In 1965, an eighteen-year-old Donovan Leitch traveled to Nashville to record his first single, the winding folk classic "Catch the Wind." It helped make him a star, and was covered by artists from Joan Baez to Glen Campbell. "I began in Nashville," the songwriter tells Rolling Stone. "I learned very quickly that southern music was very instrumental in this extraordinary world I entered, [and] country music led to Rock & Roll." Last year, the singer finally returned to Tennessee to record his new album Shadows of Blue, on sale now.
He revisited several unreleased songs mostly written in the early Seventies, from the early Elvis-style heartbreak ballad "The Loving of You" to the rockabilly stomper "Blue Jean Angel." "Every time I had a look at those songs, from '73-4 up until now, it was always, 'You don't touch those songs. And the only way you're gonna touch those songs is by going back to Nashville.'"
Donovan wrote those songs at a personal crossroads: the Sixties were over, and he drifted from a London mansion ("with a Rolls Royce and a BMW sports car and cockatoo's in the garden and a swimming pool") to California. Donovan finally listened to them again last year when he was looking for a special project following his induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. "I've got hundreds of [cassettes], of course," he says. "They were ready to go. When I played them, it became clear what these songs were doing was something extraordinary."
He went to Nashville's Treasure Isle Studios with engineer Peter Coleman (Steve Earle, Jason Aldean), recording the songs with top session players. "They knocked me out," says Donovan. He didn't try to replicate classic country – "I can't beat it" – he adds, but worked in some reggae strumming into "Blue Jean Angel." "I sent it to Rosanne Cash and I got a quote back. She said 'It's tradition, but it's so modern.'" The standout tracks are the heartbreak ballads like "Shadows of Blue," inspired by old Irish folk numbers, and "The Loving of You." "I heard the deep, deep beauty of the recordings of Elvis. I remember wanting to send the song to Elvis long ago," he says. Donovan also wrote a few new songs, including "Harmonica Girl," inspired by old New Orleans jug bands, and invited old friend John Sebastian to play harmonica on the track.
Next up for the singer – a couple shows booked in London and Maryland. He then hopes to play the songs at the Ryman Auditorium with some special guests. But mostly, Donovan's just happy to have released the songs. "I can plumb those depths of ballad forms, but I like to make them popular through popular sound," he says. "I think I've done that."