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09 Jun 09 J. D. Souther (with Kristy Kruger) at Threadgill’s in Austin

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By Bill Aspinwall, Austin, Texas, June 7, 2009

Threadgill’s, once known as World Armadillo Headquarters, is a storied palace of Austin’s musical heritage. It features a small outdoor venue that’s like a large side yard with a shed for a stage – from which you can read the Hooters billboard across the street. Scores of musical legends have performed here and scores continue to come.

There’s home-style cooking at the restaurant (assuming home for you is somewhere south of I-20), poorboys, sweet potato fries and fajitas. The Mexican martinis are stellar.

jd-souther-at-threadgills-austinOn this Sunday night, in this tiny venue, the crowd built up to maybe 150 or so, every row tinged with gray hair and time-creased faces. Survivors from the sixties and seventies had come to pay tribute to a songwriter with a career that reaches back for forty years.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome John David Souther”.

That introduction was met with a standing ovation. Not just the elders, but also the younger people in the crowd, even one table of graduates from East Austin’s Kealing Middle School.

J. D. Souther, though born in Detroit, was raised in Amarillo. Maybe there’s something in the water on the high plains of Lubbock and Amarillo: Buddy Holly, Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Eddie Reeves, Mac Davis, Susan Gibson, Joe Ely, Butch Hancock, Waylon Jennings and Lloyd Maines – all were born or raised on those high plains in west Texas.

Very early in his career, Souther moved to Los Angeles and became part of a musical community of friends that included Jackson Browne as well as Glenn Frey and Linda Ronstadt, hugely successful country-flavored rockers who followed in the footsteps of Clarence White, Gram Parsons and various configurations of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers.

Souther wrote, or co-wrote hits, big hits, for the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and James Taylor. Later, after relocating to Nashville, his songs got picked up and by the likes of George Strait, the Dixie Chicks, Jimmy Buffett, Bonnie Raitt, Trisha Yearwood and Warren Zevon, among others. There’s an excellent interview of Souther, originally published in 1998 in Goldmine, posted by the author, freelance writer Debbie Kruger at www.debbiekruger.com/writer/freelance/jdsouther.html. That site also includes the full transcript of the interview; great stuff.

Souther has been on tour since late 2008 to support his first release in 25 years, “IF THE WORLD WAS YOU”, released both as a CD and on vinyl in October 2008. More details about the project are available on his website.

He now cuts a gaunt figure, lean as rain in Reno, wearing a plain suit in preacher black, no tie. Three acoustic guitars, a baby grand and no back-up band. He opened the show on guitar with “Your Turn Now”, from his 1976 album, Black Rose. His whole set mixed songs from various times in his career, switching between guitar and piano.

His voice has a warm, breezy quality, sweet enough in the higher registers to have opened opportunities for Souther to sing duets, backing vocals and harmonies with many notable recording artists. His unique timbre could be heard particularly in two songs near the end of his set, “Maybe It’ll Rain” and “Faithless Love”.

Performed solo, his songs rise above any genre classifications, while incorporating elements of country, western, swing, rock and Latin styles. His influence on other songwriters like Jackson Browne, Glenn Frey and Don Henley is evident.

It was comfort of a kind to hear his performance of “New Kid in Town”, stripped of all the Eagles’ gloss – though he unfailing gave due respect to his friends in that band, saying, “The boys always made great records of my songs.” Comforting, too, was his rendition of “Simple Man, Simple Dream” also from Black Rose. Both songs reveal his extraordinary writing capabilities.

His piano playing is particularly fine; spare, gospel flavored and understated. And while his guitar playing might not merit an endorsement deal, it’s made from a sturdy cloth that suits his songs. In one song during the evening, (“Baby Come Home”), Souther tuned a string a half-step down in mid song, shifting an open major tuning to a minor for the song’s bridge, then tuned it back up for the rest of the song. Nice touch for a songwriter.

kristy-kruger_threadgills-austin1He was occasionally pestered by the traffic sounds, motorcycles roaring past on Barton Springs Road, but Souther held the audience tight throughout his set. In an age where every other youtube guitarist offers hopped up but hackneyed versions of all the modern guitar classics, its quite beside the point to bust Jake Souther’s guitar chops. No one else on the planet can captivate a crowd with a timeless song like “Faithless Love”, with that celestial tenor and a full moon rising in the east on an early June evening in Austin – that’s some kind of magic.

The show was opened by Kristy Kruger (www.kristykruger.com). She’s ostensibly from Dallas, although she’s recently spent so much time on the road that, quoting her own lyrics, “My Home is Everywhere”. She played a short set of seven songs, mining an area along the swing blues and country swing divide, maybe somewhere between Billie Holliday and Leon Redbone. She writes tight, bittersweet songs on guitar, banjo and piano and delivers them with the heavy-lidded, sly smile of an inside joke. She’s a fine performer, a good musician and a pleasant surprise – she also opened the recent show in Dallas for J. D. Souther.

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