Consummate singer/songwriter JD Souther pours a lot of history into every line he writes and records. “I can’t consciously put my finger on it, but I can remember probably every piece of music I’ve ever heard,” he admits. “But it’s just at certain times, not all at once. I’m sure bits of it come out in everything I write.”
Souther — who’s co-written major hits with and for the Eagles (“New Kid in Town,” “Heartache Tonight”), produced and performed with Linda Ronstadt (“Hasten Down the Wind,” “Prisoner in Disguise”), and scored a solo Top 10 hit (“You’re Only Lonely”) — also has an uncanny knack for making a melody all his own, and he has a critical ear for just how good the finished product has to sound, especially when it comes to hi-res audio. (More on that in a bit.)
And now, thanks to Omnivore Records and label head/reissue co-producer Cheryl Pawelski, we get to revisit Souther’s own recorded canon with the triple-threat CD reissuing of his first three heretofore hard-to-find solo albums: John David Souther (1972), Black Rose (1976), and Home by Dawn (1984). They’re all also loaded with a number of bonus tracks, demos, and live takes. “We went into my massive tape vault and pulled a bunch of stuff,” Souther reports. “We wanted to get these three albums put out close together so that they could be felt as a progression and a representation of the time.”
Souther, 70, and I got on the line to discuss the improved sonics of this reissue series and his passion for high resolution and great stereo gear. Some people call it music and some people call it gold, but nobody knows how to hone a mix quite like JD does. Here are some hi-res-oriented highlights from our discussion.
Mike Mettler: Did you transfer the material used in this reissue series with high-resolution playback in mind?
JD Souther: Well, when we were putting these reissues together and looking at these old tapes, we had to cook ’em a little first before we could play ’em.
Everything we do that’s new, we do in the highest resolution possible, because the goal is to make a great vinyl master. All of my new records since 2008 have come out on vinyl. They’re mastered for vinyl, and they’re 180-gram. They sound wonderful. They certainly sound better than the CDs, and especially better than the downloads.
Mettler: Do you feel high resolution is the best way for listeners to hear things these days?
Souther: I think it’s the best we’ve got, yeah. You need the highest res if you’re going to do it digitally, and then to go through the incredibly cautious and critical mastering process to get to the vinyl. And, of course, you’re depending on your pressing plant to do a good job. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they do less than a good job, after you listen to your test pressings.
Mettler: What would you consider to be an optimal surround-sound mix?
Souther: There are two schools of thought on that. One is that the ideal listening spot is in the middle of the band onstage. I never agreed with that. I like being in the audience and feeling the band coming at me from the stage. I don’t want to hear the guitar player in front of me and the drummer off to the right of me.
I think it’s a real artform to make it serve all those masters. Personally, my preference — and maybe it’s not everyone’s — is maybe sitting on the drums in the back with the band in front, or sitting right in the middle of the audience. And not in the front row.
Mettler: I agree. I never want to be in the front like that. I want some of that natural delay coming at me.
Souther: Yes, and also, you want the sound to develop a little bit. Possibly that matters less in a medium-size hall with rock & roll when you have amplifiers and drums, but if you go watch jazz or symphonic music with upright basses, you realize the bass doesn’t even speak until it gets 10 or 12 feet out in front of the instrument. That’s why bass players seem to be rushing, even though they’re not. It just takes a moment for it to actually speak.
The same thing goes for listening to orchestral music, or any music that has any subtlety. It just takes a minute for it to develop. It needs a little bit of space for that.
Souther: Oh, that drum solo changed my life! That was the first drum solo I ever heard where the drums were loud. Also, Joe didn’t like putting those pads on the drums. Everybody tightened up those pads so they wouldn’t ring as much — but not Joe Morello. It’s an absolute clinic in sound — and obviously in drumming as well.
You just made me think of something else — the beginning of “So What,” the first track of Kind of Blue, where the bass is kind of wubby, and you can’t tell what’s going on and who’s coming in where. It’s like the beginning of a Keith Richards track: Where’s “one”? (both laugh)
Mettler: It’s great that we have hi-res options for Kind of Blue too.
Souther: If you have a really good system and a really good pressing of that record, the overtones from Paul Chambers’ bass are just stunning. They’re all over the room. That’s probably the most perfect record to listen to. It’s an absolutely flawless record.
Mettler: Hard to argue with you on that. Is vinyl the way you personally listen to music the most?
Souther: If I can get what I want to hear on vinyl, then yes. Fortunately, I didn’t throw any of it away. I’ve got a lot of vinyl.
Mettler: What kind of turntable do you have?
Souther: I had Audio-Technica as a sponsor for years, so I bought a lot of Audio-Technica stuff. (chuckles) And I had two Luxman turntables. In the guest house, I still use a big Luxman amp and tuner, and there might be a Luxman turntable over there somewhere.
But Audio-Technica gave me such great microphones, and they gave me some of their turntables too — which, by the way, are really great, and go for a reasonable price. I always encourage people at gigs to go to an independent record store and buy a turntable. They go for much less money than they had before. And if you can be bothered to go get a cartridge put in, they sound as good as the old expensive ones used to.
Mettler: I’m with you on that. I had to get the right cartridge for my reference turntable when I first bought it, and I’m glad I did. I can’t imagine dropping anything else down on 180-gram records these days.
Souther: You know something? It’s so critical. When I got the vinyl copies of Tenderness, the album I put out on Sony Masterworks last year [in May 2015], I thought, “This isn’t quite as great a pressing as it should be.” It was done by Bernie Grundman, one of the last great artists of mastering, and my producer Larry Klein was there for the cutting of it. These guys can’t think this is pretty good and me think it’s not. Sure enough, it was me using a faulty needle. I swapped it out, put it back on, and went, “Oh my God, this sounds great!”
Mettler: That can do it. I have Tenderness on CD, so I’ll have to make sure to get it on vinyl too.
Souther: You’ll really like that one. The strings are just wonderful. You have to hear the vinyl — it’s a revelation. Larry told me after he heard it, “I’m not going to say anything. Just go home and put on the beginning of the record and hear how it starts, with the string section [on the lead track, ‘Come What May’].”
Mettler: Oh man, I’m looking forward to dropping the needle on that. What kind of speakers do you have in your system?
Souther: I have four sets of speakers. What I listen to almost all the time I’m almost embarrassed to tell you — they’re the same JBL 4310s Linda and I listened to when we were living together. I also have some JBL 4311s and some Tannoys, Genelecs, and Yamahas, but the ones that I really like are these big, warm 4310s and 4311s.
Mettler: I can understand that, because if you like a particular speaker and its sound, you tend to stick with it — especially ones like those JBLs, which were built to last.
Souther: They were definitely built to last. They’re wonderful, and they’ve definitely got that deep midrange that you talked about with Linda.
Souther: My favorite stuff that Linda ever did were the three albums with Nelson Riddle [1983’s What’s New, 1984’s Lush Life, and 1986’s For Sentimental Reasons]. Those three records are just magnificent. She really studied that material for years, and we talked about it for a really long time. I remember the record company thinking it was a bad idea at the time, and she had people going, “Hey, you’re a country rock singer!” I remember saying to her, “No, you must go for this! You gotta do this!”
When we were together, we listened to those [Frank] Sinatra and Nelson Riddle records all the time. And I think she did a great job. Actually, In the car coming home from dinner last night, I was listening to her version of “Skylark” [written in 1941 by Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael and recorded by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra in 1942; Linda’s version on Lush Life was nominated for a Grammy]. Absolutely magnificent.
I’m on the record for wanting to see everything of hers re-released in the highest quality possible.
Mettler: She and I talked about that too. Cry Like a Rainstorm, Howl Like the Wind (1989) was recorded at the Skywalker Ranch, and she had to make sure it was done up to that standard. It’s one of the best recordings she’s done, studio-wise.
Souther: I think when she was recording up there, George Massenburg was engineering, right? There’s no more meticulous human being alive than him.
Mettler: Yes, he was. That was a perfect marriage there.
You can read my complete interview with Souther — which includes deeper dives into his writing with Glenn Frey and sharing golden-ear minutiae with Linda Ronstadt — on The SoundBard.