As the writer of such rock classics as the Eagles’ “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and “Already Gone,” Jack Tempchin is one of the most revered songwriters in the business — a songwriter who stumbled upon his job almost by accident.
“I was just a guy who went to the coffee house and listened to everybody,” he tells Rolling Stone Country. “I didn’t play guitar until I was about 18. I would play a blues song and my friends who were actually good players would come up and say, ‘What the heck did you do to that song?’ So I started just writing my own songs so no one could tell if I messed them up.”
Those songs began gaining attention in the coffee houses of San Diego, where Tempchin and his pals were hanging out. That’s where he met legendary singer-songwriter Hoyt Axton.
“He was a hero of mine and then became a friend of mine, and he was just awesome in concert,” Tempchin recalls. “So I threw a little party after the gig, and he was there. I played this song for him [“Circle Ties That Bind”], and he started doing this song in his show. So it was other people wanting my songs, learning them and playing them and after that happened three or four times only then did I go, ‘Oh, maybe I’m a songwriter.’ Not like these days where everyone picks up a guitar and they just assume they are going to write all their own songs. It was different. I waited until people said, ‘Yeah! We want to do these.'”
Over the years, Tempchin has had his songs recorded by a diverse list of artists, including George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Patty Loveless, Tanya Tucker, Olivia Newton John, Tom Rush and Glen Campbell. It all started for him on the coffee house circuit in the late Sixties and early Seventies. “At one point, I was running open mic nights at three or four coffee houses and making a living doing that,” he says. “And then Glenn Frey and J.D. Souther came down to play at one of the coffee houses. That’s how I met them and Jackson Browne. . . Then I don’t know why, but every coffee house in San Diego closed in 1972, so I was faced with the challenge of what to do with my life. That’s when I started to go up to Los Angeles and hung around the Troubadour, which was really happening.”
Tempchin’s big break as a songwriter came when his pal Frey heard a new song he’d written and wanted to record it with a new band he’d just formed. “When Glenn put the Eagles together, he came by Jackson’s house where I was and I was playing my new song. He asked what that was and I put it on a cassette for him. He said he had a new band and they’d only been together for eight days. They were working up some songs and wanted to play them for the record company and he wanted to work that song up. It was ‘Peaceful Easy Feeling.’ He came back the next day and said, ‘Here’s what we worked up. How do you like it?’ I thought it was incredible! Then they took it to different label heads and they put them three feet from the band in this tiny little rehearsal thing. They did a show and got signed. . . and then they became the Eagles.”
“Peaceful Easy Feeling” became the third single released from the Eagles’ debut album and went on to become one of their most iconic hits. Temchin came up for the idea while playing a coffee house gig in El Centro, California. “The waitress said I could go home with her later, and then she disappears,” he remembers with a laugh. “I’d already told my friends to leave, so I got stuck sleeping on the linoleum floor of this mini mall coffee house and that’s when I started the song. I started writing all these lyrics on the back of a poster [advertising my show]. The poster is in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame now. I wrote some really stupid lyrics at first that weren’t any good and then I kept writing and all of a sudden I noticed I had written the phrase ‘peaceful easy feeling.’
“When I went back to San Diego, I was falling in love with a lot of beautiful women, and I tried to put each one of them in the song,” he continues, “but the rest of the story is my genius friend, Glenn Frey took the song and put just the right musical arrangement, just the right attitude. He recorded it in an amazing way so you feel like you are out in the desert. That’s another reason why everybody likes the song is the amazing job he did of figuring out a perfect way to record it — and his great singing on it.”
The Eagles, J.D. Souther, Jackson Browne and Tempchin are considered among the architects of the Southern California Sound that defined much of America’s musical landscape in the Seventies. When asked if he was aware at the time the impact they would have, Tempchin replies that Frey “probably” did, only because of his vast knowledge of all genres of music.
“He knew all the players, all the songs, and he had a sense of bringing it all together, like country music that he loved,” Tempchin says of Frey. “And then there were other people in front of the Eagles who were doing the same thing — the Byrds, Crosby, Stills and Nash. . . They were taking country and rock, and it was being blended. The times happen, and you are just on the train. Sometimes you see where it’s going, sometimes you don’t. But we knew it was great and we knew it was going somewhere.”
Though Tempchin wrote “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and co-wrote another early Eagles hit, “Already Gone,” with Robb Strandlund, it was 10 years before he and Frey started co-writing. “The Eagles took a vacation in 1980 and Glenn called and said, ‘Come on over and lets write some songs. The first night I go over there, he has a hundred candles burning and some great bottles of red wine and I go, ‘Glenn, what’s going on? Do you have a date later?’ He said, ‘No man, the songwriter muse is up there. We’re going to write some songs and I want her to come down and hang with us.’ I think we wrote ‘The One You Love,’ our first hit that night. . . One thing about Glenn, unlike anybody else, he could somehow see and sniff out the woman’s point of view to a song, like ‘The One You Love’ or ‘Lyin’ Eyes,’ and it was just so fortunate for me that my great friend also turned out to be one of the greatest songwriters of our time. So together we started writing and we wrote most all of Glenn’s hits [including] ‘Smuggler’s Blues’ and ‘You Belong In The City.’ It was a fantastic time.”
Tempchin’s next album on Blue Elan Records will be a tribute to Frey, who passed away last January. “I’ve been working on this album of all the hits I wrote with Glenn and it’s coming out in January,” he says. “Some of the songs I did exactly like the Eagles, because that’s the way we wrote them and that’s the way I want to hear them. And then there’s going to be five or six songs I wrote with Glenn that never got recorded Unfortunately, it won’t be Glenn singing them. It will just be me, but I still want to get them out. I’m looking forward to that.”
The Frey tribute follows One More Song, Tempchin’s album released last month that finds him returning to his troubadour roots. He co-wrote the title track, a soulful story song, with Keith Harken of Celtic Thunder. [Watch the video for “One More Song” above.] And instead of typical album promotion for the project, he continues in his oddly wonderful tradition of playing pop up shows, where he writes songs on the spot and shares them immediately with the audience. “Everybody does crazy things and they don’t know why,” he says, laughing. “I like to play on the street and just have people walking by. I was up in L.A. and I passed this place that said ‘for rent by the night,’ so I rented it out for two nights and created a pop up club. It was free to get in and people just came in off the street. They didn’t know what was going on. I make up all the songs, on the spot for the whole gig. I’m not going to play any songs I know or any songs I’ve already written.
“Why do I like doing stuff like that? I don’t know, but I do,” he continues. “I still go down to the beach every other day or so and play songs down there, and sometimes I go downtown and play on 5th Avenue in San Diego. It’s just fun.”
Tempchin is on the road this fall, where he actually will play tunes from One More Song. Check out his tour dates here. . . just don’t check out his guitar playing too closely.
“I was never a very good player, and it didn’t bother me. It’s all about, ‘Here’s my new song and I’m trying to get it across. Do you feel my new song?'” Tempchin reasons. “If I had been a better guitar player, I’d been more concerned, ‘Am I playing good?’ If I’d been a better singer like millions of people are, they’re going, ‘How does my voice sound? How is my phrasing?’ But I really wasn’t. I was only concerned with reaching the people with the song and making that connection. That’s what carries over for me and what’s important about a song when I write it. There’s a million ways to write a song. There’s a million reasons. I always focused on the communication part. I try to get people’s hearts and make them feel something that I was feeling when I wrote it. Maybe that’s why my songs are still here.”