Music Notes: Jackson Browne, Still Running

by Steve Houk

One of America’s most prolific and beloved songwriters keeps it real with songs for the modern times-done his way.


Artist Jackson Browne during a Live Performance

In a world where celebrities seem to change and reinvent themselves on a dime, Jackson Browne is an ongoing breath of fresh air. And given his environmental steadfastness over the past few decades, you can guarantee it’s clean, unpolluted air if he can help it.

But seriously, Browne has pretty much stayed the course over his still successful going-on-40-year career, churning out his unique brand of beautifully written-and-sung, California-tinged rock music, while also integrating in distinctly passionate songs about politics and the environment. Browne brings his stunning personal canon of classic songs to Wolf Trap’s Filene Center this Sunday, accompanied by longtime collaborator and musician extraordinaire David Lindley.

Did Browne think his fans might resent his forays into political and social songwriting, thinking it might keep him from crafting the  comfortable-as-an-old-shoe-type songs of living life to the fullest while running down the road trying to loosen his load that he was so well known for?

“For a while, my audience wasn’t sure if I was going to abandon writing about the things I had already written about,” Browne told my friend, the legendary DC-area rock DJ/aficionado Cerphe Colwell, in a 2009 interview. “You know, that I might abandon it altogether and never come back. But I think that they realized that these things are as much a part of our life than any other thing. It’s not so much whether you talk about politics but how you do it, and whether or not you’re able to engage people about the things they care about.”

Jackson Browne’s musical subject matter does run the gamut; he’s penned American rock classics like Take It Easy, The Pretender and Running On Empty while also taking an active stance on what he felt was the poisoning of America in both the political and environmental spectrums. For the most part, his fans have stayed along for the ride, embracing him for his intense conviction and firm beliefs.

Lives In The Balance, the title track from his 1986 album, is an example of how he’s taken his trademark musical style and adapted it into a socially relevant framework. Over the last few years in his live shows, he’s even added some musical and lyrical twists to reflect the impact of major events like 9/11, creating an even more powerful and pointed song than first came out almost 15 years ago.

“We have a version of this song that we do that has a fourth verse added on to it, it was written from the point of view of people in faith. I recorded it with a gospel choir and the two women who are singing it with me on this album and on tour are from that choir. The added verse asks, “I find it so strange and confusing, they take God out of our lives day by day, then tragedy strikes like 9/11, and they call for the nation to pray, but what should America pray for? For God to smite our enemies, or to heal the wounds of history and live with the world and in peace.” It’s a verse that usually gets people on their feet and gets a standing ovation, because in the context of not political but religious thinking, I think it’s something that gets to people.”

Browne is also one of those rock musicians who gets the fact that all music basically came from somewhere else. In typical Jackson Browne fashion, and much like some of his famous songwriting friends, citing Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp in particular, he pays homage to rock’s roots, and what the songs were about, whenever he can.

“Like Bruce and John, I am keenly aware that you may have grown up wanting to play rock and roll, but sooner or later you find that it came from blues, and rhythm and blues, and country, and rockabilly, and Appalaichia music. And all those people were singing about their lives, and the work that they did, and the troubles they had. So I think rock and roll’s really always been an extension of that folk tradition.”

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