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If you ask John David Souther where he is from, he may say without hesitation; “I’m from Amarillo.” But depending on who is asking, he may shrug and say: “I’m from everywhere, I guess.” He would be mostly right either way. Born in Detroit, Michigan, and raised in Texas, Souther came into his own upon moving to Los Angeles and becoming part of the burgeoning singer-songwriter scene surrounding the Troubadour bar. It was here that he met the artists who would figure so prominently in his career: Glenn Frey, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Ry Cooder, and many others.
By 1971, Souther had, in his words, “stepped into himself,” with a solo deal that gave him the venue he had been seeking. Jackson Browne had taken him to David Geffen’s house to audition for Geffen’s new label, Asylum Records: “I played David two of my best but probably not most radio-friendly pieces and he just said: ‘OK. Go make a record.’ I couldn’t believe it.” The record, John David Souther, was a critical success and established Souther as a songwriter who had definitely arrived.
On his own, but certainly not alone, his songwriting flourished. By 1976, the Eagles had huge hits with his music and Linda Ronstadt had made breathtaking recordings of his songs, some of them duets with him. But it was 1979 when Souther registered his first massive hit as a solo artist: “You’re Only Lonely” from the record You’re Only Lonely. The track hit number one at Adult Contemporary radio that year and rose as high as number seven on the Billboard Top 100. Through the 1980s, he continued songwriting collaborations with his friend Don Henley, contributing to the first three of Henley’s classic solo efforts. The 1980s and 1990s saw Souther’s songs sell another ten million units on records by George Strait, Trisha Yearwood, Brooks and Dunn, and the Dixie Chicks, to name a few.
He received a major career accolade in 2013 when he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. He also appeared on the ABC television hit drama Nashville, in the recurring role of the Zen-like producer and guru Watty White.
Recently, Souther has adopted more of a jazz songwriter persona, with records full of new and old originals recorded in a stripped-down, haunting style. He is balancing his pop and jazz sensibilities, paying particular homage to his earliest influences, the geniuses of the twentieth-century Great American Songbook on his latest record, Tenderness.
Souther proves his work holds up as well as Dylan’s or Simon’s or Lennon and McCartney’s and . . . deserves such astute re-examination.
Souther did more than sketch out the emotional landscape for the introspective West Coast country-rock sound of the 1970s. He set the template.
A pivotal member of the L.A. country-rock posse of the Seventies