The Unsung Heroes of Americana is a new feature series where we take a look at some of the people, places and things that help to bring this great music to audiences everywhere. The public face of any musical genre is the recording artist themselves, they’re the ones who actively generate the music we get to hear; but, behind every successful performer, there are the people, places and objects that help to make that music accessible for an audience – the producers, the session players, the record labels, the recording studios, the live venues, even the instruments themselves; all have to come together to create the intrinsic whole experience that we get to enjoy. With this series, we want to start acknowledging these unsung heroes and encourage them out of the shadows for a brief moment in the spotlight.
We’re starting with one of the great musicians and producers of modern Americana, John Leventhal. Leventhal is a six-time Grammy Award winner who has produced albums for some of the top names in Americana and beyond – The Blind Boys of Alabama, Marc Cohn, Shawn Colvin, Sarah Jarosz, David Crosby, Rodney Crowell, Loudon Wainwright III to name just a few; and, of course, his wife, Roseanne Cash. He has produced no less than eighteen albums that have received Grammy nominations!
Leventhal doesn’t just produce. He’s a talented multi-instrumentalist who has contributed to the live and recorded sounds of dozens of artists, ranging from Willie Nelson to the Tedeschi Trucks Band, from Jackson Browne to Elvis Costello. On top of that he’s an extremely successful songwriter – mostly working in collaboration with the artists he produces, he has co-written such songs as ‘Shotgun Down the Avalanche’ and ‘Sunny Came Home’ with Shawn Colvin, the latter earning him a Grammy for Song of the Year in 1998. He co-wrote ‘Let My Mother Live’ with Mark Cohn and co-wrote every track on the Roseanne Cash album ‘River and the Thread’, an album that earned not one but three Grammys. Most recently he picked up yet another Grammy nomination, for Best American Roots song 2019, for ‘Crossing to Jerusalem’, also written with his wife.
For all his success and outstanding accomplishments he still remains a relatively unknown name for many music fans and a lot of this is down to his own quiet, slightly diffident manner. Leventhal always seems very comfortable with his place in the industry, content to be a backroom boy.
Born in New York City in the December of 1952 to a Jewish father and a mother of Irish and Cuban descent, there’s little detail to be found on Leventhal’s early life and he seemed to emerge almost fully formed into the New York session scene of the 1970s, but it was by no means as simple as that. Leventhal describes himself as a “late bloomer” in musical terms, not picking up a guitar until he was in his teens when he was inspired by the early work of The Beatles. He went to college, in Madison, Wisconsin, and it was here that he realised he wanted to pursue a career in music, as opposed to ending up working as a lawyer with his father, the scenario that was looming over him as he entered his final college year. He’d bought his first electric guitar at this time and decided to take a year off to see if he could establish himself as a guitar player, and he and some friends relocated to Colorado Springs and started a band. He soon realised that, if he was serious about wanting a career in music, he needed to be in an area where musicians were being hired. Here’s where you see the serious intent of Leventhal and his vision of his future; he wants to be a professional musician, not a star. The band was a means to an end similar to a finishing school, Leventhal has said that he needed to learn how to be in a band and the interactions that required – but he didn’t want to be in a band beyond it being part of his working process. He relocated to New York where he set about finding work and quickly landed a job with a working band. He joined Billy Vera’s band. Vera was an R&B and pop singer who’d had a number of hits in the 60s, most notably working with Judy Clay. When Leventhal joined him the hits had dried up but he still pulled a crowd and they came to his shows wanting to dance, not to sit around and listen. Leventhal has described this period as one of the most important in his career. Another member of the band was Tom (T-Bone) Wolk, an intense musician who would go on to achieve considerable success with Hall and Oates and Leventhal credits him with teaching him a lot about alternative ways to play and, perhaps most importantly, when not to play. That’s a lesson he obviously learnt well since Leventhal’s signature style has a sparse, open feel that lets tracks breathe; his productions never sound cluttered or over-produced.
His guitar heroes included players like James Burton and Ry Cooder and when he started to do session work he quickly gained a reputation as a guitarist who was able to cover a lot of roots-based styles, a position that was at odds with a many East Coast session players at the time, who tended to be more conversant with pop, disco and R&B; styles that were more in demand for commercial work such as jingles and advertising promos. Leventhal could also play those styles with ease but he offered so much more and became part of a group of roots influenced musicians working in and around New York. He also started working in Buddy Miller’s band at the time, along with Shawn Colvin and two musicians that would go on to be Dylan stalwarts – Larry Campbell and Tony Garnier.
Leventhal’s move into record production came in 1988 when he was asked to produce Shawn Colvin’s debut album ‘Steady On’. Colvin and Leventhal were a couple at the time (though the relationship, which had been going since the early 80s, ended during the making of this album); he regularly backed her on live gigs and had co-written some of the songs destined for the album, he had also produced the demo tape that helped to get her record deal, so it made sense to put him in the producer’s chair, even if he was an untried commodity. Once ‘Steady On’ was released, in the October of 1989, Leventhal’s stock rose considerably as musicians and record labels woke up to the fact that here was a producer who really knew how to work with roots-based music. Jim Lauderdale was the next recording artist to step up, as Leventhal co-produced his ‘Planet of Love’ album (with Rodney Crowell) in 1991 followed by ‘Fat City’ for Shawn Colvin and Rodney Crowell’s ‘Life Is Messy’! He first worked with Roseanne Cash on her 1993 release, ‘The Wheel’, co-writing four of the songs on the album. That same year he also produced for Kelly Willis, Marc Cohn and David Crosby. In a few short years, Leventhal had become one of the most sought after producers on the Americana scene. John Leventhal and Roseanne Cash married in 1995 and he has produced on all her albums since their first pairing on ‘The Wheel’.
Perhaps one of the records that best represents Leventhal as a producer is William Bell’s 2016 album ‘This Is Where I Live’. Bell is probably best known, to most UK audiences, for his performance on the duet ‘Private Number’, with Judy Clay; a top 10 hit in 1968. Bell was a soul and blues singer who hadn’t recorded for a major label in 30 years when Leventhal was brought in to produce a new album by the singer for the Stax label. Bell wanted a more contemporary sound that tapped into his R&B roots but was aimed at the Americana market. What a lot of people don’t realise is that Bell co-wrote (with long time friend Booker T Jones) the great blues song, ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’, made famous by Albert King. One of Leventhal’s early suggestions was that they re-record the song for the album, deconstructing the well-known signature riff that drives the song, and re-designing it as a country blues with a new riff that nods to the original but creates a different dynamic in the song. It’s an impressive re-working of the original that allowed Bell to reclaim his own song and put a different stamp on it. The album re-vitalised Bell’s career and, at the age of 78, he had a Grammy award-winning album, taking the 2017 award for Americana Album of the Year!
Leventhal has always said that he never set out to be a producer. As he told Mark Small, from Acoustic Guitar magazine, back in 2018, he “just wanted to be a songwriter and have the opportunity to make records with the songs that I wrote”. Ironically, in many ways it’s the production work that he’s done that has given him the opportunity to write with so many other artists and to make so many records featuring his songs; at the same time, it’s his ability, knowledge and understanding as a songwriter that enables him to be such a force in the recording studio.
John Leventhal is living proof that, not only do you not need to be famous to have a successful career in music but that it’s often those that work outside the spotlight who have the longer-lasting and more interesting careers. Leventhal will be 68 this year and all the indications are that his creativity is still on the rise – we can look forward to more great songs, and superbly produced albums, from this talented individual for many years to come.