“I never thought of myself as a country songwriter, really,” Jimmy Webb mused between renditions of “Highwayman”—a chart-topper for Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson—and “Galveston,” one of Glen Campbell’s biggest hits. Ironic timing for such an observation, but it’s true that Webb was never bound to any one genre: Like the 20th-century titans who preceded him, including George Gershwin and Johnny Mercer, his territory has been simply the American popular songbook.
Webb, who performed solo Thursday evening at Whitley Auditorium on the Elon campus in Burlington, is arguably the last of those legends left standing, though it has become less arguable with the recent passing of Hal David (Burt Bacharach’s longtime lyricist) and Jerry Lieber (Mike Stoller’s longtime lyricist). It was David, in fact, who bequeathed to Webb his role as chairman of the Songwriters Hall of Fame (an organization started by Mercer). Webb’s charge, as he told the Elon crowd, is to work “so that there is a place for songwriters—there is a city on the hill.”
These days, Webb is as much a storyteller onstage as a songwriter. He played for an hour and a half but delivered a mere eight songs, peppering their transitions with detailed reminiscences about colorful characters in his life. Prefacing “Up, Up and Away,” he related how his father allegedly used “a Bible and a .45” to convince an Oklahoma radio station that the song wasn’t about drugs; later, he spoke at length about the recently deceased actor Richard Harris, whose voice immortalized Webb’s oft-maligned grand opus “MacArthur Park” (yes, the “cake in the rain” song).
Along the way, Webb also performed “Wichita Lineman” (probably his most memorable composition), “Oklahoma Nights” (recorded by Arlo Guthrie) and “All I Know” (Art Garfunkel’s first solo hit), frequently pushing their conclusions with extended piano runs that brought them out of the pop archives and into the here and now. In Webb’s deft hands, the songs were malleable: They existed outside the famous recordings—which must be how they’ve always existed to him, if not to us.
And if we know his songs through the voices of other artists because of his limitations as a singer— “Most of you have realized by now that you’re probably not in for a great evening of vocalization,” he joked early in the set—there’s still nothing quite like the drama Webb invests in his own words. When he throws his head back to reach for the high notes in “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress,” it’s a signature stage move, not unlike a Pete Townshend windmill or a Mick Jagger strut. Nearly half a century after he arrived as a major American composer, Webb still gives himself over to the magic of his songs. He still reaches for that city on the hill.