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Jackson Browne is known for his lyrics and melodies, but one aspect of his work that gets too little attention is the quality of musicianship on his albums, particularly that of his accompanying guitarists. Now you don’t go looking to a Jackson Browne record for the showy rock solos you might get from an Eddie Van Halen, or the burning blues licks from a Buddy Guy. Rather, his music most often features the kind of subtle playing that winds in and out of the arrangement, complementing the lyrics, always serving the song rather than itself. Not only that, he tends to give his guitarists a lot of room to make statements of their own on his songs.
One person who has taken notice is Bruce Springsteen. When Springsteen inducted Browne into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, he was quick to mention not just the star himself, but also “his great sideman, David Lindley.” Lindley work on “Late For The Sky,” the album Springsteen called Browne’s “masterpiece,” is the epitome of the kind of playing I’m talking about. A multi-instrumentalist, Lindley accompanied Browne not only in the studio but onstage through most of the ‘70s, on lap steel and fiddle as well as guitar, and Browne told me “it would have been hard to go out and play those songs with just anybody. Nobody plays like him.”
Lindley stopped touring regularly with Browne in the ‘80s, and the singer – who wore a David Lindley/Ry Cooder T-shirt to our interview – said of their parting, “When someone like that leaves your band, you don’t replace him. You move on. You just go find some other stuff to do.”
Browne found plenty of other stuff to do, with plenty of great guitarists. There are more than can be accommodated in this space (Cooder, Jesse Ed Davis, Keb’ Mo, Mike Campbell and Danny Kortchmar among them), but below is a brief playlist featuring David Lindley and a few others among the best who followed.
Late for the Sky (1974) – It’s no coincidence that one of Browne’s best-known songs features one of Lindley’s most memorable performances. When the song is only 20 seconds old, before a single word has been sung, the guitarist has already made a poetic statement, one that continues to wind its way tenderly around the fragile lyric before adding some quiet drama to the outro. It’s not flashy, but that’s the point.
Your Bright Baby Blues (1976) – Lowell George was the heart and soul of the band Little Feat, and he turns in one of his most memorable guitar performances here with some slow-burn slide work. This song also marked the beginning of Browne’s allowing his studio recordings to run at length (it clocks in at over 6 minutes), not to stuff them with more words, but to allow the arrangements to breathe and his guitarists to stretch out.
Where Were You (2008) — On a song he also co-wrote, session ace Mark Goldenberg provides atmospheric lead lines – alternately stabbing and soaring – that perfectly complement the scathing lyrics on this indictment of the government’s handling of Hurricane Katrina. His smart, understated playing can be heard throughout Browne’s 2008 album Time The Conqueror.
Long Way Around (2014) – Though his tone and style differ markedly from David Lindley’s, Val McCallum echoes Lindley in his ability to support and elevate a song not with flamboyance but with delicate playing and a unique tone – on this track it’s distorted, yet refined and even a bit elusive. Allowing the song to run more than six minutes, Browne allows McCallum ample room for some gentle rhythmic picking on the verses as well as more than one ethereal solo moment.
Leaving Winslow (2014) – McCallum’s 6-string joins forces with Greg Leisz’s pedal steel on a country song that subtly undermines the clichés of country guitar playing, with McCallum tossing out the kind of licks usually reserved for the pedal steel, and Leisz interweaving his lines in a complementary role.
Barricades of Heaven (2021) – David Lindley’s slide guitar sound on Browne’s early records is indelible, and a seemingly impossible act to follow, but Leisz brings his own style here, accompanying Browne on a song from his 1996 album, Looking East. Offering an example of how Leisz handles the original Lindley role on the singer’s best known tunes, Browne says, “What Greg always does is, he’ll play the opening bars of the song ‘Running on Empty,’ and then just peel off and do something spectacular of his own.” Both Leisz and Val McCallum are in Browne’s touring band this year as he hits the road in tandem with James Taylor.
Tom Casciato is an Emmy award-winning director, writer, producer and television executive who has created critically acclaimed nonfiction projects that have appeared on PBS, ABC, NBC, TBS, Showtime and more. He recently directed and produced two stories within episodes of the second season of the Emmy Award-winning climate-change series, "Years Of Living Dangerously." His 2013 film with Kathleen Hughes and Bill Moyers for Frontline series, "Two American Families," was called by Salon “... one of the best and most heartbreaking documentaries” of the year. Tom previously worked at WNET from 2006 until 2012, serving variously as director of News & Current Affairs and executive producer of two PBS series, "Wide Angle" and "Exposé: America’s Investigative Reports."
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