any songs that achieve enduring popularity are considered “standards,” but popularity alone is not the only quality that elevates them to that status. They also tend to emulate or build on the melodicism of mid-20th-century pop. Danny O’Keefe’s “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues” didn’t become a Top 10 hit until 1972, and its mellow, low-key groove fit companionably alongside other soulful tunes of that time by artists like J.J. Cale, Leon Russell and Don Williams. But it’s a modern-day standard whose flowing melody is rooted in the popular music O’Keefe heard as a child growing up in Spokane, Washington, in the 1940s.
“My father was a collector of early jazz — that was music of his time, music of the 1920s,” he recalls. “A lot of it was based on the American songbook. So I heard a lot of that as well as whatever was on the radio, and then rock ‘n’ roll came along and then folk music. That kind of is the whole American songbag.”
O’Keefe’s career has more closely resembled that of composers of that earlier era, although he also experienced some success as a recording artist. It’s the kind of pre-topliner career many contemporary songwriters dream of having. After “Introducing” himself via a little-heard album for Panorama in 1966, O’Keefe famously auditioned over the phone for Atlantic label head Ahmet Ertegun. His self-titled major-label debut followed in 1971, which featured a flute-heavy arrangement of “Good Time Charlie’s Got the Blues.” But it was his more groove-based re-recording of the song on 1972’s “O’Keefe” that became a Top Ten hit; it was subsequently recorded by Elvis Presley, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Charlie Rich, Leon Russell and a host of others. That same album yielded “The Road,” which became so closely associated with Jackson Browne that most listeners still assume Browne wrote it.
Those two songs alone have sustained O’Keefe’s reputation as a songwriter’s songwriter, one whose music prefigured what is now known as Americana. Numerous artists have reached into his tunebag to record other songs of his, notably “Magdalena” (Donny Hathaway), “Angel Spread Your Wings” (Judy Collins) and “Well, Well, Well” (Ben Harper with Blind Boys of Alabama), a song co-written with Bob Dylan … sort of.
“We share a copyright,” O’Keefe says with a chuckle. “It’s hard to say that I wrote it with him. His publishing company gave me a demo that they said he was interested in having me try to write lyrics to. Whether they were shining me on, I don’t know; I’ve never spoken to Bob about it, and as far as I know he’s happy with the song because he was the one who gave it to Maria Muldaur. It’s just — he’s Bob Dylan. He’s inimicable. And inscrutable. But I’m very proud to be able to say that I wrote a song with Bob Dylan.”
Most recently, Miranda Lambert resurrected the stomping “Covered Wagon” from O’Keefe’s first album for masterful 2016 “The Weight of These Wings” and made it an audience-rousing highlight of her concerts. O’Keefe calls the Lambert cover “an out-of-the-blue anomaly.”
“I had no idea that she had been singing it. And finally somebody who is a friend of mine in Nashville got a hold of me and said, ‘Miranda Lambert cut your song, it’s on her new album,’ and that was before it had actually been released. I was like, ‘Where did she even find it?’ That’s one of the first songs that I wrote back in 1968 or something.”
Based by the Columbia River in the “sort of scenic” town of Wenatchee, between Seattle and Tacoma, O’Keefe has distanced himself from music industry centers but has long commanded respect among fellow songwriters and discerning music fans. He remains a prolific composer, and takes pictures with his cellphone to remind him of places he’s been and ideas they inspired. He occasionally posts brooding, evocative short stories, poems and essays on his website — signposts, in a way, along the path his thoughts travel as he formulates a song.
“I think of them in some ways as explorations,” he explains. “It’s hard to say where a song comes from. By the time the seed of it bubbles up in your consciousness, you’ve already been working on it for a long time. It depends as much on inspiration as how you’ve learned to manipulate your craft; how do you get that song down and then shape it into the realization that it provides you when you finally see and hear it. It’s essentially a connective structure to a whole bunch of other structures, what’s in you that you were trying to articulate.”
He doesn’t perform much; his solo acoustic shows at the Coffee Gallery Backstage in Altadena (Friday) and McCabe’s in Santa Monica (Sunday) are rare exceptions. His most recent album of new material is 2015’s “Light Leaves the West,” a typically eclectic set of sophisticated melodies, folk, jazz, and soulful
With last year’s “Home,” he reprised his best-known compositions with longtime musician friends — a way of letting fans hear how the songs would sound live now. He says he’s keen to play his newer material for audiences and get their feedback.
“My audience for the most part has grown older with me,” he observes. “So they bring another maturity as an audience in that — it always feels to me, anyway — they have the ability to listen more deeply.
“A lot of the newer material that I’m writing does deal with mortality. I’m at that age in my life where a lot of my friends are walking on. That’s part of my reality; not my only reality, but certainly part of it. And you have to bring your experience to your writing.”
Danny O’Keeffe returns to the Coffee Gallery Backstage, 2029 N. Lake Ave., Altadena, at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 5; $20. Reservations/info: (626) 798-6236. dannyokeefe.com, coffeegallery.com