is a podcast that turns stories into songs, featuring David Gilmour, Joyce Carol Oates, Steve Earle, Roxane Gay, Amanda Shires, Susan Orlean and Katie Melua. You can hear an exclusive preview of next week’s episode featuring Questlove and Chris Pierce, only at Paste.
Questlove’s critical history of modern America, Music Is History, is a reconceptualization and recontextualization of the last 50 years through the lens of music. In an early chapter, Questlove tells the story of singer/songwriter Bill Withers, and recounts his own interactions with the idiosyncratic musician.
“Withers was my first true idol,” Questlove says. “I think of his history as intertwined with mine, somehow.”
Withers wrote classics like “Lean on Me” and “Ain’t No Sunshine.” He was important not only as a songwriter who confronted political issues like the Vietnam war, but also as an emblematic representative of Black working-class America. Questlove notes that Withers posed for his first album cover holding the lunch box he used every day at his job as a mechanic.
“When I have spoken or written about him,” Questlove says, “I have called him the Black Springsteen, which is both a glib joke, but also somewhat true!”
Questlove also tells the story of his personal efforts to convince Withers to let him produce a comeback album a few years before the artist’s death. Having failed to engage Withers through mutual friends, Questlove and The Roots covered a Withers song called “I Can’t Write Left-Handed.” Withers heard the song, and soon showed up at a Roots gig. Questlove knew this was his one chance to convince his hero to collaborate, and he gave an impassioned pitch …
But Withers politely declined.
Songwriter Chris Pierce had his own interactions with Withers, after the legendary musician turned up at a show he played in Los Angeles. Knowing that Withers was in the audience, Pierce had prepared a cover of “Ain’t No Sunshine,” but onstage, he realized he couldn’t go through with it.
“I chickened out,” Pierce laughs. “I just kept looking out, thinking, ‘I don’t know, something doesn’t feel right about this.’”
When Pierce met Withers after the show, the older artist kindly told him his instinct was right.
“He said, ‘No offense, but I’m glad you didn’t.’” Pierce recalls that Withers told him, “‘I just have heard so many versions of my music. I’m glad that you stuck to what you wrote, and what you know.’”
As Pierce got to know Withers, he began to appreciate how this interaction reflected a deeply held philosophy. Withers was not a man who was particularly interested in the past—once something was done, it was done.
“There’s only so many times you can stir that pot of soup,” Pierce says. “The flavor is not going to change, and you might mess it up if you keep it on the stove.”
Ben Arthur (@MyHeart on Twitter) is the creator and host of SongWriter. His latest song, “Persistent Ghosts,” is about traumatic memory.