The 1980 film The Idolmaker chronicles an fictional music svengali from the early rock and roll era who creates teen music idols with his management and songwriting skills. The movie's last scene ends with him finally singing his own songs in a smoky bar to only piano accompaniment. Those that have watched that scene from the film will understand some of the intent behind JD Souther's new album Natural History.
Souther's family moved to Amarillo, Texas when he was a very small child, and he spent his youth growing up there and playing in local bands before heading west to make it in the LA music scene. He initially formed the duo Longbranch Pennywhistle with Glenn Frey. Later, Frey would meet Don Henley to form the Eagles while Souther embarked on a solo career. Both the Eagles and Souther would sign with David Geffen's fledging Asylum Records and release their debut albums in 1972.
Despite a series of strong solo albums and a brief time spent with the attempted Souther-Hillman-Furay Band "supergroup", Souther settled into the 70s LA music scene as a hit songwriter for others. Considering that LA in the 1970s was the mecca for singer-songwriters, Souther remains one of that era's greatest songwriting voices even despite the fact that Souther had but one hit of his own, the title track to his 1979 record You're Only Lonely.
Souther wrote songs with his friends in the Eagles ("Heartache Tonight" "Victim of Love"). He also began a romantic and collaborative relationship with Linda Ronstadt during her strongest and most successful period in the 70s. Souther's musical relationships with Ronstadt and the Eagles serve as equidistant points along the song circle that makes up Natural History.
In 2008, Souther set the stage for his latest recording when he released his first album in 25 years. If The World Was You was a jazzy, relaxed album of new songs. On Natural History, Souther takes that same approach and applies it to some of the most important songs in his catalog thus providing the play on words in the album's title.
The Eagles ("Best Of My Love" "The Sad Cafe" "New Kid In Town") and Linda Ronstadt ("Faithless Love" "Silver Blue" "Prisoner In Disguise") are well represented with songs that need no explanation to anyone who has listened to the radio in the last few decades. The remaining songs are from Souther's solo albums including his lone hit "You're Only Lonely".
Souther moved to Nashville several years ago, and the town seems to have rejuvenated him. It's likely that Nashville today is closer to what LA was like in the 70s. It's a writers' town filled with fantastic musicians who know how to support the song without overwhelming it. Seeing names like Jerry Douglas, John Jorgenson, Bryan Sutton, and Viktor Krauss on the album's credits tell you that the musicianship will be superb, and it is. The songs are stripped to their elemental essence.
Natural History is not merely an exercise in re-recording old hits, however. Like that final scene from The Idolmaker, Souther's songs find a new relevance in this austere setting allowing the listener to experience songs that we've all heard hundreds of times before and see them in a new light.
Throughout their years of enormous success, the Eagles were savaged by critics who called their music misogynistic and mean-spirited. Some of that criticism even spread to Souther since he was one of the band's main songwriting companions. As we stand more than three decades out from the Eagles' career pinnacle, hindsight allows us to look on that era much differently.
Souther, Henley and others grew up in the music scene as it became the multi-million dollar corporate business it is today. Many were like Texans Henley and Souther - young kids from smaller cities and towns getting their first taste of big city temptations and big city cruelty. As Levon Helm said in describing his first time in New York City, "it's an adult portion."
Imagining a young JD Souther arriving in LA at the dawn of the 1970s, everything must have seemed possible. A few years later, he had friends that became stars, others who stayed unknown, while he stood in between, anonymously making hit records for others. It shouldn't be surprising that a certain level of world-weariness might have crept into his lyrics.
The Sad Cafe, which was the last song on the Eagles final album until their recent reunion, told a story then that seems to be prescient now:
Now I look at the years gone by and wonder at the powers that be
I don't know why fortune smiles on some and lets the rest go free
And baby now that time has drawn the faces I recall
But things in this life change very slowly if they ever change at all
There's no use in asking why, it just turned out that way
So meet me at midnight baby inside the Sad Café
By presenting some of his best known songs together, sung by his lone voice and backed with restrained accompaniment, all the various stories that he weaved through his songs from that period become a unified theme, providing a window to the past and taking us all inside the mind of a young songwriter trying to make sense of crazy LA 70s scene.
With Natural History, JD Souther has succeeded at a most difficult task. He has made the familiar new once again.
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