incarnation of the Everly Brothers band. We played those songs all of the time. As a matter of fact, Waddy reminded me the other day that in between working on songs of mine for my albums that we were doing together, we used to just play and sing Everly Brothers songs. So we’ve got a pretty fair working acquaintance with all of those tunes, at least with an awful lot of them. I think everybody from Paul McCartney on will tell you that the Everly Brothers pretty much taught everybody how to sing harmonies.
I was going to ask if they were an important influence on your own eventual musical path.
Probably, because I just listened to them so much and there were not only great harmony parts and great songs, but just that genetic chemistry that they had. I’d never heard anything like it before and I’ve still never heard anything like it since.
What will you be doing at this tribute concert? Do you have a song picked out?
I know exactly what we’re going to be doing. I think Alison Krauss and I are going to sing “Gone, Gone, Gone” and Waddy Wachtel and I are going to do “Lucille” at Patti Everly’s [Phil’s wife] request, because she wanted to be sure that there’s some rock and roll in it — she didn’t want it to be all weepy ballads. I think I’m [also] doing double duty with some of the other [people on the bill], I think I’m going to sing “Crying In The Rain” with Peter Asher. There’s a lot of great people coming to sing. Vince Gill is going to sing and it will be a really fun show. The band is going to be great and everybody loves what Donald and Phil did so much that I think it’s going to be a real warm and uplifting evening.
It seems like you crossed paths with them at least in liner note credits. Did you get a chance to work directly with Phil or Don?
Yeah, Phil sang harmony with me on a song called “White Rhythm and Blues” on the You’re Only Lonely album. It was due to the fact that Waddy and he were friends. I was singing a harmony on the song myself and I said, “I’m just doing a Phil Everly harmony, why don’t we see if we can get Phil to come and do it?” and Waddy just said, “Do you want me to call him?” And I said, “Really, is he here?” and Waddy said, “Yeah, he lives about a half hour from here,” so he called him and he came over and worked all night and sang this beautiful gorgeous harmony part.
You’ll be back in Cleveland in November after the Music Masters tribute for a show at the Music Box. What can folks coming out to that gig expect? Will you be playing with a band?
I have my trio, yeah. They’re who I travel with now. You know, I’ve been playing such a broad palette of music the last five or six years and I think [the fans] know they’re going to get a good show and that no two are exactly the same. They’re going to hear some of the big hits that they want to hear and they’re going to hear some interesting songs from other eras that other people wrote and they’re going to hear some newer songs of mine and maybe some [of those songs] that people would call “deep tracks” now -- some things of mine that maybe weren’t the singles from the albums. It’s a great show -- it’s fun. We just played in Dayton two weeks ago and we had a huge crowd and great fun. The band is really on -- we hadn’t played together in a month and we were dying to get onstage to play. I think it will be the same thing in Cleveland -- I think we’ll have a blast.
I know that you’ve been working on a new solo record, so I wasn’t sure if any of that material might make it into the set for that show.
We’ll see. It’s not coming out until March, on Sony Masterworks, so there is the danger of somebody uploading a version to Youtube or something that maybe is not what I want to see there, so we’ll see.
I really enjoyed listening to your last solo album If The World Was You, so I’m curious to know where you’re going with this new record. What can you tell us about that?
Well, if I had to categorize things and I don’t like to, I would say that it’s less jazz than If The World Was You and more orchestral probably than anything I’ve ever done. It’s more cinematic.
It seems like you really had a lot of fun exploring on If The World Was You and at times, you go in-depth, especially on a track like “The Secret Handshake of Fate.”
Incidentally, everyone who participated in the album, that’s their favorite. That was a live thing -- that was a total jam. We played that through once, that’s the reason it’s as long as it is. I had written a poem that was three of those four verses and I was just sitting at the piano. I think we’d just finished “Journey Down The Nile” or something else that we were really satisfied with and I said, “Do you guys want to try one more thing” and they said, “Yeah.” There wasn’t a chart for it or anything, although everything else we had done on that record, it was done live in one room and we did have charts. We had been playing gigs -- it was really old school, you know? We had a little residency at a place here where we play every Friday night and we were more than prepared for that album. If you have really great jazz players like that, it’s a good way to do it, because everybody’s got the language really down and we had tweaked the charts to the point that everyone was happy with them. We’d had a great week in the studio and at the end of the night, I said, “Listen, I want to try this thing -- Actually, I was just writing it -- I had just found it in one of these notebooks of mine and it’s got three good verses and I think it needs four. Let me sit down here and see if I can make up another one.” And then I just said, “Follow me” and I started playing that guitar riff and we played for thirteen minutes, stopped and looked at each other and I went, “Well, that was pretty good.” [Band member] Jeff Coffin said, “Man, that’s the reason we started playing music to begin with.” So I said, “Alright, well, let’s not try to fix it -- let’s just have the way it is at the end of the album” and it’s just these six guys having the most fun they can have playing music. You can hear people laughing now and then and at one point, I yelled at Chris [Walters] to come in and play a solo, because he was supposed to come in the time before and he didn’t and I think I said, “What does it take to get Chris Walters in here?” and he starts this weird left-hand solo. That was a trip -- it was certainly the most fun day of recording that album. And it was an adventure, for someone with my public background and recording history, to gather all of these great jazz players together and sort of tackle that kind of thing that we tackled at that level. It was very satisfying. This new album is a different ball of wax -- I had a great producer, Larry Klein produced it and Billy Childs, a great jazz piano player, played on it and he wrote these absolutely staggering string parts. We’re going to actually do some gigs together. Billy’s band and I are going to do the inaugural Tucson Jazz Festival in January and a couple of other things. But the record, it’s a standalone thing. To me, every record is a different movie -- I’m after something a little bit different every time. What we really wanted this time, it’s pretty heavily orchestrated [in parts]. It’s very sort of film noir. Linda Ronstadt says the musical forms of these new songs remind her of early and mid 20th century composers as well as those from the late 20th century and 21st century. That makes sense since the first music I heard apart from my Grandma’s opera records, was Gershwin, Cole Porter, and the like; the early American masters. So we’ll see. I have more regard for her opinion than anyone. She’s always the first person I play something for.