It’s not every actor who receives a “good job” email from Don Henley after his TV series premieres, but J.D. Souther isn’t your typical thespian. Sharp-eyed music fans may have done a double take when they saw Souther in the role of fictional country music legend Watty White in ABC’s addictive new nighttime soap Nashville.
A pivotal member of the L.A. country-rock posse of the Seventies, Souther recorded a handful of albums on his own, was briefly in the short-lived Souther-Hillman-Furay Band, is still close friends with Jackson Browne and, most recognizably, co-wrote songs with his friends the Eagles (“Best of My Love, ” “New Kid in Town,” “The Sad Cafe”) and Henley (“The Heart of the Matter”). Never one to court fame (despite having dated Linda Ronstadt and Stevie Nicks), Souther, 66, has largely remained under the pop-culture radar, especially once he retreated from the music business in the Eighties. But over the last few years, he’s returned to recording and touring (he just released a live EP, Midnight in Tokyo, featuring new songs and his current, jazz-oriented band), and he’s been nominated for the Songwriters Hall of Fame. And as Nashville shows, he’s also begun acting again (music fans in the Nineties may remember his stint as environmentalist John Dunaway in thirtysomething). Rolling Stone caught up with the elusive singer-songwriter at his home in Nashville, where he relocated from L.A. about a decade ago.
So what did Henley say in his email?|
He was wishing me luck on the series. It’s nice when someone from the past drops in and says, “Hey, how you been?” I never fully understand all the drama and machinations within the Eagles. But it was a nice note. He said, “Best wishes from me and the family.”
How did you end up cast in Nashville?
I flew into New York to play Lincoln Center, and while I was standing at baggage claim, my friend Rita Wilson, who sang “Faithless Love” on her new album, texted me and said, “Call when you get to town.” She said, “I’m having dinner with T Bone Burnett, Callie Khouri, Norah Ephron and all these people you like, so come join us.” I said, “I’m in Queens right now.” But the driver took me right to the restaurant, and Callie said she was writing a show about Nashville and I said, “Fantastic.” A few months went by and my agent called and said, “I got a call for you to come in to read for Callie’s new show.”
Given your low-key nature, you must have had hesitations about a network TV series about the music business.
Oh, sure. I read a script for another show like this, and it wasn’t in the groove.
So why this one?
It feels authentic to people in this world – and to every aspect of this world. Rayna’s album isn’t performing as well, and her record company is under new management and has been bought by a larger company, and they’re telling her to join up with Juliette. And they hired actors who can really sing.
What do you think the show captures about country music and the business?
It captures something about Nashville and the way country, the business and politics all co-exist in this city. It’s a cosmopolitan city, and for most of the people who live here, they’re thrilled there’s finally a show in which they escape the Hee Haw stereotype. Even back in the Seventies, people here didn’t care for Robert Altman’s Nashville. It seemed like he locked into these stereotypes.
Who‘s Watty modeled on?
Several great producers here in Nashville – Harlan Howard, Cowboy Jack Clement. They put a lot of silver and white spray in my hair. There’s some T Bone in there, too. Watty has produced and written a lot of hits, and he discovered and mentored Rayna James. He’s great at spotting talent, and so is T Bone.
Are the two main characters played by Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere modeled on, say, Shania Twain and Taylor Swift?
I think Connie would prefer the character be analogous to Faith Hill. And I was talking about the Juliette character with someone the other day and they put forth that idea about Taylor but said it seemed more like Miranda Lambert. Not being fully aware of the catalogs of those women, I can’t say.
Will you be singing on the show?
I have no idea. I was just hired an as actor. Watty seems to appear when necessary and then he’s gone. He’s sort of a Greek chorus.
Is it true that you were almost in the Eagles?
We rehearsed together a little bit in the early Seventies. It was David Geffen’s idea – that four songwriters in a band are good, but five is even better. He’s an Orwellian genius. We did a show together at the Troubadour, and I remember looking down this front line of guitar players and thinking, “This band is perfectly great without me. I’d love to just stay home and work on songs.”
You finally had a hit on your own with “You’re Only Lonely” in 1979, but after that you more or less disappeared. What happened?
I was so stunned that I didn’t put out another album for five years, and by that time, it was MTV world. MTV made a certain type of song more interesting than it would have been otherwise. It was all about production values. I thought, “It’s time to retire for a little while.” I had done what I wanted to do musically and I just thought to myself, “All the men in my family worked until they died, and I’m going to take a few years off and build a great house and have a life.” That stretched into 20 years, and I realized I’d better start getting back to work.
Since now you‘re now in Nashville, have you stopped by Jack White‘s Third Man Records store?
I haven’t been yet, but I want to. Jack and I both release our music on high-quality vinyl. My ex-wife’s daughter is on the cover of his single “Freedom at 21.” And it’s terrifying. She’s 14 and has a black wig, and they made her up to look around 20. Scary stuff for a dad.
Do you miss those legendary times in the Seventies partying with your L.A. rock friends?
I was never much of a club guy. Even when I was in New York in the early Eighties, I never was once in Studio 54. It was too noisy. My version of those years mostly took place at my house. Rather than go to Studio 54 and try to pick up a couple of great-looking models, I’d call up someone I knew there and say, “Hey, who’s there? Oh, really? Put her on . . . Hey, I’m at the Plaza. Why don’t you come here?”
Would that work?
Yeah, of course. It was a wild period of time.