How does a musician sustain their career over decades?
A decades-long career may be viewed against the context of the music industry dream machine. Supposedly, a long career can be developed if the artist earns some measure of popularity, dolls out a ‘catalogue’ of records, leverages a sustained high point against a long, slow decline in popularity.
Examples of this kind of trajectory would be Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Ry Cooder, David Byrne, Amie Mann, Jackson Browne, Shawn Colvin, Elvis Costello. I suppose a Ray Davies might count too. He’d be an example of a precipitous decline in popularity. In any case there are many examples.
There is another trajectory: where there was no great initial popularity able to serve as a foundation. Almost always–with this trajectory–this includes stop-and-start recording activity, jumping from label to label, and many days on the road. Many of my favorite artists have toiled along variants of this trajectory. Example: Richard Thompson, Bonnie Bramlett, Little Feat, Los Lobos, Geoff Muldaur. The point is: artistry and sheer force of will sustain the musical career.
John David Souther (Wikipedia) came onto the scene in 1973 as part of the L.A. folk and country rock scene. Associated with the Eagles and under the wing of the scene’s principal patron, David Geffen, he put out a strong self-titled debut record, soon enough was plugged into an ad hoc super group with ex-Buffalo Springfield, and Poco frontman Richie Furay and ex-Byrd and Burrito Chris Hillman. However, by the late seventies, radio was already headed in other directions. Souther continued to record solo records until 1984, and enjoyed a sizable hit with the single You’re Only Lonely in 1979. But the early eighties marked out a dead zone for the the country cosmopolitans of the L.A. scene, and even the radio-friendly (thus terrible,) production values, and, a handful of good songs, couldn’t reverse the downturn in Souther’s recording career.
The thing is: Souther was, is, has to be, a serious artist. Emphasis on: has to be. Most musicians are to greater or lesser degrees true to their personal, creative callings. Yet, it’s more than possible to get caught up in all sorts of damn stuff. Souther, a student of the great american song, and also, apparently, he’s a kind of traditionalist, walked away from all the entangling music industry crap.
Now he’s returned with–by far–his best record. I might go farther and say, If the World Is You is a flawless artistic statement.
The epiphany I had while listening to his remarkable comeback record, If the World Is You, released earlier this year, is that the sixty-something musical artist who has sustained by force of will a career over 30+ years, is likely in this day and age to focus their artistry on the music they have to create, and this would be irrespective of anything other than the desire to fulfill their artistic vision.
J.D. Souther is firstly a fine song writer; always has been one of the first call guys. Souther is a songwriter’s songwriter.
In Souther’s case, he’s made a superb record for grown-ups. To say that it is the best record of his career is to miss the point. If the World Is You seems to me to be completely sincere and personal. It’s main pleasures are found in how his adult themes are masterfully wrapped up in jazzy gulf coast and world beat inflections. Yet, it’s organic, and beguiling from start to finish.
If the World Is You is a report from an artist being true to his self. I feel that’s the secret of a long career.
John David Souther @myspace
John David Souther – official home
context: Debbie Kruger on JD Souther (from 1998)
His youtube page has an excellent interview.