Interview: James Robert Webb Makes the Old New Again With His Self-Titled Album
Whenever he’s feeling stuck as a songwriter, James Robert Webb asks himself this question: What would Garth do?
“Or,” Webb adds, “what would Freddie Mercury do? What would Taylor Swift do?”
Webb is a singer-songwriter in the new traditionalist vein who boasts multi-genre influences. Originally from Oklahoma, Webb was always musical, but he didn’t start seriously pursuing songwriting until 2012. When he did, however, he approached the craft almost scientifically -- which makes sense, since in addition to being a country artist, Webb also happens to be a working radiologist.
“I think as a songwriter and as a music lover, I kind of look at it as a scientist … and I analyze it,” he explains. “On one side, you just enjoy it for what it is, but on some days, you’re kind of left-brained. You’re like, 'What is it about this that works?'
“One of the best pieces of advice I got for songwriting a few years back was 'If you want to write great melodies, study great melodies,'" adds Webb, who spoke with The Boot about his influences, songwriting process and his new self-titled album that arrived on Friday (May 1).
It’s not just country melodies, either. Webb also studies international hitmakers such as Don Henley, ABBA and AC/DC: artists, he notes, who have consistently been “creating art that speaks to people regardless of race or social standing or what country you’re from.”
"If you can create something that beautiful, that compels people to come into the experience of the song with you, and they don’t even know what you’re saying, I think that’s one of the most beautiful things about art."
Webb wants to write songs of that caliber; the goal is “writing a song that is so compelling that people sing it in a language they don’t know or understand," he shares.
"If you can create something that beautiful, that compels people to come into the experience of the song with you, and they don’t even know what you’re saying, I think that’s one of the most beautiful things about art," Webb adds.
For Webb, becoming a skilled songwriter wasn’t just a dream -- as an indie artist, it was a necessity. One of the first pieces of advice that Buddy Cannon, the legendary producer who worked with Webb on his new record, gave was that most songwriters aren’t scrambling to work with indie artists.
"They’re not gonna give [you] their best songs,” Webb says Cannon told him, so if you don’t have a team of writers who can craft good songs, you’re only left with one choice: “If you want the best songs," Webb points out, "you’ve got to learn to write them yourself.”
With James Robert Webb, Webb says he’s finally found his “unique sound.” He’s matured in his songwriting, and the result is that his music no longer sounds like, as he describes it, “a karaoke of influences.”
In other words, he says, while he loves Brooks & Dunn, “[I] don’t want to be doing a Brooks & Dunn tribute album.” Instead, he says, “I would like to find a new way forward for country that brings more of this traditionalism back -- taking something old and making it new again.”
“I would like to find a new way forward for country that brings more of this traditionalism back -- taking something old and making it new again.”
Webb wants his songs to avoid a certain type of cliche. Laughing, he explains, "I call bro-country 'MadLibs': Give me a frosty beverage, give me a part of a truck you can stand on, give me a piece of female anatomy that you can say on the radio, and give me a body of water, and [you get], ‘Hey girl / Shake it on the tailgate / Throw me a cold can on the riverside.'"
Still, he’s quick to admit that “Good Time Waitin’ to Happen,” a track on his new album co-written by Shelby Lee Lowe, Rob Crosby and Cody Webb, could fall into this sub-genre. (The song “does mention Bud Light,” Webb admits with a laughs. “So I’m pointing four fingers back at myself.")
The reason he likes it, though, is that it’s lyrically clever: “It says, ‘We’re a good time waitin' to happen / So what are we waiting for?’ which was something I hadn’t heard before,” Webb notes.
“Great country songs twist lyrics," he adds. "That’s why [I am] in the country space: Because that’s what I love: really clever lyrics [that are] overtly clever but not full of themselves.”
"If I can have one person that my music touches them like I’ve had music touch me in times of need or of loneliness, or help me make it through tough times, then I really couldn’t ask for anything more."
The rest of the songs on James Robert Webb range from a “good, fun dance song” (“Now We’re Gettin’ Somewhere”) to “red dirt / outlaw” country (“Okfuskee Whiskey”) to lyrically twisty songs reminiscent of Bob Wills (“April May”). “I’ve always tried to juxtapose [styles] -- to set songs together that are different from each other,” Webb says.
And Webb simply can’t wait for fans to be able to hear the new album. "I just count myself lucky to be able to do this, because I love connecting with fans and making music like this,” he says.
“It’s the cheesiest thing in the world," Webb continues, "but … if I can have one person that my music touches them like I’ve had music touch me in times of need or of loneliness, or help me make it through tough times, then I really couldn’t ask for anything more."
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