There is no denying that Jimmy Webb was one of the most successful songwriters of the late 60s and 70s. The string of hits he wrote for others- many of which are included on this new 13-track collection- is embedded in the social collective: “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” “Highwayman,” “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” among others.
This isn’t the first time Webb has reached back to record the songs on which he made his bones. Ten Easy Pieces was a similarly rich production and shares five songs with the current set. Setting apart the two collections is that the 1996 recording was largely a ‘solo’ vocal project, with a few guests providing background harmonies. This lushly recorded extravaganza has no such constraints, with contemporaries of Webb joining children of the 50s- who grew up listening to Glen Campbell on the radio- contributing to the duets.
Whereas the recently released Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows had the next generation examine the songs of John Prine, Just Across the River makes no similar attempt toward timeliness. Webb is singing songs he has sang several thousand times, accompanied by vocalists who are likely almost as familiar with his material.
The closest the set comes to contemporary is when Lucinda Williams- at her most yearning- vocalizes with Webb on “Galveston.” The duet format brings a sense of opportune completeness to the song, encouraging one to attend not only to the familiar but still absorbing chorus but to the devastating verses. Whether the song was written as an anti-war opus no longer matters; the song’s impact is magnified by its apparent simplicity.
Jackson Browne- riding a bit of a wave this year following the brilliant live collection with David Lindley Love is Strange En Vivo Con Tino- shares “P.F. Sloan” with Webb, and the effect- shaded with a bit of banjo from John Willis- is spellbinding. Their voices fit together and the catchy if esoteric tribute to Webb’s mentor sounds brilliant.
Other highmarks of the album are “If You See Me Getting Smaller” (with Willie Nelson) and “Highwayman” (featuring Mark Knopfler, who also contributes guitar to “By the Time I Get to Phoenix.” Within this format, there is only one singer who should sing with Webb on that number; Campbell sounds better here than he did anywhere on 2008’s Meet Glen Campbell.
Also making appearances are Vince Gill, Billy Joel, Michael McDonald, J.D. Souther, and Linda Ronstadt. Webb handles three songs on his own, including the less familiar but excellent “It Won’t Bring Her Back.”
Just Across the River is a comfortable collection of easy listening music. Don’t let that description scare you off, though. It isn’t sleepy or boring in anyway. The musicianship is of the quality that makes criticism ridiculous and the production is sound. Webb’s voice is amazingly elastic and personable, bringing life to songs that one may initially believe to have been heard enough.
What Just Across the River identifies is that Webb’s songs- with choruses so familiar that the depth of the songs is often overlooked- have stood, and will continue to stand, the ravages of frequent reinterpretation.
And why the opening reference to 1957? That was the year Vince Gill, like Webb an Oklahoman, was born- making him the youngest featured guest on Just Across the River. So, yes…the lineup of featured musicians reads like a random Billboard chart from 1980. Don’t let that deter you from exploring this release. Like Webb’s songs, the guest vocalists sound as impressive as ever.