Great Late Musical Careers

About a year and a half ago, I wrote a blog article about the great song “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” where I shared my level of frustration regarding Billy Joel. A prolific musician for much of my youth and young adulthood, Joel has not released a new album since 1993. Although he remains one of the top grossing stadium acts in the world, routinely selling out arenas and baseball stadiums, he finds no need to record any new music.

Joel talks about conversations he has had with friend and collaborator Elton John. “Why don’t you release any new music?” Elton asks. “Why do you still release new music?” Billy replies.

That’s quite a question, Billy. Elton John is an artist, he feels he still has valid, sincere music to share, and he has released several very good albums late in his career. There are many excellent musicians, with extensive catalogs, who have continued to challenge themselves and their audiences be releasing music long after their chart topping success has been achieved. Not only have they released music late in life, but often that music has proven to be career defining.

Van Morrison

Ever since I first heard “Brown Eyed Girl” as a young teenager, I have loved Irish crooner and songwriter Van Morrison. It has been fun to explore his early career, folk and jazz infused albums like Moondance and Astral Weeks, and I enjoy the significant volume of music he continues to release.

In the last four years alone, Morrison has released six albums of new material, plus one album of duet covers of his own songs (there are live recordings, singles and re-releases too!). Since Billy Joel released his last album, River of Dreams in 1993, Van Morrison has released 20 albums of new material.

These albums, released when Morrison was in his 50’s, 60’s and 70’s are not filler, and they definitely don’t top the charts. They do not try to recreate successes of the past, and they do not try to appeal to a lowest common denominator. Van Morrison continues to explore genres, to challenge his audience, and to make music that that is deeply, deeply satisfying and rewarding.

A favorite late career track. “Too Late” 2016

Bruce Springsteen

Though not quite as prolific as Van Morrison, at 70 years old, Bruce Springsteen stays as busy and engaged as he was when he released Born to Run when he was 26 years old. In the last year alone, Springsteen starred in a one-man, award winning Broadway musical, he released an album of new music with a full symphony orchestra and an accompanying movie. He routinely performs live on stage, often in un-announced appearances, and rumor has it that a tour with the E Street Band is being planned for 2020. Springsteen is busy.

Springsteen reconnected with his EStreet band in the late 1990’s after a hiatus of several years, and since then has released excellent music with them, as a solo artist, and with other musicians as he explores deeper into familiar Americana themes that have been an integral part of his music since 1973.

Though his late career music is probably not doing a lot to convince non-fans to become fans, Springsteen is working as hard as he ever has. His music is earnest and sincere. He may not succeed all the time, but there is much to pay attention to.

A favorite late career track: “Land of Hope and Dreams” 1999, 2002, 2014

Loretta Lynn

Loretta Lynn
Maybe she is just making up for lost time. After all, Loretta Lynn did not release her first album until she was 31 years old. She got married very young, and she she had her first child when she was only 16 years old. However, since 1963, she has released over 50 albums.

Although she has not released a large number of albums during her later years, the albums she has released have been remarkable. In 2004, when she was 72 years old, Lynn released The Van Lear Rose, produced by Jack White. The album is loud, raucous and beautiful.

As Loretta Lynn continues to battle significant health issues now that she is quickly approaching her 9th decade, the music she releases is more traditional in nature, but still shows she is willing to take new chances, and to try new things.

A favorite late career track: “Portland, Oregon” 2004

Willie Nelson

I can put on almost any Willie Nelson album of recent years, and be perfectly content and happy. A true country troubadour, Willie Nelson has written some of the greatest songs of the 20th century, including “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Crazy” and “Nightlife.”

Although Willie Nelson still writes great songs (“Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die“), it’s really his choice of music and themes that are so enjoyable. Since the year 2000, Willie Nelson has released 23 albums. He pays tribute to single composers, like the album Summertime, which covers the music of George Gershwin, or You Don’t Know Me, an album of music by the great Country songwriter Cindy Walker. He records music with his sons, he records music with contemporary artists like Pearl Jam and Snoop Dog.

Willie Nelson might do more cover tunes these days than originals. At 86 years old, his voice may not be quite as strong as it once was. He may not be the creative force he once was. But Willie Nelson is not releasing albums simply to make money. He still plays his beat up acoustic Classical guitar (named Trigger) with Jazz inflections and country twang. He sings enough out of the corner of his mouth so you don’t quite know if he is whispering to you or singing with you. He still is creating community and beauty with his music. He has released almost 70 albums during his career.

Keep it going, Willie. Keep it going.

A Favorite Late Career Track: “It’s All Going to Pot” 2015

Maybe I’ll do a Part II of this article some day. I need to include Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen, Brian Wilson, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young, Rickie Lee Jones and so many more.

Sadly, some artists never get to their late careers. Either, sales and contracts fizzle out, or like Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, they are just taken away far too early. How wonderful it would have been to celebrate decades long careers for each of those artists.

Who knows who we will be celebrating 10, 20 or 30 years from now. Maybe there is still even time to include some great, late career albums by Billy Joel!

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