If no Southern California country-rock troubadour ever records another heartfelt confession of love, we will be fine — because we have J. D. Souther’s “All I Want,” and that will be enough. Souther’s 1984 composition is six minutes of sublime longing, a matchless example of what his contemporaries — Jackson Browne, Don Henley, John Hiatt — were attempting that same year. Its unfussy lyrics (“And with no mistakes or few / The world could last the year or two / Till then all I want is you”), delivered in Souther’s plaintive, brown-butter voice and backed by a sleepy electric piano, is the study in tenderness those other guys aspired to.
The song closes Souther’s stunning fourth album, Home by Dawn; he wouldn’t release another solo record until 2008’s If the World Was You, recorded with a jazz ensemble and banjo picker Bela Fleck. “I thought of it as a well-earned vacation and a way to maintain my sanity,” Souther says of his nearly quarter-century hiatus. “I never put out albums that close together, anyway, and I didn’t like being on the hamster wheel of write-record-tour, trying to create something that would get on the radio.”
Souther, who’s playing a pair of shows at Musical Instrument Museum this month, got plenty of stuff on the radio, most memorably his Top 10 hits “You’re Only Lonely” and “Her Town Too,” a duet with pal James Taylor. He declined an offer to join The Eagles in the early 1970s, but co-wrote many of the band’s biggest hits (among them “Best of My Love,” “Heartache Tonight,” and “Victim of Love”).
The pressure to make hit records of his own was minimal, Souther says, because he had one label executive to deal with: his pal David Geffen, who signed Souther shortly after launching Asylum Records in 1971.
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“I felt absolutely no pressure about being commercial while making that first album,” Souther recalls. “David said, ‘Go make a record.’” That record, released in 1972, offered 10 Souther compositions, including “How Long,” a twangy anti-war protest song that was serviced to radio as a promo-only single. “We thought that would be a hit,” Souther says with a warm chuckle. “And it wasn’t. Then, 35 years later, it was.”
He’s referring to the nearly note-for-note cover of the tune recorded by The Eagles, who’d played the song live in early concerts, for their 2007 reunion album. “How Long” won a Grammy the following year.
Other singers have mined Souther’s solo catalog for meaningful lyrics set to haunting melodies. His former girlfriend Linda Ronstadt famously recorded “Faithless Love” and “Prisoner in Disguise” and “White Rhythm and Blues”; the Dixie Chicks covered “I’ll Take Care of You” (from Home by Dawn) in 1998.
“I was in Cuba when that one came out,” he remembers. “I came home to find this multi-diamond record for something like 11 million units sold.” Nicolette Larson and later George Strait covered Souther’s “The Last in Love,” which he co-wrote with Glenn Frey. “That one sold a bunch of copies,” he says of Strait’s version. “That’s a beautiful record.”
Like many of his contemporaries, Souther has overseen new vinyl reissues of his back catalog. “It’s awkward at first, because you tend to listen the same way you did when you were making the record in the studio, listening for mistakes,” he says. “Not a great thing to do many years after you release something. If you can listen without the critic on your shoulder, it’s delightful.”
Even while he’s making new music (2015’s Tenderness is a gorgeous collection with chamber arrangements that might have been written by Nelson Riddle or maybe Don Costa), Souther understands that an audience wants to hear hit records. It is, he says, our desire for “soft-core comfort.”
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“You want to get off the same way you always have,” Souther says. “I get it. The best thing that can happen in a concert is to be fulfilled. But it’s not as much fun to string together a bunch of radio hits as it is to tell a story and weave in the songs relevant to that story. So there’s some improvisation, different tempos or a different way to sing the songs that I hope is fulfilling to me and the audience.”
Souther doesn’t perform “All I Want” in concert, but its themes of longing, its lyrical smarts and straightforward melody are there all the same, in other compositions delivered by the same warm, generous voice.
“People who think of me as an artist best represented by the '70s of Linda Ronstadt or Bonnie Raitt or The Eagles deserve to hear what they know me for,” Souther muses. “But I’ve got to get up on that stage and make myself happy, too. I like to think I get that balance right, and we all leave happy.”
J.D. Souther performs at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, July 17, and Wednesday, July 18, at the Musical Instrument Museum. Tickets are $48.50-$53.50 at mim.org.