David Banks, NPR News
Randy Newman in NPR's Studio 4A in Washington, D.C.
Cover of Randy Newman's CD The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 1 (Nonesuch, 2003)
Singer and composer Randy Newman recorded his first album in 1968, and he quickly made a name for himself with acerbic and deeply felt songs such as "Rednecks," "Short People" and "Sail Away." Decades later, his wry and sometimes raw musical commentary is still a big part of the American cultural landscape.
Newman recently joined NPR's Bob Edwards in Studio 4A to talk about his long career and his new CD, The Randy Newman Songbook, Vol. 1. The album is a little like Newman unplugged — Nonesuch Records persuaded him to record songs from his early years, with just piano as accompaniment.
"I didn't think I'd enjoy it, or they'd be anything to it, but once I got into it, I did," says Newman, who concentrates on composing film scores these days. "I gave it the full 85 percent, and made it through."
Newman's songs have a reputation for focusing on the downbeat, but he doesn't just write songs of disillusionment and despair. He's also known for his finely crafted melodies and sweetly sentimental tunes, like "Marie" and "I'll Be Home."
But Newman's darker side can be utterly compelling. In songs like "Political Science," "The Great Nations of Europe" and others, he has skewered war, racism and greed in a style that combines biting humor with his unique piano playing.