April 17, 2019–Even after his six decades in the industry, being the only artist ever to receive Grammy Awards for music, lyrics and orchestration, being a member of every musical hall of fame on the planet, and writing so many hit songs no one has added them all up, music legend Jimmy Webb still enjoys a compliment.
When I had him on the phone to talk about his upcoming show at the Cailloux Theater on May 11, I started by telling him, as non-toadyingly as possible, how much I admired his songwriting and that I had read both of his books when they came out.
“I am flattered by your remarks,” he said. “I’m still not immune to them.”
After that little surprise, I immediately did a deep dive into the art of songwriting. After all, how often does one get the chance to pick the brain of one of the greatest contemporary American pop composers? Webb literally wrote the book on songwriting: Tunesmith: Inside the Art of Songwriting, considered the “bible” among professional musicians.
So of course my first question was to ask the secret of writing a great song.
“If I had to choose a word, it would be ‘experience,’” Webb said. “A lot of people think songwriting is easy. They dash off a quick song or two, then start trying to get singers to do their songs. They get a lot of turndowns. But instead of writing new songs, and saying there might be something wrong with their songs, they say it’s because those guys don’t know songs.”
Eventually, good songwriters will get to the song that a singer will have to say “yes” to. When that happens, you’ll know it.
“If you write songs and don’t get an electrical, positive response right away, it’s not a good song,” he said. “You’ll know when people are ‘getting’ your song. A feeling comes over you; a feeling comes over them. It’s a whole religious experience. Usually after people hear a great song, they don’t say anything at all. They just go whoa. If you don’t get that reaction, keep writing songs. Write as many songs as you can, as many different things as you can. Put in the hours.”
He admits all of his own songs weren’t hit material.
“I had 50 songs in my briefcase when I started,” he said. “I’d written some turkeys, but so has Paul McCartney. You learn to throw out the bad ones. You try them out on girlfriends and neighbors, and see the response. The audience is everything.”
Of course Jimmy Webb is the gold standard of writing great songs. Over the decades they include “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Worst That Could Happen,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Up, Up and Away,” and “MacArthur Park.”
Amazingly, Webb started his songwriting career at age 16. He moved to Los Angeles after growing up in a small town in Oklahoma, where he always had confidence in his direction. In his book he tells the story of hearing a Glen Campbell song on the radio while driving a tractor, and announcing to his family that someday he was going to write music for Campbell.
“When I arrived in Hollywood at age 16, I had just graduated high school,” Webb said. “If someone asked what I did for a living, I said, I’m a songwriter. I hadn’t done anything, but I made the mental commitment that I was a songwriter.”
He did end up working with that other kid from a small town in Arkansas. Webb is first to admit his relationship with Glen Campbell started inauspiciously.
“I remember his first words,” Webb said. “I said, Mr. Campbell, I am Jimmy Webb. I was wearing a yak vest I had bought at the Monterey Pop Festival, and the vest hadn’t cured out just right. I did not notice this, because you become oblivious to such nuance after hours at the festival. Glen looked me straight in the eye with those piercing blues and said, When are you gonna get a haircut? Those were our first words spoken.”
But such words, reflective of their differing political beliefs among other differences, were not enough to deny their brilliant collaboration.
“We proved you can not agree politically, and not agree philosophically, but that music is the one thing that brings people together. I’ve seen it work all my life. It is like a miracle.”
Any true music fan will appreciate this show he is performing in the Hill Country–“The Glen Campbell Years.” For one, it will be a rare opportunity to learn the stories behind that generation’s most iconic songs. For another, it is a chance to hear the songs as interpreted by the man who wrote them. As he shared in the rest of this interview, it is not what you might expect.
Future column: Jimmy Webb: Singing His Songs
What Jimmy Webb–and other singers–think of his voice. Both will surprise you!
Jimmy Webb presents An Evening With Jimmy Webb “The Glen Campbell Years” on Saturday, May 11, 2019, at 7:30 p.m., at the Cailloux Theater, 910 Main, Kerrville TX. Tickets available by visiting www.caillouxtheater.com or by calling (830) 896-9393.