Flight of the Spirit: A Conversation with Jimmy Webb

written by Brent Thompson

Detailing Jimmy Webb’s hit songs, accolades, and overall impact on pop music would require a separate article. Still, the following list will give you an idea: Grammy Award winner – Song of the Year (1967), Grammy Award winner – Best Country Song (1986), National Academy of Songwriters Lifetime Achievement Award (1993), Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame (1990), and Great American Songbook Hall of Fame – Songbook Award (2013). To date, he is the only artist to receive Grammy Awards for music, lyrics, and orchestration. But of all of the accomplishments in his distinguished career, Webb’s partnership with singer/songwriter Glen Campbell perhaps remains his calling card. Together, the two artists collaborated on a successful run of hits, including “Wichita Lineman” and “By The Time I Get To Phoenix.” These days – in addition to recently releasing an album of covers titled Slipcover (S-Curve Records) – Webb is celebrating the life and music of his late friend with his “Glen Campbell Years” tour. On Saturday, November 2, Webb will perform at The Lyric Theatre. Recently, he spoke with us by phone from his New York residence.

Jimmy, thanks for your time. How are you doing?

Jimmy Webb: I’m doing fine. It’s a beautiful day here, and I’m soaking up some rays.

Are you home right now or on the road?

Webb: I’m temporarily – very temporarily – at home. We live on the north shore of Long Island in a place called Bayville – it’s greater Oyster Bay, New York. It’s right on the Long Island Sound, and we have our little patch of rolling hills and beautiful trees. We also have a beautiful beach that we walk down to behind our house. It’s a small town. We’re about an hour from New York City, but it’s small-town America.

We are really enjoying Slipcover. Had it been on your mind to record an album primarily of other artists’ material for some time, or was this a recent inspiration?

Webb: It really came out of my association with Linda Ronstadt and the fact that we had always talked about doing a special set of songs. The first one that she really wanted to do was “Accidentally Like A Martyr” by Warren Zevon. We kicked around different ideas, including Randy Newman’s “Marie” and all of these inside songs – really the creme de la creme. Misfortune struck in a big way, and it appears that [Linda] will not be recording. I still had these songs rattling around in my head, and I thought about Linda and Warren. Believe it or not, Warren and I were going to write some spiritual, inspirational songs together. So, you take all of that, and it amounts to an album that was never made.I was hanging with Randy Newman out in L.A., and they cooked dinner for us one night at his place. I was playing his piano, and he said, “I didn’t know you were such a good piano player.” I don’t think about myself as a great piano player, but he said, “You should make a piano album.” So that was added to the mix, and I said to [Webb’s wife] Laura, “I think I would love to do this. I don’t have to sing, and I can do piano arrangements, which I love to do.” It’s just me plunking out these tunes that I love. I’m a sucker for the classically-tinged rock/fusion thing, so that’s one of the ingredients. The other is the slip key, which is a stylistic contribution of country music. It’s a kind of bending of the notes on a keyboard. So, it’s a little classical, a little Floyd Cramer, a lot of beautiful melody and chord structure and no singing. It was a labor of love and a flight of the spirit.

Was it a challenge to select just a few songs from the vast amount of material at your disposal?

Webb: Yes, it was, and I plan to do another three or four of them. We had no label – It just all happened. One of BMG’s subsidiaries – S-Curve – said, “We’ll do it.” I think we’ve done pretty well with it. It’s the first thing I’ve ever had on Spotify. I’m sort of behind-the-times with all thetechie stuff. I just got a big crate of L.P.s with the full-size artwork, and it’s almost pure vinyl. I did my own album cover – I did a self-portrait. The fans – I call them “Webb Heads” – they’ve been snatching them up. The numbered albums have been flying off the shelves at the concerts.

You touched on Spotify, which leads to my next question. Given the industry changes you’ve witnessed over your lengthy career, how do you view technology’s place in music and in your career specifically?

Webb: When I first got on the ASCAP board 20 years ago, we used to think that it was going to be nirvana because computers were going to enable us to locate a performance of any one of our songs. I’m talking about “We” as the community of songwriters. We were excited about that ability to track a performance of “By The Time I Get To Phoenix” in Borneo and get paid for it, and it hasn’t quite turned out like that. There were so many things that happened to us that were adverse that, to this day, one has to say that the impact of digital technology on the average songwriter was catastrophic. We’re down at least 50% on the catalog income that we depended on.

Your friendship and musical partnership with Glen Campbell is well-documented. If you will, please talk about the origin of “The Glen Campbell Years” tour.

Webb: Not long after Glen died, we did a tribute show for him. I decided that – for as long as I could play the piano – I had to keep his music alive. The show is pretty simple – it’s me and a piano and some storytelling. It’s a little self-indulgent [ laughs ]. But, thanks to technological advancements, we are able to do some multimedia things, and Glen appears in the show a few times.