I have a lot to say about this album, so strap yourselves in. First off, I should tell you that Jimmy Webb has no bigger fan than me. He is far and away my favorite songwriter, and has been since I first heard “MacArthur Park” in 1968. He is undoubtedly one of the most important songwriters of the last 50 years. I own pretty much everything he’s ever put his name on be it vinyl, cassettes, CDs, or his 1998 book Tunesmith. Everyone has their personal Jimmy Webb. He’s mine.
Based on all of the above, I must admit to a little bit of disappointment when I received my copy of Webb’s new album Just Across the River (E1 Music). Don’t get me wrong, anything new from Webb is welcome in my home, it’s just that there’s not all that much that is new on this album, at least in terms of the songs. Do we really need new versions of “By the Time I Get To Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman,” or “Galveston,” which, while great songs, are among the most covered songs in musical history? Then there’s “P.F. Sloan,” another great song, but one that has been recorded by Webb himself a number of times already. After all, it’s been five years since Webb’s last album of new material, Twilight of the Renegades, and I’ve been waiting patiently for something new.
So those are my reservations. Of course not everyone is a rabid fan like I am, and there are some people who, believe or not, are not familiar with this great American artist. If you’re one of them, there is no time like the present to jump in. In recent years it’s become fashionable for artists to make duets albums, for better or worse, and Just Across the River is Webb’s entry. He’s gathered some A-List pals to help him out, including Vince Gill, Billy Joel, Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams, Jackson Browne, Mark Knopfler, J.D. Souther, Linda Ronstadt, Popdose favorite Michael McDonald, and Webb’s greatest interpreter, Glen Campbell.
As far as I can tell, the only song that is completely new is the duet with McDonald, “Where Words End.” There are a few songs that are new to me, though they’ve been recorded by others. These include “Cowboy Hall of Fame,” and “I Was Too Busy Loving You,” both of which appeared on Campbell albums in the last few years, and “Oklahoma Nights,” which was recorded by Arlo Guthrie back in the ’80s.
What makes all of these songs, old and new, sound fresh, is that producer Fred Mollin has set them in a country frame that features dobro, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, and pedal steel. It’s a decision that makes perfect sense since Webb’s songs have always evoked visions of wide open spaces and homespun truths in my mind. It doesn’t hurt that there’s a great cast of musicians on board, including dobro wizard Jerry Douglas, and in-demand Nashville session players like Stuart Duncan (fiddle, mandolin), Paul Franklin (steel guitar, dobro), and Bryan Sutton (acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin). As you might expect, the album sounds great. It’s as if these songs have come back home where they belong.
The duets are. for the most part, successful. Willie Nelson brings great sensitivity to the mournful “If You See Me Getting Smaller I’m Leaving,” and Glen Campbell proves that age is no barrier on a re-reading of “By the Time I Get To Phoenix” that also features a languid Mark Knopfler guitar solo. Jackson Browne was born to sing the tribute to his songwriting contemporary “P.F. Sloan,” and despite the several earlier versions, he helps to make this one is definitive. There’s a very nice collaboration with J.D. Souther on the sadly beautiful “I Was Too Busy Loving You.” I’m not quite as sold on Billy Joel’s contribution to the oft-recorded “Wichita Lineman” though. I’m not sure that Joel has the requisite vocal sensitivity to do justice to the lyrics.
“Where Words End” is that welcome new Jimmy Webb song, and I’m so happy to have it. The guy’s never written a song that I don’t like, and this one is no exception. Michael McDonald proves to be the perfect vocal foil for Webb, sticking mostly to what he does really well, i.e. providing exquisite harmony vocals. There are a couple of songs that aren’t duets, and of these, it’s great to hear Webb sing his heartbreaking classic “Do What You Gotta Do”, which was covered so perfectly by Roberta Flack way back in 1970. I thought that “It Won’t Bring Her Back” was a stone country classic when I first heard it on Webb’s 1993 album, Suspending Disbelief, and hearing it again only reinforces that view. Some smart cowboy crooner should cover the song today. It’s a guaranteed hit.
Reservations about the lack of new material aside, Just Across the River is the sort of tasteful, stunningly beautiful work that I’ve come to expect from Jimmy Webb. If you love great songwriting, there is simply no way to go wrong by picking this up. If you’re like me, it will take up permanent residence in your head, your heart, and your music player for the foreseeable future. Make no mistake though, I’m still hungry for more new songs from Mr. Webb.
I told you I had a lot to say. Thanks for indulging me.