Interview: Danny O’Keefe on making circular turns and having a good time

Still writing new songs in his ninth decade and celebrating his catalogue.

Singer-songwriters write songs, and that is exactly what Danny O’Keefe has been doing all his working life, and he is still doing it in his ninth decade. He very quickly established his credentials when he included the now classic ‘Goodtime Charlie’s Got The Blues’ on 1972’s ‘O’Keefe’. Over the years he has been covered by artists including Elvis Presley. Jackson Browne, John Denver, Willie Nelson, Leon Russell, Michael Chapman, Steve Forbert, Chris Hillman, Waylon Jennings, Donny Hathaway, Judy Collins, and that is only scratching the surface of the covers of his songs. While he has continued to write songs he has released his songs on smaller labels from the ‘80s onwards having been on Atlantic and Warner Brothers in the ‘70s. Sunset Boulevard Records have released a double album, ‘Circular Turns’, which includes a selection of his releases since 2000, and a live performance from a house concert recorded in Minnesota.  Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Danny O’Keefe at his home in Washington State over Zoom to discuss ‘Circular Turns’ and why he continues to write new songs.  He explains that he still occasionally plays live for fans he considers his friends, but that long road trips are no longer part of his life. Finally, he explains how his co-write of ‘Well, Well, Well’ with Bob Dylan started from a less than serious premise when he was a staff writer at Dylan’s Special Rider Music.

How are you, and where are you?

I’m fine, and I’m at home on a little island in Washington State between Seattle and Tacoma, and it is a beautiful fall day here.

Why haven’t you retired from music, what keeps you going?

It is what I do, it is like being alive because if I didn’t play music I don’t know what else I would do. When I come to my office the first thing I do is pick up my guitar, and it is probably for the same reason I picked it up so many, many years ago, and that is it satisfies something very deep inside.

You seem to have ploughed your own furrow during your career of over 50 years.

Well, I’m sure there were ghosts that I followed. We are all influenced, and we follow those influences until we find ourselves, and I think that is what most people do. One of the best pieces of advice I got early on was to not pay attention to my contemporaries, and that’s been solid advice for all these years. I think you are better off not looking at who’s your competition because nobody is really your competition except yourself, and those deep influences and the inspirations that bubble up from time to time and bring you that information that allows you to create. The worst thing you can do is write a song by Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones because they’ve already done it better than anybody else can do it.

You have been covered by many great performers some of whom are great songwriters in their own right, Willie Nelson, Leon Russell, Charlie Rich, Chris Hillman, Elvis Presley, Waylon Jennings and your song with Dylan. What does that mean to you as a songwriter?

I’ve never been covered by Dylan, but I’m happy I share a copyright with him on a song we didn’t really write together. All of those people you mentioned, when someone finds something in one of your pieces that resonates within them. One of the greatest honours you can have, and all those people I have profound respect for and some are dear friends, is when they record something of yours that they love or they think it is a piece of business. For whatever reason they do it, it is the greatest honour you can receive.

What’s your relationship with ‘Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues’ which came early in your career and could now be said to be part of the Great American Songbook?

I always love it when people cover it. It is the same thing, it is a profound compliment that they are paying you that they’ve found something for themselves in something that resonated from deep within you. I think of it as one of my oldest friends, I still play it and I find new things in it. Not so much new music, but sometimes new nuances in it, and I’m so glad it came to visit.

Where did the idea for your new album ‘Circular Turns’ which contains a studio album of your newer songs, some of which have been released before, and a live album covering your whole catalogue?

All of it is the idea of the founder, and producer, of Sunset Boulevard Records, Len Fico. He came to me out of the blue, I didn’t know who he was, and he had a fondness for the music and he’d put together a set of the recorded songs. Some of them had been on albums, but they weren’t readily available and I don’t think a lot of people had heard them. I was very complimented that he wanted to put them out, and hopefully gain a larger audience. I’m not really able to do that myself because I’m not the best of businessmen, and that is fairly obvious. They are going to see the light of day and I hope people like them. Some of them are written with close friends of mine, some are written just by myself, they are just all sundry songs I’ve been recording since 2000.

There seems to be a number of co-writes, why did co-writing become attractive to you as you got older?

That was intentionally so. I used to go to Nashville quite a bit, though I rarely go there now, and part of the way the business works there is that you write with other writers, and ideally it optimises the chances of having your song covered by having publishing companies approaching artists, that’s the theory of it anyway. The other part of it that I really enjoyed, and still enjoy, is that sometimes we get pretty bored with ourselves and stumble into ruts, especially as guitar players and a lot of the people I would write with were keyboard players, and they would approach a song completely differently than I would. Just hearing the different tonal qualities or the different progressions can inspire you into a different idea, and that is sort of the reward of collaborative writing, new pathways open up that you hadn’t thought about before.

I’ve got to ask about your Dylan co-write ‘Well Well Well’.

I was a contract writer for Bob Dylan’s company in the ‘90s, a company called Special Rider Music, and the woman who was running the West Coast offices called me up to tell me she had a demo that Bob wanted to see if I could write lyrics to. I don’t know whether that was the gospel truth but that was her story and I didn’t know any different, and when I heard the tape it was fairly simple with Bob saying a couple of words on it as he was indicating a chord change, “Well, well…”, to whoever he was playing with. I thought I was being put on a little bit and I appreciated the humour of it, so I added another well and made it a song about groundwater. It is a serious song, but the origin has a degree of humour in it.

What were your thoughts on hearing those songs from the 2000s again?

I don’t listen to my own work very often, but I listened to it this time because it was being put on an album and I wanted to make sure that the thing was balanced and it seemed right. I don’t go back and listen to my songs much other than the ones I play live, and that’s a different context because I’m usually just playing with an acoustic guitar rather than a full band, but to be honest, most of them I love. They were really fun to record, some were recorded simply but all of them were recorded with friends and not under the auspices of a big record company with demands that you had to find a single before they would release the record. It’s kind of not like that anymore, and it is the joy of making music, and when I listened to them I thought they all held up. I like ‘em.

The live side is a house concert, what is special about playing to such a select audience?

The other disc on it, yes, is at my friend Glen Elvig’s in St. Paul, Minnesota. I’ve referred to Glen’s concerts as the Carnegie Hall of house concerts, he is an artist in his own right and he has redesigned his house, particularly the living room of his house, to be a concert hall that holds 100 or 110 people, maybe a little more. It has a beautiful stage, and great lighting and sound, and I regard the people who come there as friends at this point. They are enthusiastic, they know their music and they appreciate it, they are not drunk, and it is a luxury to have those kinds of venues to play.

Who selected the songs?

These are all the songs that Len Fico liked, it is his list. I don’t think I added anything to it, and only because of length, I think one song got taken out. I’m not sure how many are on it now, 16 or 17, or something like that. It is a good broad spectrum of what I’ve been doing since 2000.

Your early stuff isn’t so easy to get physically these days, does that annoy or disappoint you?

Well, I don’t have any control over it. Part of the problem, as most artists know with the odd exception, is that the company owns your masters and you lose the right of control over them, whether they go into some back lot storage facility or they get put up on Spotify, or wherever, you largely don’t have any control. I think most of my stuff is up on Spotify, with maybe some exceptions, but the companies that release most of that are in completely different places now. Atlantic and Warner Brothers, and smaller labels, don’t exist actually. It is just part of the history, if they can find a venue for it and people like it, great, but it is a little late in the game to worry about anything other than you hope they appreciate it.

How often do you play concerts these days?

Not very often. I played more often before COVID destroyed the music business, though it is coming back. The main thing was that COVID made it intimidating to have a house concert with a hundred people or whatever, and it probably wasn’t wise to do that and part of the business just shrunk, it went away essentially. The opportunity for opening up for bigger artists and bigger venues kind of went away too. Everyone pulled in their horns for the three years COVID decimated everything, and tried to stay healthy and creative, and that was about as good as you could do. It is beginning to change now but the other aspect of it is doing a show and then driving 400 miles to another show, and to do that repeatedly will kill you, both figuratively and literally. So you have to pick your venues the same way you have to pick your battles and hope people come and the sound is great and another one comes along before too long.

You mentioned earlier you are still writing songs, do you have any plans for them?

We’ll see after this double album comes out, we’ll see how it is received. I have 20 or more songs, and out of those there are at least 14 or 15 that I really love, and I can see being released. They are recorded in demo format at this point, and it is a question of whether there is any interest as to whether I issue them in an official manner. They are part of a legacy that I want to be available in some format.

This may be an unfair question, but what is your favourite cover of one of your songs?

There are a bunch of them, but I think it has been for a long time and it still is in a way, and that’s Waylon Jennings’ recording of ‘Goodtime Charlie’s Got The Blues’. I knew Waylon Jennings and I liked him very much, and I admired him, he was an original, and he’d been a bass player for Buddy Holly, he was a legend. I just like his version, he did it like himself whereas most of the versions that you hear of that song are very close to my arrangement. Some of them are even recorded with the same musicians, the Memphis Boys, that I recorded with. So, for somebody to find their own way through the song is part of the experience of hearing another person do it. It is a fine compliment when they do record it, but if they make it their own, that goes way above and beyond that, and I thought Waylon did.

You were one of the first artists to take a proactive approach to environmental issues. What is your view of the current state of the environment?

Well, it is chaotic and we don’t seem to learn very much from history because we do seem to repeat it over and over again. The Earth will take care of itself, and whether we are important to it or not will be evidenced through history. I hope we make wise decisions that save ourselves, and all our fellow creatures on the planet, but it is something that has already been put into process, and whether we can change something for the better is hard to know. It is like can we stop war, it does seem that we can’t because it is something intrinsic to our nature, whether it is the territorial imperative or whatever. You can’t go nuts worrying about it, you can do whatever piece that you can find and try and make it better, but in the end, it is what it is, and like Pandora, we will hope that hope still remains in the box.

We like to share new music with our readers, so currently, what are your top three tracks, artists or albums on your playlist?

I don’t listen to contemporary artists and songwriters, or people who do what I do, because I’ve never seen the value of it, and it can be dangerous to a writer because, in your creative process, you are easily influenced, and what you want is to have an influence resonate deep within you. If I listen to Bruce Springsteen or I listen to the Rolling Stones or the Beatles, I get affected and influenced by them, so I prefer not to listen to them. The stuff I tend to listen to, particularly lately, is things like Bill Evans ‘At The Village Vanguard’ with Scott LaFaro and Paul Motian. He was magnificent and he was unusual, an almost classical American artist. His work with Miles, John Coltrane, and Cannonball Adderley, and in the trios he worked in are just beautiful pieces, and I can listen to them over and over again, and I often do. Jan Garbarek is another person that I like a lot, a Danish saxophone player, and I’ve listened to him for years. Again, it’s those things that kind of transport me aesthetically, I guess, for lack of a better word, that take me into a space and the space is creative I suppose. Whatever I write from that influence will have no bearing on what they do because I couldn’t play with them on my best day. That is part of the creative process, in the same way when you read writers, one of the guys  I last read, Cormac McCarthy, ‘The Passenger’ and ‘Stella Maris’ was a double book, and it was very influential. How that ends up affecting me in terms of the creative process I have no idea, but I was completely absorbed in it. I still go back and marvel at the tricks he was able to play that take some time to discover as a reader. He is a brilliant writer, one of the great American writers.

Is there any chance you will get over to the UK and Europe or is that a trip too far these days?

Playing is always up to whether someone asks. It is not something I would initiate on my own, but if someone thought there was a reason, and somebody thought it was viable and financially worthwhile for them. Those are long trips to get on to a plane and fly across the world. I wouldn’t say I wouldn’t do it, but I don’t have any plans to do it.

Is there anything you want to say to Americana UK readers?

I hope that they can find this music somewhere, steal it if they have to, and pay for it if they can’t. I hope they enjoy it and these are all songs that are important to me. Some are re-recordings of older work, and like we said, there is a live CD, so if you want to see how I defend myself with just a guitar and my voice that will be evident as well. You can just hope it finds an audience, that’s the best you can do. The new album is my biggest concern, and getting most of my attention these days, I hope people like it, and then I will go back to working on the new one as soon as I can.

Danny O’Keefe’s ‘Circular Turns’ is out now on Sunset Boulevard Records.

About Martin Johnson 414 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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weak knee-ed willie

I haven’t thought of Danny O’Keefe in years. thanks for bringing him up