When he was first asked to contribute to Still on the Line: A Tribute to Jimmy Webb, Mike Adams said no.
“My reason,” the Bloomington singer-songwriter says, “was that I didn’t really know much about Jimmy Webb and I didn’t want to be a poser.
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- Justin Vollmar
It turned out that Adams actually loved Jimmy Webb’s music. He just didn’t realize it yet. He finally relented, and his cover of “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” manages to locate new emotional possibilities in Webb’s most famous composition, which Sinatra called “the greatest torch song ever written.” As he traces an escape route from a soured relationship, his voice heavy with regret as the reverbed drums mark the miles through Arizona, Adams conveys a paradoxical sense of excitement in the open road and the consolation of a long and lonely trip.
“I really liked the challenge of little old me trying to do justice to such a massive hit,” says Adams. “I love the impression this song leaves on me with no real chorus or hook to speak of. It passes you by, breaks your heart, and leaves you with a sense of melancholy before you even realize what’s happening. Then it’s over.”
Jimmy Webb is one of those artists who may not exactly be a household name but whose music is deeply ingrained in American culture. Starting in the 1960s and working through the 2010s, the Oklahoma native proved himself to be one of pop’s true renaissance men: a gifted arranger, a keen producer, and most of all a distinctive songwriter who traffics in unexpected images, unusual song structures, sharp melodies, and elegant hooks.
“He looks up to the classic songwriters like Cole Porter and people like that,” says Cheek, who spearheaded the tribute through his own indie label, Flannelgraph Records. “He works in the tradition of the American songbook — timeless, well-written stuff.”
Cheek is a diehard fan of Webb’s solo records in the 1970s – he recommends 1974’s Land’s End and 1977’s El Mirage as starting points for curious listeners — but he admits the songwriter’s greatest successes were billed to other performers, including the 5th Dimension, Richard Harris, even Donna Summer. In particular, Glen Campbell recorded numerous Webb compositions throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, including “Galveston” and the million-seller “Wichita Lineman,” and their friendship remains strong even 50 years later.
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- Mike Adams
He is, in other words, deeply deserving of a tribute.
Featuring new recordings by Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Nicholas Krgovich, Via Vegrandis, and Wooden Wand, among others, Still on the Line shows Webb’s immense musical range as well as the pliability of his songs, which can be bent into endless new shapes. Jared Cheek has spent the last two years pulling these artists and recordings together, but the project has been bumping around his brain for much longer.
In the mid 2000s, he worked at the Secretly Canadian warehouse in Bloomington, shipping copies of Bon Iver and Jens Lekman albums all over the world. While they packed boxes, he and his co-workers would play old records for one another, and Cheek DJ’ed Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell albums constantly. It’s no coincidence that several of his co-workers appear on Still on the Line.
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- Andrew Slater
That’s how Justin Vollmar discovered Webb, and he says he was struck by “how unique his style is.
“I was surprised by how strange his writing is in some ways,” Vollmar says. “There are so many weird images, so many off-the-wall chord choices. The production is always big and grand. He always seemed like an unsung genius.”
Vollmar covers “Wishing Now,” a track from Campbell’s 1974 album Reunion, reimagining it as a wistful duet with Amy O. The song magnifies a single moment, a single wish for companionship, and turns it into a tender meditation on longing. Says Vollmar, “The lyrics aren’t really duet lyrics, but I think it works well that way. Having two people gives it another dimension. We’re sitting at their windowsills wishing and thinking about the same thing. Even though we’re singing at the same time, there’s still this lack of connection between them.”
Also working in the warehouse with Cheek was Michael Hodges, a.k.a. Pop Zeus. “Hodges hadn’t heard any of Jimmy Webb’s solo albums before, and he really liked the song ‘Just One Time,’” Cheek says. “I remember the first time he heard that song, he started singing along super loud on the chorus, even though he’d never heard it before. So when I started the project, I emailed him and said, Remember this song?”
With its lo-fi ambience and insistent acoustic strum, Hodges’ cover is straightforward yet soulful and reflective, and he turns that chorus into something like a personal fanfare: “Just this one time, I need somebody to believe in me.” It’s a raw, ragged performance, and tragically, “Just One Time” is among Hodges’ final recordings. He was killed in a traffic accident in December 2014. Still on the Line is dedicated to his memory.
- Submitted Photo
- Michael Hodges, a.k.a. Pop Zeus
As any dollar bin will prove, tribute albums can be notoriously hit-or-miss endeavors, often crammed with uninspired tracks and misguided interpretations. So it’s all the more impressive that Still on the Line has such a strong thesis and makes such a persuasive argument for its honoree. Songs like the Cairo Gang’s “An Ocean in His Eyes” and Elephant Micah’s gloriously forlorn “Galveston” convey a downhearted yet inherently dignified sense of romantic isolation and social alienation. Webb emerges as a great poet of loneliness and longing, for whom the pop song is as sturdy and as expressive as a sonnet.
Ultimately, this is one of the very rare tribute albums works as both tribute and album. Still on the Line is an infectious celebration of an artist that you know even if you don’t know you know, but it’s also a record that you’ll actually want to listen to repeatedly, catching new details and fresh nuances with each spin.
“I think these new versions hold up,” says Cheek, “which means they were strong songs to begin with.”
Listen to Still On the Line below: