ACL Fest profile: Newman a friend to anyone who appreciates impeccably crafted songs

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ACL Fest profile: Newman a friend to anyone who appreciates impeccably crafted songs

Austin City Limits Music Festival 2011

Randy Newman plays ACL Fest at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 18, and he's taping an episode of ‘Austin City Limits' on Sept. 19. The lottery for free tickets to the taping is open in the blog at www.austincitylimits.org . You have until Monday to enter for a chance to win.

When: Sept. 16-18. Gates at 11 a.m.

Where: Zilker Park

Cost: All but Sunday day passes ($90) are sold out. (Kids younger than 10 get in free with a ticketed adult.)

Information: www.aclfestival.com

It can be hard to explain serious Randy Newman fandom to people who are not Randy Newman fans.

"I thought you were kidding," said a colleague when I mentioned how much his music had come to mean to me.

This is not uncommon. Plenty of people who like Randy Newman are not necessarily all that fond of anyone else who sounds like Randy Newman.

But then again, there is nobody like Randy Newman.

Who else could have written songs as heartbreakingly sincere as "I Think It's Going to Rain Today," as brutally ironic as the Middle Passage fable "Sail Away" or as complicated as "My Country," a jaw-dropper about family, aging, television and the deeply complicated relationship therein ("If we had something to say/ We'd bounce it off the screen/ We were watching and we couldn't look away/ We all know what we look like/ You know what I mean/ We wouldn't have had it any other way").

Add to that his years of soundtrack and scoring work — there probably aren't too many children who don't know the "Toy Story" anthem "You've Got A Friend in Me" — and there simply isn't anyone else like the guy.

Newman's capable of deep emotion, vicious cynicism and gut-busting humor. The trick is that it's sometimes hard to tell it all apart.

Perhaps recognizing his weakness for let's-call-them-treacly arrangements, Nonesuch, Newman's current home, has recently released the second volume of "The Randy Newman Songbook," which features spare, piano-and-vocals versions of such classics as "My Life is Good" and "Dayton, Ohio — 1903."

"It was the record company's idea," Newman says. "I think the idea was that it would sell me as one of the good American songwriters," he says with an almost audible shrug. "Anyway, it was very nice of them."

Assembling these records sent him back to his catalog. Newman says he was surprised by what he found.

"More were better than I thought they would be," Newman says. "I know what mistakes I made; some of them were good, some of them were, 'Who the hell was I writing this for?'"

Part of the reason Newman has spent so much time over the years on scores and soundtracks is that, well, they're easier (and they pay better than making the occasional album that only a true fan buys).

"I never had trouble with assignments," Newman says.

But Newman notes how much harder it is to write for animation than for live action. "In animation, there's always something moving on the screen all the time," he said. "There's never a long shot of Meryl Streep looking up into the heavens."

In addition to his extensive soundtrack work, Newman fans drooled over two British compilations, "On Vine Street: The Early Songs Of Randy Newman" and "Bless You California: More Early Songs Of Randy Newman," songs Newman wrote as a struggling songwriter in the late 1960s and early '70s for such singers as Cilla Black and Jackie DeShannon. It's here you can find the straight line between Newman's wit and the Smiths — Morrissey is a huge fan of that sort of late-'60s songcraft.

"I think maybe you can tell that there's some talent there," Newman says of those collections. "But I'm not so sure of that. I certainly wasn't back then. I wanted to be the best very much, but I realized I'm not Carole King."

Newman's cult has also been tied in recent years to that of another Los Angeles songwriting legend: the troubled and brilliant Harry Nilsson, who died of heart failure in 1994 at the age of 52.

Newman can be seen in the 2010 documentary "Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him?)" comparing Nilsson's melodic gifts favorably to Paul McCartney's.

"He really admired the Beatles, maybe too much for his own good," Newman said.

But it was Nilsson who covered an entire album of Newman's songs on the still-amazing "Nilsson Sings Newman."

"For a writer like him to do an album like that," Newman pauses. "It was very generous of him to do."

There's perhaps a documentary to be made about their friendship itself.

"I think we were sort of hard on each other about each other's songs as friends would be," Newman said. "But he was so insecure about his work. Talent that exceptional can come from very brittle people and they break."

He pauses. Then it's suddenly back to business.

"There will be kids at this festival, right?" Newman said.

Yes.

"Well, tell readers I'll play 'You've Got a Friend in Me' early so their folks can leave or the kids can go to sleep."

You can't fool the fat man.

jgross@statesman.com

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