Jackson Browne is on a short, six-week solo acoustic tour and will be performing Sunday at the Bill Heard Theatre at the RiverCenter for the Performing Arts.
The tour, which started Nov. 1, “is about six weeks if you don’t count going home for Thanksgiving,” Browne said from Baltimore Monday afternoon.
“It’s relatively short ... I mean, it’s about right, actually, for me in my career because everybody has a family. It’s a little hard to stay out longer than that.”
Browne was born in Germany, but moved back to California with his family when he was a toddler.
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“My father was in the military before he began his family,” Browne said. “We never lived on a base or anything. My father worked for the Stars and Stripes newspaper after he was in the Army. He worked for the Stars and Stripes in Japan and in Europe.”
While his siblings went to Japan, Browne didn’t because “I was concerned I would miss something in popular culture.”
Growing up, he remembers music in the house. Both parents played piano, and so did his brother and sister. He played trumpet as a kid, switching to guitar when he was about 13.
“My whole family was musical,” Browne said. “My dad was a real music lover. He came home every day and listened to music. He had friends over and played in jam sessions. We grew up around music. But his music was jazz, especially Dixieland jazz. He liked roots music, too. When I started listening to folk music and playing guitar and stuff, he would always talk about guys he knew in the Army. ‘I knew a guy who played just like that. Mississippi would sit on the edge of the bed,’ he’d say. That’s why I played folk.”
Browne said he wanted his father to appreciate what he was playing.
“But honestly, I don’t think what I was doing was sophisticated enough for his taste,” Browne said. “That’s all right ... I grew up with a sense that... generations were hermetically sealed from each other.”
Besides playing live music, his family had a lot of records, including jazz guitar wizard Django Reinhardt, singers Nancy Wilson and Harry Belafonte and plenty of blues artists.
“My dad took me to see Lightning Hopkins when I was about 12 or 13,” Browne said. “It was really an eye-opener for me. And I bought my first record on that trip. It was a Lead Belly record.”
Even though he kept thinking his music wasn’t sophisticated enough for his father, he later changed his mind.
“Actually, I think he did,” Browne said. “He would always comment on my drummer. He loved my drummer. That’s kind of a later observation of mine. He gave me music lessons that were very far-reaching and gave value to me.”
Browne was about 14 when he started writing songs. And like most young songwriters, he wrote about what he knew — songs about girls.
A little later, he wrote a song called “Fourth and Main.”
“I wrote about this part of L.A.,” Browne said. “I went to go to get a guitar to a pawn shop I heard was a really good place to buy guitars. And it really was a legendary place to buy old instruments downtown called Eagle and Loan. It was a pawn shop that was really only about a block or two from skid row.”
He’s still playing one of those guitars he bought in the 1960s.
“That was made in the ’30s. When you find a guitar that’s really made right and it can be that old and be functioning perfectly ... I also believe that the new guitars being made now are being made as well as they’ve ever been made. It’s not always about getting an old guitar. The ones being made right now, can be even better in 30 or 40 years.”
He was older when he started writing songs with a political message
“I really didn’t write anything with a political focus for quite a while,” he said. “I had a vaguely optimistic attitude. My song ‘For Every Man’ was not very specific but to comment on a universal journey. We’re all in it together.”
Two of Browne’s best friends are Greg Copeland and Steve Noonan, a songwriting duo. “They are a couple of years older than me, and they wrote songs about the Civil Rights Movement and prejudice, what we called racism in those days. It was really an empowering thing to know people who were only a year or two older than you that wrote these fantastic songs.”
He said the duo was influenced by Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie.
“They were in the backdrop of a whole genre of folk music that was very much connected with the history of our country ... It was also a time when everybody wrote their own songs. For my way (of) thinking, it was a basic requirement for a popular musician to write the songs they were singing.”
As for today’s pop idols, Browne says even though current songs may not have a political message, don’t count them out.
“It’s not really like you have to write a song that (has) a political ax to grind to be political,” Browne said.
Browne’s 27-year-old son, Ryan, is working on his first CD.
“He sounds quite different,” the proud father said. “I really think he’s great. He’s astoundingly different from me. His melodies are incredible; his songs are lyrically great. It’s not the same narrative I write. It’s very different. It’s interesting to me.”