The Roots Report: An Interview with Jimmy Webb

Okee dokee folks … When I was young, my first musical impressions came from what my parents played on the living room stereo. My father liked big band and 1950s music. I didn’t much like that stuff. My mother played the more popular and timely tunes. I specifically remember her playing the 45 “I’m Telling You Now” by Freddy and the Dreamers. It’s not a bad thing if I tell you that she used to do the “jumping jack Freddy dance” to the record, is it? Her LPs were mostly show tune soundtracks and a couple of albums by the Fifth Dimension and Richard Harris. Those two albums introduced me to the songwriting of Jimmy Webb.

Webb is responsible for composing classics like “McArthur Park,” “Up, Up and Away” and “Galveston,” and his songs have been covered by Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Billy Joel, REM, Carly Simon and many others. Webb has been active in the music business for over 50 years and has scored countless hits and garnered numerous awards. He’s written for others and released 14 albums of his own. I had a chance to speak to the songwriting genius the other day about songwriting and his upcoming show at the Z.

I asked him what to expect from a Jimmy Webb show. “Not an orchestra, no dog acts and no jugglers. Just me and a grand piano. I try to engage the audience and perform a lot from the ’60s and ’70s, but it’s not a nostalgic wallow. I put an emphasis on entertainment.” Jimmy mentioned that he could play two hours of familiar music, but he chooses to sprinkle in some interesting material. “I have been blessed with many commercially successful songs, but I want to give folks more than just the famous ones.”


During his show Webb will “pull back the curtain and let folks see the songwriter behind the songs.” His songwriting career was made by a symbiotic relationship with performers — in some cases his songs made their careers — and between songs he shares anecdotes from his experiences in the music business. He did know Elvis Presley but that won’t be one of the stories that he tells; he’s saving some for a book he’s working on. But he did include a song called “Elvis and Me” on his latest release Still Within The Sound Of My Voice. Elvis’ backing vocalists, the Jordanaires, lent their voices to the recording. That same album also features the talents of some of the biggest names in music, including Lyle Lovett, Carley Simon, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Kris Kristofferson, Art Garfunkel and Brian Wilson.

We talked about the current state of music, and he told me, “I’m not satisfied with the quality of things that I hear now.” As for the internet streaming radio services, he doesn’t have a lot of good things to say about them. He thinks that they have devalued music and are out of control. “When songs can get millions of plays and only earn a couple of thousand dollars, something is wrong.” He feels that these companies are “living off the backs of songwriters,” and I  have to agree with him as many songwriters I know echo this complaint. Webb is a fan of vinyl records. He likes “the sensual feel of the vinyl. The smell. It’s the best drug ever. I like the ritualistic aspect of operating the equipment. Digital music is completely void of sound in the silent parts of songs. This is unnatural — nothing is that clean in the real world.”

I asked Webb what was his favorite song in his own catalog. “It’s hard to pick. They change all the time. If I HAD to pick it would be ‘Wichita Lineman,’ ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress’ and ‘All I Know.’” Webb has many projects in the works: the aforementioned autobiography/book of stories, some screenplays, and a piano concerto for the Kentucky Symphony.

The prolific Webb brings his iconic hits to The Zeiterion in New Bedford for a special Stage Door Live performance on Thurs, March 26. The Z’s Stage Door series allows audiences to sit on-stage with the artist in an intimate café-style setting. If you appreciate great songwriting, this is a must-see show. Also coming up at the Z: Pat Benatar, Kathy Griffin, Abba Mania and Bela Fleck. For more, fly your beautiful balloon over to

I usually don’t pay much attention to those TV singing shows, but currently there is a talented contestant on “The Voice” who has ties to RI. I’ve written about Sarah Potenza Crossman many times in this column. Sarah and husband, Ian Crossman, have made a name for themselves in the band Sarah and the Tall Boys, criss-crossing the country playing their country-rock-blues tinged music. They were the host band at last year’s Rhythm and Roots festival and have performed at many other area venues. Sarah has a set of pipes that caught all of “The Voice” judges’ attention. I am not sure how the show works, but if it takes a vote please show her some Rhody love. Hopefully she winds up in the top spot and it raises her stature in the music biz. She has worked very hard and deserves any leg up from the show she gets. Good luck, Sarah!

Finally, here are a few other shows worth checking out this month. If shoveling hasn’t been enough exercise for you this winter, then you can kick up your heels during the East Bay Contra Dance at the Warren Armory on March 6. Cathy Clasper Torch and Dan Lanier play the music and Don Heinoid does the calling ( At AS220, The Empire Revue will present The Nature Show on Sun, March 8. If you are a fan of sketch comedy, music and just plain quirkiness, you will love this show. Also at AS220, the RI Songwriters (RISA) serves up Songwriters in the Round on Thurs, March 12. This night will feature the music of Jacob Haller, Folkapotomus, and Molly Pinto Madigan. During the third round they will present songs based on the theme of Cabin Fever ( RISA will host a showcase of performers at Sandywoods on March 8. Kayla Ringelheim, Beth DeSombre, Rick Couto and Steve Allain will play their original tunes ( Common Fence Music has rescheduled the Tall Heights show that was cancelled last month due to snow. The new date is March 14 ( Dylan Sevey and the Gentlemen, and the Horse-Eyed Men bring their indie music sound to Music At Lily Pads on March 14. Ellis Paul and Rebecca Loebe will also make a stop at Lily Pads on March 28 ( Every Tues and Sat night you can play the open mic at the East Greenwich Hotel. Mark Markrush is the master host and he brings a unique approach in meshing a ‘jam’ aspect to this open mic. He will play with and/or introduce other musicians to sit in on sets. Joann Joseph is your friendly bass-tender behind the bar, serving drinks and jumping in when she can to play bass or percussion. It’s always a fun night whether you are there to play or watch. If you are a musician and are interested in hosting the Saturday night open mic, contact Joann at 401.884.4200. It’s St. Patrick’s month and that means Pendragon is busy. This year the band celebrates its 31st St. Patrick’s Day with two shows in different parts of the state. In addition to their Blackstone River Theatre concert in Cumberland on March 15, Pendragon will perform a 2pm matinee on Sat, March 14, right after the St. Patrick’s Day Parade ends in Newport, at the Jane Pickens Theater. Pendragon will be joined by award-winning piper Torrin Ryan at both shows as well as members of Tir Na Nog Irish Dance in Newport ( The Narrows Center for the Arts keeps up its rep for holding some of the best shows around. This month you can catch these acts in concert: Jorma Kaukonen, Richie Furay, Jimmie Vaughan, and Dave and Phil Alvin (

Thanks for reading.