Bernie Leadon interview
As a member of The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Eagles, Bernie Leadon stands as one of the giants in Country Rock. After 40 years in the business and having played on albums by Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, David Crosby, Chris Hillman, Randy Newman, Stevie Nicks and many others, he now decided to step into the spotlight himself for his first solo album ever. Good enough reason for an interview, I'd say !
- You started out your career in the Scotssville Squirrel Barkers, and when they broke up, you moved on to Hearts and Flowers...
I actually only played with the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers for a few gigs in late 1964 - Kenny Wertz, the original banjo player had been drafted, and joined the Air Force- so I filled in. I was 16. But Larry Murray, who played dobro with the Squirrel Barkers, called me back out to L.A. in 1967 to join him in his band on Capitol Records- Hearts and Flowers. That group was produced by the same man who produced Linda Ronstadt, and I started playing on her records, and others as well.
Hearts and Flowers was three guys playing mostly acoustic, with upright bass and no drums- it was more of a vocal group. Some of the tunes sounded country, some sounded like the way the Bee Gees sounded then.
- They broke up after their second album, after which you went to Dillard & Clark, which included two ex-Byrds members...
We wrote most of those songs at Doug Dillard’s house, as instrumentals, without vocals. Then Gene Clark started hanging out, and he would come back the next day with lyrics for one of the songs. Then we’d work it up, all five of us sitting in the room together. After a few weeks, Gene, who had a record deal with A&M, talked the label into recording us as his next record. Because of how it was conceived, I think it has a lot of heart and cohesion. All the songs sound as if they were written at the same time, and they were.
- You left them during the sessions for their second album to join The Corvettes, backing up Linda Ronstadt...
Well, none of these gigs were really full time- Ronstadt did a trip to New York for about 4 weeks in the summer of 1969, and so i was gone from LA- besides, Donna Washburn had shown up with the Dillard and Clark bunch, and she just started singing the third part, so i left.
- The Corvettes recorded 2 singles for Dot. Are you on either of these ?
Don't think so
- In September 1969 you joined the Flying Burrito Brothers, a spell that lasted almost 2 years...
Sounds about right
- The Flying Burrito Brothers was a band that did not really get the recognition it deserved during its lifespan and only in retrospect was recognised as one of the main forces in country-rock. How did you experience that ?
Well, i didn't have much money- I lived with Chris Hillman about the time he fired Gram. If it hadn't been for playing on sessions once in awhile, i wouldn't have had much at all. We played high schools and community colleges around So. Calif., and then for awhile flew back east almost every weekend to play 2-3 shows (cheap oil)- but after expenses, we got about $100-200 a week!
- How was working with Gram Parsons ?
Gram is very popular, leading to the joke that he viewed dying young as a “career move”- you know, that it would be good for his career. Gram was gifted, but very erratic. It’s common knowledge now about his drug and alcohol use and abuse. He managed to actually die of an overdose at age 26. That takes focus and concentration, but he was only focused on his career in a haphazard way. He got kicked out of his own band, the Burritos, for not showing up, and not being professional.
- You tried to make the band work, but it didn't quite happen...
The band didn’t carry on more than a few years after his departure, but all the members had long successful careers - Chris Hillman, Al Perkins, Rick Roberts, Michael Clark. None of us wanted to blow it.
- You returned to Linda Ronstadt, where you met with three people which would define your career for the next few years. How was it decided to leave Ronstadt and form the Eagles ?
Glenn and Don had already decided to work together, and had Meisner pretty well into it. I heard about it through a friend, and I called John Boylan, who managed and produced Ronstadt at the time. He was helping Don and Glenn. He paid for a rehearsal space for us to try it out. He wanted to produce the band, but he didn’t get to do that.
- You went to London to record the first album...
I guess going to London to record the first album with Glyn Johns at Olympic Studios had to be the most exciting recollection of the Eagles era. And then during playbacks there, other producers were coming in saying “that’s a hit” and “this one’s a hit, too”.
- Also Desperado was recorded in London, but a different studio...
Yes, Olympic was booked, so we went to the Island Studios on Basing Street.
- Why did you leave ?
First of all, before I left the band, all four of the albums I played on were million sellers, just in the U.S. As I left, the record company put out the first Greatest Hits, Vol 1, which immediately sold about 10 million copies in the U.S. It is now the biggest selling record of all time in the U.S., selling more than 27 million copies so far. That is quite a few more than Hotel California has sold. And all those records have sold many more millions worldwide. Secondly, it was my choice to leave when I did. I did it for good reasons, and do not regret it.
- What do you think of the fact that the Eagles Greatest Hits is the best selling album of all time ?
Is the story true that you went to the bathroom during a recording session & didn't return...
I doubt it
- Tell us something about your collaboration with Michael Georgiades...
Michael was, and still is, my best friend. He lived near me when the Eagles started, and we played acoustic guitar together when I was at home. He influenced my style in playing "hand style" guitar, without picks. We had written a bunch of songs of a similar vibe, and the Eagles were not interested in the ones I wrote at that time. So Michael and I recorded an album.
Natural Progressions was the name of the record we did. I stole the name, with permission, from a local Malibu surf shop. I guess one meaning was that this was the logical next step for me.
- What comes next is an incredibly long period of studio sessions. Was that a conscious career decision ?
Not really. Just hanging around the house, and when someone called, I'd go play. Glyn Johns used me a lot, in LA and London, and then after I started going to Nashville in 1985, and played with the Dirt Band in 1987-88, I got plugged in in Nashville, and started doing a lot of work there in the studios. After about 1994, it all started to slow down.
- Can you name a few of those sessions that you particularly enjoyed or have special memories about ?
I like being on whole projects, where you're in for 4-10 days at a time, and help actually shape the whole record. I did that with Glyn a lot, when he produced John Hiatt's Slow Turning, or the Nanci Griffith record he did, or Stevie Nicks. I did that some in Nashville with Josh Leo, when he did Matraca Berg, the Remingtons, Alabama, and others.
- Although you kept on writing songs, a recent outburst of creativity led to your Mirror album. You say "It was TIME", which sounds to me like a man with a mission...
I have to be, don’t I? It was my choice to wait this long.
Partly, the internet and other developments make this sort of independent CD release more possible now- you no longer need to have a major label release your CD. The Americana radio format and press helps, but actually some of my music is more Pop/Rock than the average Americana band.
- Wanna say something about the new album "Mirror"...
I think just to have done it is the main thing for me. People will have to decide for themselves if it means anything.
Working with Ethan Johns was very special, as he is Glyn Johns' son, and I've known Ethan since he was about 4 years old! But we worked together as musicians for projects his father did, in particular the duo CD which Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris did in Tucson in 1999. Then he and I were traveling with them for a couple of months supporting that record. I like in particular God Ain't Done With Me Yet, because Ethan and I played guitars together on that one live in the studio- I think the track is magic. I think the song Rich Life is well written. But I like all of them really.
Do you enjoy playing live ?
It is always a special thing to get up on stage and perform - I am enjoying it, partly because I have had some great musician friends helping- Tommy Burroughs, who played mandolin, guitar and fiddle on the CD; David Kemper, who also played on Mirror, and Dan Schwartz from the Tuesday Night Muisc Club playing bass. Right now, it’s just me and Tommy
- Looking back, what would you consider your most rewarding period ?
- Regrets ?
- What's in store for the future ?