Three J.D. Souther Reissues Remind Us How Good He Is

J.D. Souther's songs are better known as sung by other people, which is good for his bank account but puzzling if you've heard his fine LPs. I wouldn't be surprised if more people nowadays know of him from his acting on the TV series Nashville than from his career in music. If there's any justice, these three reissues will redress that imbalance.

After this Texan moved to L.A., he teamed with Glenn Frey in the band Longbranch/Pennywhistle (they kept co-writing songs after Frey founded the Eagles, notably "New Kid in Town"), lived upstairs from Jackson Browne, and dated Linda Ronstadt.Browne told him to audition for David Geffen, who'd just started the Asylum label, and that led directly to 1972's John David Souther. Its original ten-song program, which kicks off with "The Fast One," one of three Souther songs Ronstadt recorded on her 1973 eponymous album. The other tracks are less well known, but fans of '70s L.A. singer-songwriter country rock will find them all worth hearing.

The songwriting sometimes features more complex chord progressions than usual for country rock (notably on "Some People Call It Music"), and even on a blues progression, Souther's melodies gain impact from the way he juxtaposes them against the chords with his phrasing to achieve a richer sound. Souther does all the vocals, and while he usually keeps it simple, check out the dense harmonies he overdubs on the aforementioned "White Wing." It says something about how rich in talent the scene was back then that an album this accomplished didn't take the nation by storm.

Aficionados will already be familiar with this debut, but will want to pick it up for the seven bonus tracks, which include an alternate take of "Kite Woman," demos of four songs on the original LP, and demos of two songs that didn't make the cut ("I think we went in with 13 or 14 songs," he says in Scott Shinder's excellent booklet notes, which makes me wonder what the other one or two were, because that's how I am). The sound even on the album, co-produced by Souther and Fred Catero, though well fleshed-out country rock, is pretty basic, putting the focus squarely on Souther's songwriting and communicatively inflected singing, though there are colorful cameos by fiddler Gib Guilbeau (Flying Burrito Brothers), harmonica player Joel Tepp is featured on "White Wing," and guitarist Wayne Perkins contributes piquant bottleneck slide on one track.

After that, Souther spent a few years in the supergroup Souther-Hillman-Furay Band. They broke up after two albums and he was back on his own for 1976's Black Rose. The production this time out, by Peter Asher (who'd helped make Ronstadt and James Taylor stars), was more ornate, the arrangements much more varied stylistically -- consider that the first track is reggae-tinged, and later there is one song ("Midnight Prowl") on which jazzman Donald Byrd plays flugelhorn, Little Feat wildman Lowell George plays slide guitar, Souther and Andrew Gold both play ARP String Ensemble synthesizers, AND there's a ten-piece string section plus the usual guitar-bass-drums. Throughout the album, the supporting session players are top-notch -- plenty of Waddy Wachtel guitar, for instance. Souther says in the notes (again excellent, again by Schinder) that "the catalyst was Joni Mitchell saying...something about my work not having caught up to my ego," and there's definitely a feeling of ambition here.

The most familiar tracks are again songs that Ronstadt recorded: "Faithless Love" (from before Souther's recording) and "Simple Man, Simple Dream" (which inspired the title of her 1977 album Simple Dreams). In some ways the centerpiece of the album is the anomalous "Silver Blue," which starts as a duet between Souther's vocal and Stanley Clarke's virtuoso double bass playing (including chording). Eventually Souther adds a little acoustic guitar and a lovely but low-key arrangement with two violas, cello, French horn, tuben horn, and flugelhorn contributes subtle colors. It stands out not only because is it so sparely arranged, but also for its gently self-reproaching, extremely wistful lyrics. This too had already been released on a Ronstadt album, but Souther's daring arrangement here outstrips the more straightforward (though still quite fine) Ronstadt version. Again we are given seven bonus tracks: a 'live' reading of "Faithless Love"; "Cheek to Cheek," a collaboration with Lowell George released on one of the latter's albums; and five demos, none of them Black Rose songs, one being the original version of S-H-F Band's "Border Town."

Souther's next album, 1979's Columbia release You're Only Lonely, is not part of this reissue series aside from its "Songs of Love" being heard in two versions among the Black Rose bonus tracks. Instead we skip ahead to his fourth album, his only '80s release. It mixes a kind of neo-rockabilly on uptempo tunes (most effectively on "Night"), '80s production sheen on well-crafted mid-tempo tunes ("Bad News Travels Fast" is so '80s it hurts, but it hurts so good), and a few of his most deeply affecting ballads, notably the gorgeous "I'll Take Care of You," which is mostly just Souther singing and accompanying himself on piano, with the lightest filigree of guitar added by Billy Walker. The notes indicate that this album took about three years to be finished, started three times and abandoned before a switch to Nashville sessions eventually wrapped it up. I'm going to guess it's the only album to come out of Nashville to include a lyric using the word "parvenu" (in "Bad News Travels Fast").

There are only four bonus tracks this time, which is frustrating. Oh, they're good: a duet with Ronstadt that was used on the soundtrack to Urban Cowboy, the demo for "I'll Take Care of You," and two outtakes from the Nashville sessions, including the Rodgers & Hart jazz standard "Little Girl Blue," which fits right in. But the liner notes, again by Schinder and again featuring Souther talking about the album's genesis, make the original demos sound great: "Waddy Wachtel and I had been listening to rockabilly music constantly for about a year, so we recorded these demos in my living room on two-track, with Waddy and Danny Kortchmar playing guitars and Kenny Edwards playing bass, and with me playing drums and singing at the same time. The demos had this great tube-amp sound...." Later he comments, "At the time, I thought the songs would have been better served if we had just released the demos from my living room." I suppose there are some minor infelicities in the performances that kept him from doing that, but at this point they would make excellent bonus tracks. Well, I'll be an optimist and hope that they were held back for release as a stand-alone album. - Steve Holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. Last year, his soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days was heard at the film's debut screening at Anthology Film Archives, and more recently at the Lausanne Underground Film & Music FestivalThe CD of the soundtrack  was released in August by MechaBenzaiten Records (distributed by Forced Exposure).