Huey Lewis and the News haven't released a new album in nine years, but Lewis doesn't see that as a long time. "We've made a few records in our time, so we weren't in a hurry," he says.
Their latest, Soulsville, is a compilation of seldom-heard Southern soul gems (with the exception of "Respect Yourself") from the Stax Records catalog. The band — which rocked into the ‘80s with such hits as "Do You Believe In Love" and "I Want A New Drug" — recaptures the swagger and emotional depth of songs ranging from Wilson Pickett's "Don't Fight It" to Booker T. and the M.G.'s irresistible instrumental, "Grab That Thing."
Lewis, 60, was on the road in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. when we caught up with him, killing time before a show.
Q: What made you want to stick so close to the original arrangements of the songs on Soulsville?
A: We took some tiny liberties. We rewrote a few lyrics and rearranged some modulations and horn breaks. But instead of trying to lend an "original" or "modern" interpretation to obvious chestnuts like "Knock on Wood" and "In the Midnight Hour," our idea was to find tunes most people hadn't heard and capture them faithfully.
Q: Which songs pack the most emotional resonance for you?
A: They're all my first loves. Johnnie Taylor ["Free," "Just the One (I've Been Looking For)"] is my favorite singer on the planet. He's just magnificent. I've had most of these songs in my quiver for years but never had the audacity to sing 'em. This project went step by step. We figured there's no harm in workin' 'em up — it's only a gamble when you release the record [laughs]. Well, it was uncanny when we started playing them in our little rehearsal studio because they sounded so natural for us. When you produce a record yourself, like we did, you listen to it way too much. But I had one listen that caught me cold and I thought, "Wow, this sounds like Huey Lewis and the News!" I realized I really was influenced by Johnnie Taylor. "This Is It" has some Johnnie Taylor in it and so does "Do It All for My Baby." And that's really cool.
Q: Isaac Hayes' "Soulsville" is both the album's title track and centerpiece. What made it so key for you?
A: It's kind of an odd choice. But the lyrics are still appropriate in these tough economic times, and the backing singers adorned it marvelously. Isaac sang it real low. It goes, "Black may-un, born free…" — it's country. And that's what's so marvelous about Stax soul music: It's both rural and urban R&B at the same time. That's because you had black and white people writing these songs together. It was a wonderful thing. The original backup band on a lot of the Stax stuff we did was Booker T. and the M.G.'s: two black guys and two white guys who couldn't be pictured together on record covers in the segregated South. Forty-five years later, society's much more integrated but music's much more segregated, if you will, with rap over here and country over there.
Q: You're still playing between 80 and 90 shows a year. Does it feel odd to be more of a working live band than a radio hit machine?
A: We can do anything right now; we're really good. You don't need to be in remarkable shape to play music, obviously. It isn't like running a marathon.
Q: You currently live in Montana. Why did you relocate from the West Coast?
A: I'm a California boy, but I like to fly-fish. Montana's a lot like California was in the ‘50s and ‘60s, at least for eight months of the year. I'm an outdoors guy, and too many people are not my cup of tea unless I'm in New York. Los Angeles was the best place on the planet to be in the ‘30s and ‘40s; then in the ‘50s and ‘60s it was San Francisco. Now you've gotta go places where the weather's worse just to keep the numbers down. In Montana, I play golf, fish, ride my horse — that kind of stuff. It's a gas. More cheese, fewer rats.