After four decades in the spotlight, singer-songwriter-activist and double musical Hall of Famer Jackson Browne doesn’t much like to give interviews any more.
Nor does he see much need to. Browne, 64, figures that his lyrics, his well-known liberal Democratic politics and his support of the environment, education and human rights already speak volumes for him.
As he quipped in connection with his sold-out Wichita concert Sunday night at the Orpheum Theatre: “I like to save my voice for the music.”
And the music, from his 1972 self-titled debut album to anthems like “Doctor My Eyes,” “Running on Empty” and “Somebody’s Baby” to a concert tribute to the centennial of folk music guru Woody Guthrie this year, is what keeps everything going, he says.
Browne’s Wichita appearance is one of the last stops on his fall acoustic tour that kicked off last month, the day after he performed at the “Woody 100” celebration for Guthrie at the Kennedy Center with such fellow performers as Arlo Guthrie, John Mellencamp, Roseanne Cash and Ry Cooder. Browne sang “You Know the Night,” which he co-wrote with Rob Wasserman for the occasion.
In Wichita, Browne will accompany himself on guitar and piano and sing works from his entire career but with a playlist that, he says, he varies with every performance to shake things up. Backing him up will be Val McCallum on guitars and Mauricio Lewak on drums.
Opening for Browne is his special guest Sara Watkins, fiddle player with bluegrass-folk trio Nickel Creek, who is beginning to establish a solo singing career with songs like “Where Will You Be?” and “Take Up Your Spade.” She will be joined by her brother Sean Watkins on guitar and Tyler Chester on bass and organ.
Born in Germany, where his soldier father was stationed, Browne grew up in Los Angeles and, as a teen, began singing folk music in local such venues as the famed Troubadour Club and Ash Grove. After graduating from high school in 1966, he joined Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, moved to New York and hung out in the clubs of Greenwich Village for a couple of years.
Also working at Elektra Records between gigs, he began writing songs for the likes of Gregg Allman, Joan Baez, Linda Ronstadt and The Eagles, and attracted attention from Rolling Stone magazine for his “mind-boggling melodies.” By 1972, Browne quit Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, formed a folk group with Ned Doheny and Jack Wilce, and returned to Los Angeles, where he finally recorded his own first album, which included hits “Doctor My Eyes” and “Rock Me On the Water.” He’s now up to 18 albums with sales of over 17 million in the U.S. alone.
The casual, shaggy-haired Browne still has the aura of the sensitive California poet-folkie about him whose music has a distinct autobiographical flavor. Rolling Stone labeled his work as “some of the most literate and moving songs in popular music” and said they are “charged with honesty, emotion and personal politics.”
Some of his songs have personal meanings, from “The Only Child” about his oldest son, Ethan (now an aspiring actor/model), to “Sleep’s Dark and Silent Gate” inspired by the tragic death of his first wife, Phyllis Major, from a drug overdose. There’s also “Hold Out” as a tip-of-the-hat to his second wife, Lynne Sweeney (now divorced), with whom he had a second son, Ryan (now a singer and bass player).
He is also known for commemorating important events, like Nelson Mandela’s birthday with “When the Stone Begins to Turn.” But he’s not above penning slyly naughty tunes like “Redneck Friend” and “Rosie,” which have strong sexual innuendo laced through the lyrics.
But he will forever be celebrated by most fans for songs like “Lawyers in Love,” “Take It Easy,” “The Pretender,” “These Days,” “Running on Empty,” “Doctor My Eyes” and “Somebody’s Baby” that are just as much fun as they are approachable and meaningful.
While he was inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2004 and the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame in 2007, Browne considers music only part of his legacy. He co-founded the anti-nuclear-power MUSE – Musicians United for Safe Energy – in 1979 shortly after the Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident. He is frequently performing for causes such as FarmAid and Amnesty International. And he is a constant fighter for education through Success Through the Arts Foundation.
As a result, he’s been honored with the John Steinbeck Award (works exemplifying environmental and social values), Duke University’s LEAF Award (Lifetime Environmental Achievement in the Fine Arts), the Harry Chapin Humanitarian Award (world hunger) and an honorary doctorate from Occidental College in Los Angeles for a career that “successfully combines an intensely personal artistry with a broader vision of social justice.”
Despite acclaim from critics and fans, Browne says he doesn’t particularly like his own singing voice. “I always wanted to be a singer – and I’m still working on it.”