The hot young thing? At 71, John Leventhal has made a debut album


NEW YORK — It’s a little late for John Leventhal to be considered a hot young thing in music.

He’s won six Grammy Awards for songwriting and producing records, the latter a role that he essentially fell into as a journeyman guitarist in New York who befriended artists like Shawn Colvin and Jim Lauderdale.

Besides them, Leventhal has produced music for Marc Cohn, Sarah Jarosz, Joan Osborne, William Bell, The Blind Boys of Alabama and his wife, Rosanne Cash. He’s played guitar with the likes of Jackson Browne, Willie Nelson, Ry Cooder, Elvis Costello, Donald Fagen and The National.

Probably his biggest popular success was co-writing and producing Colvin’s hit, “Sunny Came Home.”

Now, at age 71, he’s releasing an album of his own music for the first time. “Rumble Strip” is out Friday on a new label of the same name he started with Cash. The eclectic mix of mostly instrumental, roots-oriented music includes songs co-written with Cash, Cohn and The National’s Matt Berninger. Doubts about his own voice led him to record only three vocal tracks, two of them duets with his wife. On his sole solo vocal, “The Only Ghost,” a songwriting collaboration with Cohn, Leventhal is an aging guitar-slinger who tells a listener that he probably played “your local dive” at some point.

There’s a lot for Leventhal to get used to, including talking about himself as an artist, which he recently did with The Associated Press. Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

LEVENTHAL: Everybody is asking me that. I don’t have a succinct answer. The snarky answer is the pandemic.

LEVENTHAL: I’ve always had this sort of catalog of ideas that have never found homes, so I thought I should do something with those. The thought of doing a solo record sort of creeped into my consciousness and, when the pandemic hit, I really couldn’t avoid it. It was an interesting journey. Making the music wasn’t challenging, because I love making music. I love making records. Sort of confronting the gauntlet of being the artist, with a capital A, was complicated to understand what I wanted to, needed to and should say.

LEVENTHAL: Not very good. … Everything that has happened to me was because I was a songwriter and had an arranger’s sensibility. I realized I was a record producer and sort of went with it for 35 years. I don’t think I would have made a good record 40 years ago because it wouldn’t have been tempered by what I’ve learned.

LEVENTHAL: I really don’t know. I made it for myself. It’s interesting — when I produce for other people, that’s one of the things I think about. What is the audience? Who is this going to appeal to? What are we trying to do? What is the emotion that we’re trying to get across? I don’t get bogged down in it and I don’t let it dictate what I’m doing, but it’s part of the equation. With myself, I didn’t even give that a second thought. We’re going to discover what the audience is, because I truly don’t know.

LEVENTHAL: It doesn’t matter if it’s Doc Watson, Howlin’ Wolf, Igor Stravinsky, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, George Jones, the Beatles, Motown. If there’s something about it that I’m moved by, I’ll pay attention to it and I’ll try to learn something from it.

LEVENTHAL: A combination of reasons. It felt, for this first one, a little bit like cheating. I can’t explain it. It felt too obvious, like it was a way to get my foot in the water. … It felt more like creating a product, like it was someone in the record industry’s “good idea.” And it is a good idea. I’m not putting it down. It’s just not something I was particularly interested in at this point in time. It was more important to me to see if I had a voice that meant anything.



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