From Nashville to Aspen: Songwriter Jeff Black

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Contributed photoJeff Black performs in the Nashville Songwriters Circle event on Saturday, Sept. 18, in 7908: The Aspen Songwriters Festival.

ASPEN – Having been a Nashville songwriter for 20 years, Jeff Black has seen numerous friends and acquaintances hit it big, getting a major country star to record one of their songs and watching their creation climb the charts. Black, too, has had his piece of glory. Early in his Nashville days, BlackHawk recorded his “That’s Just About Right,” which became a Top 10 hit from the band’s multi-platinum debut album.But Black has come to believe that the purpose behind his writing efforts isn’t necessarily to make a radio hit. Neither is the mere act of writing a song, no matter how well-crafted it may be or how well it expresses what is on his mind, sufficient. The ultimate goal is to present the song to listeners, see how it affects them, and create a shared experience between the writer and the audience.”That’s the wonderful thing about music – having the motor skills to play some chords, and then the circle is completed when you connect with these songs,” Black, one of the songwriters appearing in the inaugural 7908: The Aspen Songwriters Festival, said from Nashville. “I can set here all day and play music in the house, but if you can’t share it, it’s a mess.”Black’s initial attraction to music was as a means of connecting with his ancestry. His great-grandfather and Uncle Lyle had played a little guitar; his dad played banjo. The family would gather in the parlor, pull the rug back and bond through music-making. Those sessions, though, happened before Black was born; for him, they were just memories he heard second-hand. But they were vivid enough that Black wanted to find some way to place himself in that history, and at 9 the Kansas City native picked up a guitar and proceeded to drive his family nuts with his constant picking.At 17, he took it to a new level. Inspired by the Tom Waits and Woody Guthrie albums loaned by a harmonica-playing friend, by the country ballads on the Reader’s Digest records his sister ordered, and the left-of-center music – Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt – his Marine brother brought back from Okinawa, Black began writing his own songs. His first, inspired by Guthrie’s memoir “Bound for Glory,” was “Sunshine Train.” (“It probably still needs a little work,” the 48-year-old Black says of his earliest effort.)Black was struck by the fact that, on the albums by Clark and Van Zandt, the person credited with writing the song was the same as the one singing it. The discovery spurred a realization – that these people were singing about their own lives and thoughts.”I thought I should give that a shot,” Black, who appears on Saturday, Sept. 18, in the Nashville Songwriters Circle concert, with Jim Lauderdale, Gary Burr and Suzy Ragsdale, said. “I was compelled to create that music, to write what I know. It’s easy to remember the truth. In telling stories and singing song, it all comes from a truthful place.”While Black has made his own albums (four of them, with another on its way) and performs regularly (in a voice that is reminiscent of Neil Diamond and Marc Cohn), he is best known as a writer. He chalks part of that up to circumstances; he has two young kids, and hasn’t wanted to spend large chunks of his life on the road. His songs have been covered by Waylon Jennings and Sam Bush, as well as BlackHawk.While he has written a ton of songs – “I could play some pretty epic shows if I got to make a setlist of my songs,” he said – and his recordings touch as much on Springsteen-type rock as Nashville country, Black believes there is a thematic line that connects most of his work.”People are searching all the time. My neighbors, the people I know and love, there are simple things they struggle with inside,” he said Black. “I feel I’m searching. I feel like I have a shovel and a flashlight and there are a lot of questions, all the time. I don’t know if we’re privileged to get the answers, not in this realm. Maybe later.” Black looks to explore those questions in his songs; his next album, perhaps to be released in January, is titled “Plow Through the Mystic.”Though writing is often depicted as a lonely business, Black has found the greatest pleasure in using music to build bonds. He made his first album, 1998’s “Birmingham Road,” with members of Wilco. “Making that record in Texas with those guys, that is one of my best memories,” he said.Most significant has been his relationship with Sam Bush. The newgrass pioneer’s repertoire is littered with songs written by Black, including “Same Old River”; “Gold Heart Locket,” from Bush’s 2009 album “Circles Around Me”; and the title track from the 2004 album “King of My World.””He’s been my grand ambassador,” Black said of Bush (who also appears in the 7908 Festival, playing at 9:30 p.m. Friday in the Triple Threat concert with picker David Bromberg and Woody Creek musician John Oates). “He really raises the bar when it comes to musicianshio. It might be my neuroses, or my self-deprecating Irish disposition, but Sam made my songs his own. He brings something I can’t do.”It is my true and heartfelt dream to have run into someone like Sam. He loves my songs. I would trade that for all the country gold records I could fit in my truck.”

The inaugural 7908: The Aspen Songwriters Festival, co-produced by the Wheeler Opera House and John Oates, runs through Sunday, Sept. 19. Friday’s events include the New Voices Songwriters Circle, featuring Jill Andrews, Nathan McEuen, Reed Waddle and Mason Reed, at 5:15 p.m.; A Tribute to Jeff Barry, at 6:30 p.m.; Psychedelic Furs singer Richard Butler, at 8 p.m.; and the Triple Threat, with Oates, Sam Bush and David Bromberg, at 9:30 p.m. An 8:30 p.m. concert at Steve’s Guitars, in Carbondale, will feature four singer-songwriters.Highlights on Saturday, Sept. 18 include performances by Tift Merritt and Allen Toussaint, and afternoon sets at the Red Onion and the J-Bar by local musicians Dan Sheridan, Obadiah Jones, Michael Jude & John Michel, and others.Highlights for Sunday, Sept. 19 include a performance by the duo Garfunkel & Oates, a festival-closing concert featuring Oates and Jimmy Wayne, and afternoon sets at the Red Onion and J-Bar.For full program details, go to