Jimmy Webb Interview

An Unexpected Interview with Songwriter Jimmy Webb

On Oklahoma, reckonings, and writing two songs in one

MAY 3, 2023

Not long before the pandemic shut us all down, I reported an NPR All Things Considered feature in Oklahoma City. This story considered OKC’s Blue Door, a beloved singer-songwriter venue and nerve center for blue politics in that deep red state. The piece aired in January 2020.

Back home in Colorado, I called the Oklahoma songwriter Jimmy Webb, a regular performer at the Blue Door. Some of you know Jimmy’s songwriting well, and maybe even read his 2017 memoir, The Cake and the Rain. All of you have heard Jimmy’s hits, or covers of them, like “Up, Up and Away,” “Wichita Lineman,” “Galveston,” and “Highwayman.”

We’d agreed to briefly discuss Oklahoma’s Blue Door for my NPR story, with Jimmy recording the conversation on his end. My side of this short interview didn’t even warrant recording, I assumed.

Professionalism demands that we observe any interview parameters set in advance. Yet because of my earnest interest in songwriting and the creative process, and even moreso because of the engaging, articulate, and extremely good human being Mr. Webb happens to be, we ended up speaking about much more. The interview went on five or six times as long as planned, encompassing subjects such as:

  • Oklahoma’s indigenous and Black history and the politics of its erasure
  • How Jimmy writes two songs at the same time, or has multiple themes going in a song at the same time
  • Ambiguity in listener reception to his songs
  • Political songwriting in the 1960s versus today
  • How the Highwomen’s 2019 adaptation of Jimmy’s song “Highwayman” opened his mind and heart on certain gender issues

Just before Jimmy and I started the interview, I shared this story with him.

I come from a Kansas farm just a couple hours north of Jimmy’s Elk City, Oklahoma hometown. It was during a family visit that I drove down to report on Oklahoma City’s Blue Door. My Dad took a keen interest in this reporting trip, calling me not long after I’d left to ask about the drive.

Me: “The dirt’s getting redder as I go south, but it’s hard to see under all the fog.”

Dad: “Oh, there’s fog? What’s it like?”

Me: “Not bad.”

Dad: “Is the fog curling up around the roadside in the ditches?”

Me: “It’s a fairly low fog, Dad.”

Dad: “But is it soupy? Is it the kind of fog that seems to hold rain up there in the air?”

Dad wouldn’t let me off the hook until I’d observed and described the fog well enough for him to picture it, thereby experiencing that moment with me on the road.

“I know you’ll come home with stories,” Dad said, as more of a command than a comment. In his milieu, someone journeying a couple hours south to talk with Oklahoma folks had a community duty, maybe even a sacred one, to bring home an account vivid enough to entertain and edify their family and friends.

Dad’s formal education was a short story. He’s also a perpetually curious person whose work with land and livestock allows ample time for reflection. Like many people in my and Jimmy Webb’s rural Midwest, Dad’s a lively storyteller.

When I told Jimmy about my heartlander Dad’s expectations for description and storytelling, it may have warmed Jimmy up to me a little. He knew then that he was talking to not just an NPR contributor who’d written a book about Joni Mitchell’s songwriting but also a farmgirl from up the road in Kansas.

At age 18, Jimmy moved to California and on to broad artistic influences. Still, the core of his songwriting heeded a call to witness for seemingly ordinary folks who happen to think extraordinary thoughts. Jimmy wrote songs like “Wichita Lineman” for my Dad, after all—and for you, me, and everybody.

Just over the paywall, please enjoy the interview transcript, with Jimmy’s comments straight from the recording. My untaped side of the conversation appears here only occasionally and bracketed, a best guess based on my notes and memory. I’ll soon make the interview recording itself available to founding members. SUBSCRIBE