Singer-songwriter JD Souther to play Livermore’s Bankhead
By Lou Fancher
The world’s best singer-songwriters appreciate time.
Not simply meter, syllables stretched over notes, tempo and other clock-keeper aspects of music, but the passage of time that mellows a tenor’s voice into ease and broader dynamic range.
Musical phrases and tunes pondered during a sunrise or contemplated while hiking may come together begrudgingly or spill out in a gush on occasions when the usual gear-grinding process flips and lyrics and melodies pour out like a river unleashed.
Riding that wave and a long roster of hits, JD Souther will bring his expressive music infused with pop, jazz, country rock and the Great American Songbook to the Bankhead Theater on Aug. 5. The intimate evening with Texas-raised Souther will feature selections from his new studio album, “Tenderness.” Rounding out the possible setlist, popular songs may include the title track of his 1979 album, “You’re Only Lonely,” a solo version of the 1984 duet recorded with James Taylor, “Her Town Too,” or numerous songs written for or performed by The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, Joe Cocker, Roy Orbison, Trisha Yearwood, the Dixie Chicks and others.
Inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 2013, Souther’s late-blooming television and film career expanded his storytelling capacity in appearances on the 1980s TV series “Thirtysomething,” the film “Postcards from the Edge” and as a fictional country music star, Watty White, on ABC’s “Nashville.”
“Livermore is a new gig for me,” says Souther. “I’m getting around the country, but it all starts with a song.”
“Tenderness,” he said, has a more cinematic sound than previous recordings. Inspired by Cole Porter and George Gershwin and joined on the CD by a top-tier band (pianist Chris Walters, saxophonist Jeff Coffin, trumpeter Till Brönner, pianist Billy Childs, vocalist LIzz Wright), Souther’s guitar and vocals get to expand.
“The orchestrations are beautiful, the players astonishing,” he said. “It’s the album I intended, conceived in one time period for this one album.”
In fact, Souther would have made a film, had millions of dollars been handy. Listening to the lyrics on “Tenderness,” a narrative forms, with the final track, “All Your Wishes,” serving as an epilogue. LIke a miniature almost-opera, grand themes told in simple, conversational language beg only for movement, costumes, sets and lighting.
Songwriting, Souther laments, is suffering due to the decimation and desolation of public education and society’s “Devil’s laptop” Internet addiction. “(Bob) Dylan wrote socially relevant music because people listening were educated about parsing out the meanings of things. You could write something like ‘Desolation Row,’ densely written and tons of fun to unpack, but only if people were educated enough to understand what he’s talking about.”
The fact that wealthy Americans feel comfortable cutting public education support means the general public is no longer fluent in literacy and civics, he said. And, he added, the beleaguered system doesn’t educate people to know the difference between feelings and facts.
“When Dylan and what I reluctantly call “protest songs” were being listened to, people were entering college with knowledge of American history. They understood what’s at stake. If we’re not teaching civics to this bunch of kids, it will only get worse,” he said.
“I read that the average working vocabulary is shrinking, to an eighth of what it was just 20 years ago. People no longer play songs 10 times in a row. There’s not much space for them to consider and interpret the lyrics. It’s not a typical listener’s way of sampling. There’s too much out there.”
Even so, Souther instantly pushes gloom aside when the conversation swings to Porter and Gershwin. The songwriters have brilliance, the genus of genius, Souther says. Gershwin he values for being a great classical composer writing in the tradition of pop songs. Porter he admires because he was relentless.
“I had a book of his and there are (nearly) 2,000 songs in it. Not all were good, but I love that those guys played with language. They wrote songs for Broadway that were played by the greatest jazz musicians of that day.”
Constantly learning and relentless in his own fashion, Souther says he writes songs without superstition or methodology. “Some days are yuck, but if you’re writing all the time, you’re odds go up,” he said.
Once again, it’s time — pencil or voice recorder in hand, eyes set on a sunrise or ridgelines, mindful of history, self, others, a sensation, a remembered love — that makes music happen.