The biting satire of so many of his songs has given Randy Newman a reputation for unreliable narration. Rednecks, racists, warmongers: His characters think they know a thing or two, but they’re usually dead wrong.
When Newman expresses humility about his gifts as a songwriter, it might be easy to assume it’s just another bait-and-switch. But at 77 contented years, his modesty is genuine, and it’s hard-earned.
In his younger years, he had a piano teacher who chided him about his disdain for a certain composer.
“Those people are like pillars,” the teacher said. “We’re the ones that run around from pillar to pillar.”
Whether he’ll admit it or not, Newman has built a career as a pillar of popular music. When he performs at the Newport Folk Festival on July 24, he’ll draw from a six-decade catalog stuffed with songs that have earned Emmys, Grammys, and Academy Awards and been covered by Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Willie Nelson, Barbra Streisand, and Tom Jones, to name a small sample. In 2014 he accepted the Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence Award from PEN America’s New England chapter at the JFK Library in Boston.
Whether you know him from the historic flood song “Louisiana 1927,” the cheeky come-on “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” or the abundant Pixar soundtrack work that produced “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” Newman’s music is one of the essential columns that buttress the American songwriting tradition.
He’s played Fort Adams at Newport twice before, in 1991 and 1994. What he remembers most besides the coast city’s famous mansions (“I snuck around outside”) is that he caught a set by the closing-time blues singer Charles Brown, a favorite from Newman’s childhood who was enjoying a late-career revival at the time.
“I loved him as a little boy,” Newman says. “I can barely say that about anyone. I was 10 or 11 years old. Listened to him on KGFJ,” then an R&B station in Newman’s native city, Los Angeles.
He takes a moment to scat a bit, half under his breath, trying to recall Brown’s biggest hit, “Drifting Blues.”
“Yeah, there it is,” he says as the words and melody come back to him.
The folk festival will be Newman’s first full live show since before the pandemic. (He made news a year ago when his at-home performance of a charming COVID-inspired song, “Stay Away” — on which he implores his beloved, “Don’t touch your face” — had a viral moment.) He’s scheduled to play the Jazz & Heritage Festival in New Orleans, where he spent parts of his childhood, in October, followed by more than a dozen dates in the United Kingdom and Europe in early 2022.
“You know, I’ll be nervous as always,” he says, on the phone from his Southern California home. “I mean, if you’re paying attention, you’re gonna be nervous about doing something this weird for a living. But I am looking forward to it.”
The strummy music of the Newport Folk Festival heyday was in the air during the mid-1960s, when Newman was fresh out of UCLA. (He quit just shy of graduating, only recently completing his degree.) But the folk music revival wasn’t his thing so much as the early jazz of his family’s New Orleans heritage, old Hollywood, and the Tin Pan Alley tradition, even reaching back to the minstrel songs of Stephen Foster.
“When there’s a good [folk song],” Newman concedes, “it’s among the best stuff that’s come out of American popular music.” He sings a line from Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Universal Soldier.”
But he remembers working on an arrangement for Sainte-Marie’s fellow Canadian folkie, Gordon Lightfoot, and becoming frustrated when the producer wasn’t interested in his variations on the theme.
“I remember at that moment resenting folk music,” he says. “If you don’t have to write a tune, it’s like playing tennis without a net. It’s a little easier. I sort of resented folk music for that, but that’s a childish attitude, really.” Though he would eventually fall into the “singer-songwriter” category alongside many others who once identified as folk artists, “it wasn’t folk music so much that we were doing.
“It wasn’t pop music, either,” he adds with a laugh.
To this day, even many of Newman’s most devoted fans remain partial to the occasional straightforward emotional songs that he’s written, he says — “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” or “Feels Like Home.”
“You just learn to take what you get,” he says. “You can’t tell them how to like it.”
He wrote the heavy-hearted “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” just after finishing up at LA’s University High School. Recorded by Judy Collins, Bobby Darin, and others even before Newman’s own debut album came out in 1968, it’s still probably the most popular song he’s written, he says.
That’s proof, he says, that the style he grew into — darkly comic character sketches — may not be so well-served by the songwriting form. “But it’s what I chose to do.”
Long before he began his mutual admiration society with Pixar — he’s written songs for the “Cars,” “Monsters, Inc., " and “Toy Story” franchises — Newman was scoring music for the film industry: “Ragtime,” “The Natural,” “Awakenings.” Way back in 1970, he conducted the soundtrack for “Performance,” an early showcase for Mick Jagger the actor; Newman’s recording of “Gone Dead Train” is the lead cut.
He’s often said that he considers himself a professional songwriter. He’ll draw the line at licensing his songs for vices, such as alcohol, he says. (He recently picked up an old habit, betting on horse races, but soon put it back down: “With three compulsive gamblers in the family, I thought genetically this is not a good idea for me to be doing this.”)
“Some songs I wouldn’t let them use, ‘cause they mean something to somebody. But ‘Simon Smith [and the Amazing Dancing Bear]’ or ‘Short People’ — who cares?”
Besides, he says, “If Mozart would do it, it’s good enough for me.”
Newman used his stuck-at-home time this past year to brush up on his classical chops. “I’ve been practicing while this thing was going on,” he says. “I can play better after all this time.”
“Watch, I’ll probably fall apart when I get up there,” he jokes about his Newport gig, which he’ll play unaccompanied.
Not likely. So, one silver lining of the pandemic is that Randy Newman’s piano playing has improved?
“Music lovers everywhere will be grateful,” he says. Sarcastically, of course.
Email James Sullivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.