Q Magazine

The Record That Changed My Life: Steve Carlson on Jackson Browne's 'For Everyman'

"The last line [of 'These Days'] is beautiful: 'Don't confront me with my failures / I had not forgotten them.' It's like, 'How do you write that at 16 years old?'"

wills q template
Source: Greg Giannukos

Steve Carlson, in the recording booth.

Link to FacebookShare to XShare to Email

Steve Carlson has been a singer-songwriter for more than two decades now...and that's actually undercutting it considerably, given that he actually started writing songs when he was still on the cusp of his teen years. Let's say, then, that he's been a professional singer-songwriter for more than two decades, both on his own and, more recently, as part of the duo Radio Company, wherein he plays alongside Jensen Ackles.

2023 was a busy year for both Carlson and Radio Company: the latter released both a studio album (Keep on Ramblin') and a concert LP (Live from Nashville), while Carlson managed to sneak in a solo release as well, the holiday EP, Christmas Wish. Thankfully, he was still able to find time to chat with Q and deliver an in-depth conversation about the Record That Changed His Life: Jackson Browne's 1973 album, For Everyman.

Article continues below advertisement
wills q template
Source: Steve Carlson

Steve Carlson in his home studio, brandishing his beloved Browne.

I'm guessing that your enthusiasm for our conversation is pretty high, given that you actually went out and bought another copy of the album specifically for this.

Steve Carlson: You know what? When I went to go look for it last week after we emailed each other, I realized that I don't have any of my records in alphabetical order, and the OCD in me just went crazy. It was in the morning, too, and I got up, I had a cup of coffee, and I was, like, "I can't deal with this." And also it makes me not use my record player as much because. I think, "I have to go search for the album, I'm gonna have to go through all the albums to find it." And, y'know, I had sections where, like, when I'd see a Jackson Browne record or a Nina Simone record or something, I'd put them together. But I didn't have them all in order. So I ripped the whole thing out and I just started over. So it's just kind of funny that this actually motivated me to do it. But as I went through, I realized, "Wait, I've got, like, five Jackson Browne records, and I don't have my favorite one?!" So I ordered it.

When you brought up albums that changed your life, For Everyman is kind of a no-brainer for me, this one, and I'll explain to you why as we get going, but for one, it inspired me to be a songwriter but also, as I started diving into why it it's had such an impact on me, I started learning a lot of new things about it that were kind of fun and I'll share them with you whenever you want me to.

Article continues below advertisement

Well, first of all, I'm just curious how you found your way into Jackson Browne in the first place? Because for me, it was just by virtue of "Lawyers in Love" being in rotation on MTV at the time.

I was really fortunate to have parents who had really good taste in music, so I grew up listening to the Beatles and a lot of that California country sound, like the Byrds, the Eagles, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, a lot of that type of music. And Jackson Browne was on heavy rotation when I was a kid. And an admission came years later from my mother, who after getting over the... [Hesitates.] You know when you reach that age where it's, like, not weird and icky knowing that your parents had sex? [Laughs.] Basically, after years of me playing this record and being obsessed with it, she's, like. "I have to tell you something that might freak you out a little bit." I said, "What?" She said, "That album... Your dad and I played it on heavy rotation a lot during the time that you were conceived." So I don't know if it's some weird thing where, like, she might have played it a lot when she was pregnant, so maybe I was hearing it even before my birth? But it's always resonated in a really beautiful way.

I also have a real fondness - bordering on obsession - with lyrics. I mean, I love jazz, I love classical, I love music that doesn't contain lyrics and words. But if it does, I focus on them and concentrate on them, and I generally don't like a lot of music that doesn't have good lyrics. If it has lyrics and they're mind numbing and/or mundane, I can't listen to it. That's why I'm not a huge fan of a lot of pop music now. I feel like it's a lot of repetition and not a lot of depth. Whereas with this album, there's poetry throughout the entire thing.

It's funny, I ran into a friend the other night at a Christmas party, and...you mentioned that you saw the the Instagram post that I did the other day where I talked about this album. Well, this friend of mine, he came up to me - I've known him for probably 20 years - and he's, like, 'Man, I have to talk to you about that cover [of 'These Days'] you did. That's one of my favorite songs by Jackson Browne, and I just loved it. I've listened to it multiple times."

Article continues below advertisement

And we started talking about the lyrics, about the fact that Jackson Browne wrote that when he was 16 years old, which blows my mind still. I think that the song itself, lyrically, is so mature and profound that it really think it's mind-boggling that without that much life experience he was able to write a song like that. And so we were going through the lyrics, and I brought up, "These days I seem to think a lot / About the things that I forgot to do / And all the times I had the chance to." And he goes, "Well, what about the last line?" And the last line is beautiful, which is, "Don't confront me with my failures / I had not forgotten them." It's, like, "How do you write that at 16 years old?" [Laughs.] "You haven't even had any failures yet! You're 16 years old!"

Have you ever heard Nico's version of the song?

Of course, yeah. And I love it. I love it because it's different. That's one thing, too, as a producer and a musician, I always find it a sign of respect when you cover someone else's song and you do it your own way. I've never liked it when artists cover other people's music and it sounds just like they did it. It reminds me of karaoke. You've got to put your own thing on it. I mean, first of all, why wouldn't you want to? But second of all, out of respect to the person who wrote the song, I feel like you should kind of do it differently.

Article continues below advertisement

What's funny is that I think the first time I ever heard "These Days" was, in fact, a cover. I think it was the 10,000 Maniacs version.

I don't think I've ever heard that one!

It was on the Elektra Records tribute album (Rubaiyat), where all of the artists on Elektra Records at that time did covers of songs by artists who'd been on Elektra over the years. So 10,000 Maniacs chose to do "These Days."

Oh, that's awesome! I think I've only ever heard Nico's version and Gregg Allman's version. And, of course, Jackson Browne's version. You know, I'm actually going to put that in my list of notes to check out, because I love 10,000 Maniacs.

Article continues below advertisement

But to jump back to having to order another copy of it, of course I found myself listening to it again, and I've noticed a lot of stuff about this record. I knew that sonically it changed my life, but I realized some things about him that I think unconsciously inspired me. For instance, my production company's name is Rocking Chair Entertainment, and I always thought I named it exclusively because I inherited a rocking chair from my grandfather that I loved, and I would write music in it all the time. I love the feeling of rocking and playing music at the same time. So when I went to form my company, I was, like, "You know what? That rocking chair is such a centerpiece to what I do..." But if you're not familiar with this album cover, he's in a rocking chair...and he's in a house that his grandfather built. It was his childhood home in Highland Park, California. Also, when you pull out the album, he's missing from the photo, which I think it kind of interesting. I don't know if he was trying to say something with that, but as profound as he is... I mean, he's an interesting guy, so you never know!

I love a lot of the production of the album, and I love the chord progressions. Also, I'm really a big fan of albums, as opposed to singles, and this is truly an album. The segues to the songs... He was very thoughtful in the keys of the songs and segueing them so that they had a flow. He goes from "I Thought I Was a Child" into "These Days," and the way he segues them, he leaves "I Thought I Was a Child" on this vocal, a sort of acapella thing, where there's no resolve...and then it goes right into that chord progression of "These Days." So the whole album feels like one really big song. I mean, Pink Floyd did that, the Beatles were really good at that. Abbey Road is a great example. So many great records that I love. And I try to do that, too, whenever I make records. I feel like it's old-school. I've had several people over the years tell me, "You should start making just singles. Why do you keep making albums? They're outdated! Nobody cares about albums!" I'm, like, "You know, I'll go to my death making albums, because I respect the craft of it so much, and I love it. It's just one of those things that I feel like... It would be like an author writing one chapter of a book. That's the only metaphor I can come up with for why I love making records so much.

I think consumers like singles, and music fans like albums.

That's a good way of putting it, too!

Article continues below advertisement

You mentioned that Jackson Browne was on regular rotation when you were growing up. Was For Everyman actually the first one of his albums that you listened to yourself, or was it just the first one that really grabbed you?

No, it was both my parents' favorite record, so I remember having this record in my house and having it being played all the time. I love his other records as well. I love Saturate Before Using. It's amazing. (But) touching back on what we just talked about about with the flow, I don't feel like any of them had the flow that this record did. Also, I love that it features a lot of artists who I also love.

You know, it was when he first found David Lindley, and Lindley... I play lap steel, and Lindley is kind of why I became a lap steel player. So there's another reason this album changed my life: all the lap steel on this record, I was obsessed with it. I started playing guitar when I was pretty young. I started writing songs when I was 12, but I played guitar a little bit before that, I think it was, like, 8. I think I got my first lap steel when I was in my early 20s. And I was obsessed with Lindley's playing and didn't realize that that was sort of his introduction into the recording world. You know, he'd been playing awhile, but he was good friends with Ry Cooder, and it formed this bond between him and Jackson Browne that I think is one of those ones that's just pretty magical, because their style really complements each other in terms of of Jackson's songwriting and his voice. Everything about his voice: the tone, the cadence, all that.

Then he featured other musicians on it that I love. Elton John's on the record, Joni Mitchell, Don Henley, Glenn Frey... Like I said, my parents loved the Eagles, so I knew "Take It Easy," both [their version and Jackson's version]. You know that Jackson had sort of written the beginning of it and I think it was Glenn Frey...

Glenn Frey who finished it.

Yeah, because Jackson only had, like, the first verse and the choruses, I think. He wrote the "standing on the corner in Winslow, Arizona" part, right?


Yeah, so I love that he also did the song, and he did it his own way. It doesn't sound like the Eagles' version, which I love. Like we were saying, Nico's version of "These Days" is totally different, Gregg Allman's version of "These Days" is totally different as well. I feel like they kind of got that.

Article continues below advertisement

You mentioned Elton John being on For Everyman - he plays on "Redneck Friend" - but it's interesting that he's actually credited under a pseudonym: Rockaday Johnnie.

Do you know why?

I would guess it was a contractual thing with his label.

No, it's because he didn't have a work visa to work in the United States. He was British, obviously, but he was here basically living illegally and working illegally, so he couldn't use his real name. I thought that was really interesting, too. It's a really up-tempo song, and Jackson produced the record, and I think - to his credit - like any smart producer or artist does, brought it somebody who's best for the job. I'm almost thinking that he wrote it on the piano but then realized he couldn't play it as well as somebody else - like Elton - could play it, so he brought him in to play it.

I say that all the time. I'll call up one of my friends who's a bass player, somebody I work with, and I'll show him a song, and he'll be, like, "Well, you play bass great. Why don't you play bass on it?" I'm, like, "I'd rather have somebody amazing playing the bass rather than me just doing it okay." I feel like that's a reflection of your work ethic and your integrity. If I'm writing a really great song, I don't want to bring in just okay musicians or just half-ass it myself. I'd rather bring in the best people that I can bring in for the job. It's your legacy, after all, right? So I think him replacing himself... I mean, I don't know the story, but I'd love to meet Jackson one day and ask him all these questions I have about his work.

I'm looking over the credits again right now, and I'd forgotten that Bill Payne from Little Feat was in the mix, too.

Yeah, it's insane. He was switching drummers quite a bit. I noticed that there are, like, four different drummers on the record. And the instrumentation... Well, like, on "Redneck Friend," that's just insane. All of it. The bass, the lap steel... That song in particular is what really turned me on to the lap steel. David Lindley's lap steel is just so good. I mean, there's a huge solo to it, but he's just wailing through the entire track. He makes the track, I think. Jim Keltner played drums on it, and he was Bob Dylan's main guy, and a lot of people thought he was the best drummer in the world at that time. So Jackson was smart. He brought it amazing talent to sing on it: Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt, all these people who were at the top of their game.

Article continues below advertisement

I'm trying to think of other things about the record that are so inspiring to me. I mean, I'm pretty much stating that from potentially before I was born, this music and this album had an impact on me. [Laughs.] When you asked which album... It's, like, I did a podcast a couple of years ago, and it was basically, "Pick your top five records and we're gonna go over them." That was hard. You think it'll be easy. But I narrowed it down to a dozen, then I narrowed it down to ten, and then I even narrowed it down to eight, but I was ,like, "How do I narrow this down to five?!" But this? Picking the number one is easy. It's so beautifully crafted. And his songwriting style...

I hesitate sometimes in telling people how much of an impact this record had on me because I do feel like - respectfully - I borrowed a lot from Jackson Browne. I think I've done it in a way that pays homage and is not copying him. But definitely in terms of chord progression. He was a wordsmith and I've always respected that. I spend a lot of time on on lyrics. I love all aspects of the musical process when it comes to writing, performing, recording, producing, all of that, but to me the most satisfaction and fulfillment that I get is from writing lyrics. I just love the idea that it's poetry in motion, and then when you're adding frequency, it then resonates through people's bodies and makes them feel something. I mean, there's lyrics within this record that still, to this day, give me goosebumps and chills. I've heard this record for forty-something years. It's like, how am I still impacted in this way? And that's the magical aspect of music and how it passes through the air and into our ears and does what it does.

When I was listening to the record after I got it the other day, some of the lyrics that just blew my mind... In "Colors of the Sun," I think it's the second verse, he says, "Disillusioned savior search the sky / Wanting just to show someone the way / Asking all the people passing by / 'Doesn't anybody want the way?'" Some of that poetry, for a young man... I haven't done the math on how old he was when he wrote the rest of the songs - I know he was 16 when he wrote 'These Days' because he's talked about it quite often - but that something else I'd love to ask him. "How old were you when you wrote 'Colors of the Sun'? When did you write 'Redneck Friend'?" Because there's some stuff in "Redneck Friend," too... You know, the subject of that, I'm pretty sure, is phallic. [Laughs.] And it could be crass, but he's subtle about it.

Article continues below advertisement

When I used the term "wordsmith" earlier... When you hear something by someone in your field, someone who's one of your idols, there's both a sense of frustration and a sense of inspiration, where you're, like, "Gosh, can I write a line that good?" And I think the people who opt not to and just give up... I've never wanted to be one of those people, so I'm, like, "I've got one of those lines in me! It's gonna be different, but hopefully it'll be like that!" And that's what we do, right? We learn from the people who inspire us. I do that that time period, the late '60s and early '70s, was a different time, one where - and I hope there's a renaissance of this - I feel like there was less competition, and that everybody really wanted to collaborate and do great things. And you noticed a lot of people that were putting out songs, and then the next year - or the same year! - they'd put out the same song. It wasn't even weird. It was just, like, "That's a great tune. I want to do that tune!" And they'd do it. People don't do that anymore. It's weird. It's not a thing.

That whole album is full of people who would regularly appear on each other's albums all the time.

Yeah, I think there was a different spirit. Laurel Canyon had a lot of do with that. They all lived near each other. Which is funny, because that's kind of where I grew up. My grandfather lived there since 1960, so I was in and out of Laurel Canyon my whole childhood and even into my twenties, spent a lot of time writing music up there, had friends. One of my buddies owned Jim Morrison's old house, so I'd write music and play there a lot. We actually used to do a fire pit out back, and we used to play music constantly there. There was an energy, for sure. You know, you definitely feel it when you're up in the Canyon, that some magical stuff is going down there. But it's never been like it was during that time period.

Hopefully one day that'll come back around again, but I think that's going to require effort not just from musicians, but from the audience. Because there also needs to be a resurgence or renaissance of people who really appreciate that type of music. Certainly a lot of the artists that I love nowadays are aware of the importance of lyrics when it comes to the listener's point of view, but I think that there are some people that just go, "You know what? This is a fun beat. People will dance to it, and who cares what we say?" To that, I change the channel. [Laughs.]

Article continues below advertisement

Is there a particular song that you'd view as a gateway drug into the album?

Well, "Redneck Friend" was the single, and...I wasn't alive when this came out, but I've researched it a little, and I know he got kind of a hard time about "Redneck Friend" because one of the big magazines - I think maybe Rolling Stone - wrote something negative about it, saying that it felt forced, like he was trying to put an up-tempo single on an otherwise pretty introspective, deep album. But I personally don't think so, because the way that he segues in and out of the song really works. And you've got to have some up-tempo songs. Otherwise it'd be a depressing album. You've got to have some stuff that's sort of uplifting. You also want to take people on a journey, right? It should feel like a bit of a ride when you're listening to an entire record. I mean, there's plenty of music that I listen to that's sad all the way through, if that's the way you want to go. But I don't think his music is sad. I think it's inspirational in a lot of ways. So that song, even though it was a single, definitely wasn't the best song, I don't think.

I think that "These Days" is the best song on the record. Also, I think it's a testament to his passion for album-making that he makes the title song of the record the last song on the record. I love "For Everyman." It leaves you with this feeling of hope. A lot of producers, artists, songwriters, whatever, when they go in to make records, they'll kind of order it, like, "All right, instead of putting the best song first, we'll put the best song third." It's almost like a batting order. And record labels do that. A&R people, they sit down and go, "Okay, well, we want to start off with the banger or do we want to have it as a sleeper?" I think it's cool that he took one of the best songs and put it at the end of the album. I think it says a lot about how he felt about the process. I think - and, again, I'm just speculating here - that he realized that "For Everyman" needed to be the end of the album. It's such a deep record that... I mean, honestly, for me, it's almost like the end of Abbey Road. Which was in my top five albums for that podcast, by the way. But it's, like, you've been on such a journey that when that last song ends, you go, "Oh, it's over...but you ended it so powerfully and beautifully!"


Subscribe to our newsletter

your info will be used in accordance with our privacy policy

Read More