Jimmy Webb, his father Bob Webb, and his sons, The Webb Brothers — Christiaan, Justin, James and Cornelius — debut for the first time as a three-generation family band in Cottonwood Farm, which gets its long-awaited release in the U.S. on April 24, 2011 on Proper American. The album combines the rock sensibility and youthful production of the younger Webbs with the timeless Americana grandeur of their father’s symphonic songs.
“I was sitting in my kitchen looking out into the backyard at the 100-year-old oaks that tower over our home, thinking back 50 years of the farm where the Cottonwoods grew and the tribe of young Webbs and Killingsworths who grew up like a tribe from Lord of the Flies, flinging flaming spears and digging caves in the banks of the creek. I thought about my own sons, and the fact that we are all rapidly growing older, including my father who is 86. As clear as day a voice spoke out of the heavens: “You need to make an album with your boys.” I picked up the phone without hesitation and made the call to my son Justin. It was — without question — the best decision I ever let happen,” says Jimmy Webb.
The pairing by Cottonwood Farm of the legendary American songwriter Jimmy Webb with indie-pop band the Webb Brothers — consisting of his sons Christiaan, Justin, James, and Cornelius — may have been inevitable, perhaps just a matter of time before it came to be. The Brothers first had to establish themselves in their own right, which they did over the course of three acclaimed albums and touring over the past decade. For his part, Jimmy had to square away some time after a busy stretch in which he recorded new material, oversaw a box-set retrospective of his early work, 2010’s Across the River, wrote a book about songwriting, and performed plenty of solo piano shows.
The moment for collaboration arrived in 2009, when interest in both a U.K. tour and album coincided with the availability of all family members to work together. The result, Cottonwood Farm, juxtaposes several new songs from the Brothers with a handful of treasures from Jimmy’s archives — two of them previously unreleased, including the epic, 12-minute title track. Jimmy wrote “Cottonwood Farm” in the early 1970s for his grandfather, and it proved an ideal focal point for the album, its various movements presenting character-roles for the family’s many singers (including Jimmy’s father Bob and his youngest daughter Camila). “Even though I didn’t know it at the time,” Jimmy says, “this album is the reason that I wrote this piece of music.”
Two other songs from Jimmy’s catalog proved to be similarly well suited for the family treatment. “Highwayman,” which gave a name and a No. 1 hit to the mid-’80s country supergroup featuring Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson, neatly accommodated room for the family ensemble’s multiple lead vocalists. And “If These Walls Could Speak” (covered over the years by Amy Grant, Glen Campbell and Shawn Colvin) had a strongly personal pull because its story is set within a 200-year-old farmhouse where the Webbs once lived. The album’s other two Jimmy-penned tracks are “Snow Covered Christmas,” which he wrote in the ’80s but has never before released on an album; and “Where the Universes Are,” which appeared on 1977’s El Mirage but is sung this time around by Jimmy’s son James.
The album was recorded primarily in Los Angeles, with Justin Webb serving as producer. Most of the tracks were cut on an old-school tape machine at Joey’s Place, the former site of Electro Vox, one of L.A.’s longest-running studios. Tim Walker joins the band on pedal steel and Cal Campbell on drums, continuing the longstanding Glen Campbell/Jimmy Webb family tradition of collaboration.
Jimmy Webb’s songwriting oeuvre includes some of the most oft-played and universally recognized songs of the past century. In addition to penning several of Glen Campbell’s signature hits, Jimmy wrote such classics as the Fifth Dimension’s “Up, Up And Away” and Richard Harris’ “MacArthur Park” (later taken to No 1 by Donna Summer). Over the decades, literally hundreds of his songs have been recorded by a seemingly endless range of artists, from Ray Charles and Isaac Hayes to Linda Ronstadt and Art Garfunkel to R.E.M. and Urge Overkill. His first five solo albums recently were reissued (along with rarities and a live recording) via the box set The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress: Jimmy Webb in the Seventies. As a performer, he blends his swift, biting sense of humor with elegant renditions of his timeless songs.
Christiaan and Justin began performing together as the Webb Brothers in the late ’90s, and released their first album, Beyond the Biosphere, on Warner U.K. in 1999. By the time their second album, Maroon, was released, they had brought their younger brother James aboard. All three brothers recorded the self-titled third Webb Brothers disc, which came out in 2003. Their albums received widespread critical acclaim (Magnet magazine recently cited Maroon as one of the “lost classics” of the decade). In addition, their songs were covered by the Magic Numbers and the Earlies, and remixed by Manitoba. They toured extensively throughout the world, sharing bills with bands such as Doves, Franz Ferdinand, the Eels, Guided By Voices and The Darkness.