On American Classics

This appeared on TheThread.com - December 13, 2010

How does a song become an American classic? It starts, of course, with the songwriter: a lyrical spark, a majestic melody, an indelible riff, something that makes a song stand out from its surroundings. But somewhere along the way, salesmanship is also involved. Somebody has to get the song in the hands of publishers, record labels, radio stations—and, often, into the sphere of the right artist to bring it to the masses.

I thought about this recently when hearing Allen Toussaint perform his signature song “Southern Nights” at Reynolds Industries Theater last November. “Southern Nights” became universally known through the version by Glen Campbell that went to #1 on the charts in 1977—but the tune might never have entered Campbell’s frame of view had it not been for the efforts of another legendary American songwriter, Jimmy Webb.

In the late 1960s, Campbell had turned several of Webb’s compositions into instant classics: “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” As Webb recalls in a conversation with Toussaint posted on YouTube, Campbell came over to Webb’s house one day to hear some of his most recent compositions. When he arrived, Webb had an Allen Toussaint record playing on the hi-fi. “He says, ‘What’s that?’” Webb remembers of Campbell’s immediate reaction to “Southern Nights.” “And I said, ‘Well, that’s Allen Toussaint.’” Campbell asked to borrow the record, and promptly was out the door. A few weeks later, his recording of “Southern Nights” was racing up the charts and into the great American songbook.

But what goes around comes around. Fast-forward to the mid-1980s: Willie Nelson is contemplating a country “super-group” project with his longtime pals Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Kris Kristofferson. They haven’t yet decided what to call it, nor what songs they might do. Specifically, they need material that will be well-suited to vocal contributions by all four of the band members.

The budding country star Marty Stuart­—who plays at Reynolds Industries Theater on March 3, 2010—gets word of this, and a little light goes on in his head. He’d heard this Jimmy Webb song called “Highwayman,” in which Webb tells the tale of a man who gets reincarnated several times across the centuries—as a highwayman, a sailor, a dam-builder, an astronaut. The song has four verses, each one voiced by a new life in the reincarnation cycle. Might this be the perfect song for Willie and his pals?

Stuart suggests Webb’s song for the project. Shortly thereafter, they not only record “Highwayman,” they also dub themselves the Highwaymen. The song goes to #1 on the country charts in 1985. (No YouTube clip for this story; I heard Stuart relate the details to Jimmy firsthand after a performance by Webb in Nashville last year.) And thus, like the life of the character in Webb’s tune, the torch between songwriters gets passed “around, and around, and around…”

By Peter Blackstock

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