Jimmy Webb wrote his first song when he was 13. At 16, he was working at Motown, and at 18, Webb considered himself a professional songwriter. In a career spanning more than 40 years, he's written songs for artists from The Supremes to Art Garfunkel, and he's stepped behind the microphone, too. On his latest album, Just Across the River, Webb sings some of his biggest hits with guests such as Billy Joel, Glen Campbell and Lucinda Williams.
On the new record, Webb — an Oklahoma native — sings with a twang, but he says surrendering to his natural accent wasn't always so natural. He credits Mark Knopfler for inspiring the change.
"Really, that's what comes out when I'm relaxed and not pretending to be someone else," he says.
Webb first started singing this way on his last record, 1996's Ten Easy Pieces.
"I had decided that it was time for me to stop imitating Billy Joel and trying to imitate Elton John and making these huge production records," he says.
Although Webb no longer imitates Billy Joel, the "Piano Man" does appear on Just Across the River, singing Webb's classic "Wichita Lineman." At the Songwriters Hall of Fame recently, Joel deconstructed "Wichita Lineman" line-by-line, which Webb says mortified him.
"I realized that a lot of my creative process is purely instinctual, so these things were just tossed out there without too much afterthought," he says. "Particularly in my early days, I did very little rewriting."
The new record also features Webb singing one of his biggest hits as a songwriter, "By the Time I Get to Phoenix." He's joined by Glen Campbell, the performer who made the song famous in 1967. As a young boy, Webb dreamed of working with Campbell and says that finally getting the chance was a historic moment for him.
"I think it's prima facie evidence for the existence of God," Webb says, "because for me to grow up and actually end up working with Glen Campbell is almost unbelievable."