(Hello Wendy) Danny O'Keefe famously wrote the lyric "Highways and dancehalls/A good song takes you far," and for more than 50 years he's proved himself right. On his new album, the two-disc set Circular Turns, his first for Sunset Blvd. Records out November 10th, O'Keefe shows off his songwriting prowess with 17 tracks he recorded from 1999-2017, plus a live album featuring his classic "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues" and other favorites.
The studio disc on Circular Turns includes new arrangements of several of O'Keefe's best-known songs, including "The Road," "Angel, Spread Your Wings," "Magdelena" and "Well, Well, Well," as well as songs inspired by paintings ("Runnin' from the Devil"), Bill Monroe ("When You Come Back Down"), photos in someone's house ("We're All Strangers Here") and the classic children's bear Corduroy ("Alone in the Dark").
"It was Len Fico who wanted to do this," O'Keefe said, referring to the president of Sunset Blvd. Records. "The albums that all those songs were on were largely unavailable. Really, not very many people have heard them, and I like them a lot. So it's great that Len was interested in putting these together so people could hear what I'd been doing from 1999 on."
The live album was recorded in 2016 at a house concert in Saint Paul, Minn. "I call it the 'Carnegie Hall of House Concerts,'" O'Keefe said. "My friend Glenn Elvig redid his house and put in a stage and sound system. I play there whenever I'm in Saint Paul."
For some, Circular Turns will be an introduction to a singular - and sometimes overlooked - talent. But for longtime fans, it's the latest opportunity to revel in Danny O'Keefe's exceptional musicianship and lyrical turns of phrase.
O'Keefe's recording career began in 1971 with his self-titled debut album, which AllMusic has called "a forgotten masterpiece." The record featured "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues," a song subsequently recorded by Elvis Presley, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Cab Calloway and many others. O'Keefe recorded four albums for Atlantic Records, followed by two for Warner Brothers Records and toured with acts as varied and famous as Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Jimmy Buffett, Linda Ronstadt, Loggins and Messina, Maria Muldaur, and the Hollies.
While making his name as a performer, O'Keefe was also making his fame as a songwriter. His songs have been covered by numerous musicians, including Miranda Lambert ("Covered Wagon), Alan Jackson ("Sleep"), The Blind Boys of Alabama, and Maria Muldaur (with Mavis Staples) ("Well, Well, Well"), Glen Campbell and Gary Stewart ("Quits"), John Denver ("Along for The Ride") and many more. His favorite covers of his songs are Waylon Jennings's version of "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues," Alison Krauss's "Never Got Off the Ground," Jackson's Browne's "The Road," Judy Collins's "Angel, Spread Your Wings," and the versions of "Magdalena" by Leo Sayer and Donny Hathaway.
From his early days and well into the 1980s, O'Keefe wrote songs alone. But in the 1990s, "I discovered that writing with people in Nashville and Hollywood was really fun," he said. His songwriting partners on Circular Turns include Michael McDonald ("We're All Strangers Here"), Viktor Krauss, Alison's brother ("Siamese Friends") and Nashville musician/songwriter Tim O'Brien ("When You Come Back Down"). And, of course, Bob Dylan ("Well, Well, Well"). Sort of. Listen to the live disc to hear the story behind that song.
"When you're writing with someone, you get another perspective you might not come up with on your own, and that back and forth can be really creative," O'Keefe said. "From a musical standpoint, let's say you're working with a keyboard player. I don't play keyboards, so that's another approach I wouldn't necessarily come up with. So, it frees you up to be the singer and lyricist, and sometimes that's a highly creative process - more so than me sitting there with my guitar, trying to find a new road through the chords."
Circular Turns is O'Keefe's first album since 2020's Looking Glass and the Dreamers, which featured songs about, and inspired by, the Nez Perce Indians who live in the Pacific Northwest, where O'Keefe also lives.
The new album has no similar messages, O'Keefe said. They're just good songs that have taken him far. "And I'm still on that road," he said. "I just want people to enjoy my music. That's the greatest compliment that you can have as a writer and performer - that people like what you do and want to listen to it. I hope they do. I hope it's a successful record."
Circular Turns, song by song:
"Angel, Spread Your Wings" and "Magdalena" (rerecorded for Home, 2017): "They were originally on the album Breezy Stories. They've been two of my favorite songs - and my fans' favorite songs - for a long time. I'm always asked for those songs. We rerecorded them, just to have different versions of them, because I like to play them."
"Runnin' from the Devil" (from Runnin' from the Devil, 2014): "That song was inspired by a painting by my friend Terry Turrell, who's one of the great Outsider artists. He lives in Seattle, but his work is shown all over. It was a painting I saw when I walked into his house one day. I walked in and went, 'Whoa, I love that.' It was called 'Runnin' from the Devil.'"
"The Hereafter" (from Home): "It was originally on an album called So Long Harry Truman. I love the way Joel Tepp plays slide guitar, and he killed it on that track."
"You Don't Have to Be Right" (from Light Leaves the West, 2014): "I love the message of it. I love the feel. You don't have to be right. You have to be ready."
"The First Time" (from In Time, 2008): "I love that song. I wrote it with Fred Koller, a Nashvillian. When you write in Nashville, you get there at 10 o'clock and you look at each other for a while and say, 'Whadda you got?' That was an idea he had. It almost wrote itself while we were sitting there. It's still one of the truisms: The first time is the one you remember."
"When You Come Back Down" (from In Time): "I wrote that with Tim O'Brien, a great musician and one of my favorite people. We were sitting at Tim's place in Nashville and we got the news that Bill Monroe had died. Bill Monroe was a special person in Tim's life, and we almost got up from the table. We almost left, but we said no, we've got a start on this song, and we wrestled it to the ground. It's not necessarily about Bill Monroe, but he had his influence that day."
"Siamese Friends" (from In Time): "I wrote that with Viktor Krauss, Alison Krauss's brother. He's a tremendous bass player. He had these ideas - just synth ideas, not full tracks - but when he played it for me, I said, 'I like that one.' The music was basically there. I wrote lyrics to it."
"Well, Well, Well" (from Runnin' from the Devil): "That's a song that I theoretically wrote with Bob Dylan, though Bob was not in the room when we wrote it."
"Steel Guitar" (from Home): "I wrote that a long time ago. It was one of the songs I auditioned into the phone for Ahmet Ertegun that helped me get onto Atlantic Records. It tells the story of a woman I used to see play steel guitar at a place in the north end of Seatle. Her name was probably not Carol, but that's who she is now."
"We're All Strangers Here" (from In Time): "I wrote that with the great Michael McDonald. We were in Nashville, at one of his friends' houses, and he sat there and started playing. There were photographs of whoever's house we were in - relatives, friends, whatever. It's just one of those songs where you just start singing and the words fall into place."
"The Road" (from Home, 2017): "It's the life we live. I wrote that in '70, '71. It's the story of all musicians. If you don't love the road, you end up getting out of the business after a while, or finding another aspect of the business to be in. But you travel all day - or maybe a couple of days - where you can play for an hour and a half or however long, and make life worthwhile because you're a musician."
"Sleep (Anywhere on Earth You Are) (from In Time)": "I wrote that with Tim Krekel, who unfortunately passed away not long after we wrote the song. He had the riff for it, that little opening refrain line that begins each verse section. I went back to the hotel room in Nashville, started playing - I wanted it to be very simple, which it is - and it was as true a song as I could think of. Being in Nashville and being away from home and family, 'all I want to do is sleep, just sleep, with you.'"
"Soul Provider" (from Light Leaves the West): "It's an homage to mothers everywhere. My father died when I was 16, and my mother carried the load. She was my rock even before he died. He'd been sick for many years. It's true of so many families that have single mothers - they are the rock. There should be a statue to the single mother. Unfortunately, she didn't get to hear it. She died in the '70s."
"Alone in the Dark" (from In Time): "I wrote that with Jay Gruska. Taylor Hackford had acquired the rights to the children's story Corduroy the Bear and asked Jay and me to write some songs for it. It was initially about a little bear, but in the long run it was about someone imagining themselves on that screen. In the end, it turned out to be a lovely song."
"Litany" (from Don't Ask, 2003): "I love that song. I wrote all the songs on that album with my friend Bill Braun, who's kind of a hermit who lived in the Hollywood Hills. He was financially independent, but he was - and is - a great
musician. He was my drummer at one point, and I didn't know he played keyboards. Once at his house he pulled out some ideas and we put together some of the pieces."
"Last Call" (from In Time): "It's a song I still imagine they play at a quarter to two at every bar in the world. That's my dream of it. It has another whole metaphorical potential to it - the last call in a relationship, the last call in your life. Drink 'em up, boys."