A songwriting legend who recorded two exceptional studio albums.
Singer-songwriter Paul Siebel died on 5th April and while he only released two studio albums and one live recording, he is one of the great what-if artists because after an unbelievable start to his career things quickly unwound meaning he never achieved his full potential, but the quality and influence his two studio albums had on country rock, folk rock, and subsequent sing-songwriters is immeasurable. Not only did his albums have great songs that have stood the test of time, but they have also been covered by an incredible list of influential artists including Jerry Jeff Walker, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, Waylon Jennings, Emmylou Harris, and Leo Kottke to name a few. As well as the quality of his songwriting, Paul Siebel’s two albums ‘Woodsmoke and Oranges’ and ‘Jack-Knife Gypsy’ included some of the greatest roots musicians of the time including David Bromberg, Richard Greene, Weldon Myrick, Clarence White, Buddy Emmons, Russ Kunkel, Bernie Leadon, Doug Kershaw, and David Grisman and therefore managed to capture lightning in a bottle with the emerging sound of roots americana and country rock.
Paul Siebel was born in Buffalo, New York, on September 19th, 1937, and got caught up in the folk revival of the ‘50s. He moved to New York in 1959 but was soon drafted and returned to Buffalo on his discharge, before making another move to New York and Greenwich Village in 1962 where he eventually played his first professional gig in 1965, playing traditional songs in a coffee house. He has cited Dylan as giving him the impetus to start trying to write his own songs. Greenwich Village in the ‘60s was full of aspiring songwriters, and it was a friend, Jerry Jeff Walker, who recorded the first Paul Siebel cover when he recorded ’Louise’, a story song inspired by the truckstop whorehouses Siebel had seen in his army days. Another friend, David Bromberg, recorded a set of demos that found their way to Jac Holzman of Elektra Records. It is said that Holzman doubted Siebel’s determination to make it in the music business, and that is why he only provided a limited recording budget for Paul Siebel’s 1970 debut album, ‘Woodsmoke and Oranges.
The small recording budget was key to the album’s artistic success because it meant that the songs had to be prepared well in advance of going into the studio, but the actual recording had to be done quickly which helped add spontaneity to the sound. While various songs on the album were covered by other artists and the sounds were a roots music lover’s delight, it was not a commercial success and Paul Siebel remained on the folk circuit. Electra funded the recording of a second album, 1971’s ‘Jack Knife Gypsy’, which matched the artistic high of his debut but with a band built around guitarist Clarence White. Again, commercial success was not forthcoming, and Paul Siebel became depressed and succumbed to some bad ‘70s habits. He continued to play around the folk circuit and occasionally with friends, and there was an abortive comeback in 1978 with a live recording with David Bromberg, ‘Live At McCabe’s’. He gradually withdrew from music, ceasing songwriting first, before eventually working for the Maryland Parks Department and playing only very occasionally.
In interviews, Paul Siebel has questioned why he allowed his career to evaporate after such an artistically successful, though he appeared to reconcile himself with his own bad decisions. Whatever the personal demons that derailed a very promising career, the two albums recorded at the start of the ‘70s stand with the best of the early roots influenced records of the time. Also, not only were his songs popular at the time of recording with other artists, his songwriting has continued to influence subsequent generations of songwriters such as Butch Hancock. He was reputedly the inspiration behind Kris Kristofferson’s ‘The Pilgrim, Chapter 33’. There is little benefit in pondering the what-ifs of Paul Siebel’s abortive career, it is better to just simply enjoy what he did achieve on his two Electra albums, which contain some of the best roots music ever recorded.
Thank you for this fine tribute to Paul. He was a musical icon and inspiration to a small but dedicated band of us musicians/singers from the US and beyond, some of whom were his friends as well. Since this is online and can presumably be edited, I just wanted to point out that the name of his (major) record label is Elektra, with k not c, and to ask whether it’s really necessary to mainly describe his projects and career as abortive, unsuccessful, as unfulfilled potential, etc., as all too many people do. As songwriter, singer, musician, Paul did the remarkable work he did in the period of time he was able to. Of course we wish he’d continued, and especially that he’d had more recognition and satisfaction from his work, but I think we do his wonderful opus and performances a disservice by continually describing it as unsuccessful. Paul had a close family and many friends, and also loved working outside as he did for many years. While acknowledging the hard road he also walked, I’d love it if we could just appreciate what he did do without looking so sadly at what he didn’t. Thanks for listening. All best, Michael (American and longtime resident of Scotland).
Thanks for this informed reply. Elektra was a predictive text oops moment which I’ve corrected. Any sense of failure I was highlighting was from a music business career perspective and not from an artistic perspective. Paul’s two studio albums stand shoulder to shoulder with any produced at the time, and deserve to be continually available for future generations they are that good in my own view. I’m sorry for your personal sense of loss over Paul and appreciate your personal insight. The challenge now for Paul’s fans and friends will be to keep the music he created alive for new fans to enjoy, a Tribute Album would be a wonderful thing. However, I do wonder about what might have been if Paul had been able to record and release more albums.