By Mark Guarino
David Lindley is gifted with anonymity. Every day, well-known songs by luminaries like Bob Dylan, Warren Zevon, Rod Stewart, James Taylor and particularly Jackson Browne, are played on classic rock radio stations and feature his guitarwork. He is the rare musician whose musicianship is instantly recognizable, but whose name is buried in the liner notes. He has played on so many albums over the past 30-plus years, an archivist in Holland has taken it upon himself to try to make the definitive discography, a task not for the weary.
“Every time I run into him when I tour Europe, he looks worse and worse,” Lindley said.
Lindley, 60, became absorbed in world music long before it became fashionable. Growing up in Southern California, he discovered that the record collection of his father, a corporate lawyer, included everything from bluegrass to Middle Eastern music to flamenco to Brandenburg concertos. As his peers in the late ’60s were exploring psychedelic rock, Lindley was playing banjo and fiddle, forming Kaleidoscope, what is today considered the first world music rock band, in 1967.
The band lasted four years, ending when Lindley hooked up with Browne and created the definitive guitar sound on his classic ‘70s records. On songs like “Running on Empty” and “Late for the Sky,” Lindley’s slide guitarwork colored the somber sentiments of the songwriter’s lyrics, playing solos that often sounding like crying. It conveyed the perfect sense of emotional loss for the California country sound Browne was helping to popularize.
“Jackson was really open to really anything,” Lindley said. “But he was very, very concerned about getting the point of the song across. I had to listen to the song to make sure my interpretation of what it was saying was what I played. He never explained them.”
Lindley formed El Rayo-X in the ‘80s, another band that combined roots music and world rhythms. But a majority of his time was spent on session work. As a multi-instrumentalist, he brings to the table an endless array of instruments, from the conventional slide guitar to the Turkish saz, a long neck lute similar to the banjo.
“I like people to like me,” Lindley said of his decision to become a musician’s musician rather than the headlining star. “A lot of it has to do with singing. If it’s a vocal thing, I take a vocal approach. B.B. King is the perfect example of someone who plays the vocal phrases. When they play, you can almost hear an audible breath.”
Lately, Lindley has been touring and recording with percussionist Wally Ingram in a duo that tries to create what he calls “big little music.” The economy of two players can create a much richer sound, he said. When playing together, “it’s addictive.” “They say that with certain forms of yoga you go into an ecstatic state and it’s very dangerous and you don’t want to become attached to it because you may not come back. It sounds a little grand, but … that happens onstage. People know something’s going on there and have said, ‘you guys are high out of your minds’, but we’re just playing.”