Though he's one of the most underrated composers of the rock era, J.D. Souther's songs — especially those he wrote for the Eagles — are known and loved by people who may have never heard his name. A 24-year absence from the music business didn't help, but the Detroit native is back with a new album, If the World Was You, and a tour that brings him home this week.
METRO TIMES: It's been 24 years since your last album and tour. What was the inspiration to return at this point in time?
J.D. SOUTHER: Playing music and composing takes time and practice, but poetry comes up when it can. I was in Cuba in 1998 and began to work on something that became [new songs] "Rain" and "Come on Up." "The Border Guard" may have been done slightly earlier that year — don't remember. But all the writing or most began to have a feeling, not just a rhythmic feeling, but a sense that the writing was going to be somewhat informed, possibly only glimpsed, through the eyes of women. "Journey Down the Nile" also had that aspect to it, but I actually began work on that in 1973.
MT: "You're Only Lonely" is one of my favorite love songs of all time. It's absolutely beautiful. I've read you wrote it with Roy Orbison in mind. Were you disappointed that Roy never recorded it? And what did you think of Raul Malo's recent cover of it?
SOUTHER: I actually didn't write "You're Only Lonely" with Roy in mind, but for a very beautiful singer and songwriter who, it seemed to me, worried herself into knots with language inappropriate to her real issue. She was, like many artists, simply insecure about being alone. The song was written to reassure this wonderful woman that she was not, probably had never been, and would not likely be alone unless she wanted it. It was written in 1974 but never completed. And when Waddy Wachtel and I were arranging songs for the 1979 album, which would bear that song's name — the working title then was White Rhythm and Blues, I think — and he was trying to find a song of mine faster than a dirge and asked, as only he can ... something like: "What the hell, Jake, don't you have anything like, you know, a single?" I said, "Well, there's this little rockabilly thing but it has no bridge and no third verse. I played it for him. He looked at me like I was mental and I said, "But there's no third verse!" He said, "So sing the first verse again!" So I did.
I loved Roy and was honored to have known him near the end of his beautiful, sorrowful, glorious life and to have participated in the Black & White Night [HBO TV special], and to have written with him and Will Jennings. Roy told me that his wife Barbara had scoured my song to see if any of it was stolen from his "Only the Lonely." It wasn't. But it does, in fact, resemble another record of Roy's called "I'm Hurtin'." And, yes, I loved my friend Raul Malo's recording of it, which was produced by another great friend, Peter Asher, who produced my Black Rose album. If our schedules had worked out, Peter would have produced If the World Was You.
MT: You were born in Detroit before moving to Ohio and then to Texas. Why do you think so many great musical artists came from this city? Is it something in the water?
SOUTHER: It's something in the water. And the weather. And the factories — open or shut. And the farmland. And the mighty waters. And the blues. And being a Lions and Tigers fan, which only pays off every 20 years or so but, God, it's so sweet when it does! Of course, we do have the Red Wings and Pistons. And condolences to everyone on the loss of the singing mountain Levi Stubbs. What a titanic presence in music! I missed him instantly. I've honestly been dying to come back to Detroit and perform.
MT: You're almost always credited as one of the architects of the California country-rock sound. Has that label been a blessing or a curse in retrospect?
SOUTHER: Blessing and curse, in some cultures, arrive propitiously, as twins. Sometimes one is more in the ascendant than the other. To quote Thelonius Monk: "I was just trying to make it sound good."
MT: With all this reunion craziness over the past several years, any chance of a Souther-Hillman-Furay Band reunion?
MT: Bonus question: My friend, Brian Smith, a huge fan, wanted to know what was the inspiration behind your song, "Border Town."
SOUTHER: El otro, el mismo ... that is, the self, the other. The border between past and future, life and death, feminine and masculine, success and failure, known and unknown. That song will never be finished.
Tuesday, Nov. 18, at the Magic Bag, 22920 Woodward, Ferndale; 248-544-3030.Bill Holdship is music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org