Bill Withers’ Hidden Masterpiece

On July 27th 2021 » By Bri Younger

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For nearly four decades, Bill Withers’ +’Justments sat hidden in plain sight. It was beloved, and even deemed a masterpiece, by listeners in the know, and for a certain kind of music fan, one of those albums that could confirm you’re amongst your kind — the ones who venture beyond charts; the diggers and the excavators.

But in 1974, when the album was released, the famed singer-songwriter was still at the height of his powers. He was already the Bill Withers who’d made “Ain’t No Sunshine,” a prototype of lovelorn lament for its era, and “Grandma’s Hands,” an ode to matriarchal nurture. The Bill Withers who’d made “Lean On Me,” a monument to friendship that’s embedded in our cultural fibers. His songs were paradoxes, deceptively simple in the way they illuminated the interiority of the human experience, how they made the personal universal.

As fate would have it, Sussex, his then-label, went under soon after +’Justments was released, and the album suffered in the fallout; it existed only on vinyl, cassettes and 8-tracks (and perhaps later, bootlegged MP3s) for 36 years before it finally came out on CD in 2010. Thus, an air of mystery surrounds the album that also lends itself well to the legend of its creator.

Withers, who died on March 30, 2020 at the age of 81, grew up in Slab Folk, West Virginia, where racial segregation prevailed but the coal mines could almost double as an equalizer. He stuttered as a kid and well into adulthood, though you’d hardly know it when he opened his mouth to sing and earthbound divinity spilled out. The impediment was a catalyst that helped shape both his confidence in himself and the piercing humanity with which he approached his lyrics. In footage captured in the 2009 documentary Still Bill, he tells a group of young children who stutter that “one of the ways to deal with the fear is to approach people with a prepared forgiveness. We have to be more civil than most people that we will encounter.”

By most accounts, Withers bore that out. In telling stories from his time in coal country, he was matter-of-fact about the negatives and homed in on the positives. There were kids who bullied him for his small size and speech, and there was also Virgil, who ran a newsstand and was the first to tell him a life without a stutter was possible. There was the Black neighborhood across the railroad tracks and the white neighborhood he lived in and the music he got from both — a mixture of blues and gospel compliments of the former and country via the latter. He was the first man in his family to not take up a mine-related profession, and after high school, he joined the Navy as an aircraft mechanic. After serving nine years, he got a job working in a factory in California where he began feeding his artistic inclinations and shopping his music. Even as his gift for down-home soul became evident to himself and others, a rugged blue-collar spirit stayed with him.

In 1971, at 32 years old, he released his debut album, Just as I Am, lunchpail and aviation parts factory adorning the cover. Beyond the hits it spawned, it was a creative triumph. Withers was under the tutelage of the legendary Booker T. Jones, who produced the project, but the sound was uniquely his own: a folksy singer-songwriter and a bluesy soulman rolled into one. It brims with moments that eschew tradition in favor of more organic, unbound expression — most notably, the bewitching “I know, I know, I know” of “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Sussex allowed him a creative freedom that he’s said his later label Columbia insisted on stifling. “If nobody throws all their rules at you, you might make a song with no introduction. Instead of singing about romantic love all the time, you make a love song about your grandmother or you make a friendship song,” he says in the Still Bill documentary. “[You’re] searching through your feelings and your vulnerabilities and your strength and your weaknesses, and you’re already loaded up enough with the burden of just trying to find those feelings.”

Being brave enough to feel when numbing was often easier put Withers in a tier unto himself. As a culture obsessed with youth and excess shuffled around him, he stood out as the antithesis to those things, and perhaps it set him free. He followed his artistic impulses wherever they led, and the destination turned out to be a hushed superstardom. Through it all, he continued to see and reflect regular working folks — those whose lives aren’t often commodified and glamorized but are beautiful and worthy no less. Talking to Rolling Stone in 2015, Questlove, noting the rarity of Black talent that’s allowed the space to be perfectly ordinary, opined that “Bill Withers is the closest thing Black people have to a Bruce Springsteen.” (In his memoir, Mo’ Meta Blues, Questlove names +’Justments as one of the albums that defined his early life.)

The success of Just as I Am and its 1972 follow up, Still Bill, powered a high-profile period of performances and touring. Seemingly overnight, the everyman was in demand everywhere, and by all appearances, he rose to the occasion with ease. Withers recognized that experience is the foundation of art, and he took his time to drink in what his life had become; over two years passed between his second album and +’Justments. In an appearance on NBC’s The Nancy Wilson Show, as he was gearing up for release, he explained that he “needed to take the time off to look at [him]self,” lest he become stale.

When he returned to the recording booth, he’d tasted the spoils of fame, for better and worse. Life on the road could be disappointing, or at least not satisfactorily lucrative. All the living that Withers did before and after he landed the spotlight is revealed in the thoughtful poise of +’Justments. There’s a more measured restraint of his backing musicians, made up of former members of the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band (“Express Yourself”) and a more worn but charming quality in his voice. It’s among the most well-regarded for deep-divers and the most disremembered for casual fans. But there’s more than just romantic heartache propelling it: A general sense of disillusionment pervades many of the songs, as if Withers had been let down not just by love but by the promise of a dream.

Album opener “You” is a five-minute missive that feels so targeted and so specific that it’s easy to wonder if you should be hearing it at all. Withers fills the song end to end with dirty details about an anonymous and universal ‘You,’ railing against ineffectual therapy, allegations of drug use and the hypocrisy of trying to assign blame without first checking the mirror. It’s not the kind of thing that readily lends itself to song — there are, after all, no choruses nor bridges — yet he offers it up as such. The spitefulness that offers momentum, and the casualness with which he lays it bare, is further charged by a funky, crisp string section that cuts the tension with razor-sharp playing. In contrast, the closing track, “Railroad Man,” is far less outwardly venomous, and instead directs the ire inward. As if to mirror “Better Off Dead,” the final song on his debut album, “Railroad Man” also floats the idea of ending it all for one reason or another.

“It’s among the most well-regarded for deep-divers and the most disremembered for casual fans. But there’s more than just romantic heartache propelling it: A general sense of disillusionment pervades many of the songs, as if Withers had been let down not just by love but by the promise of a dream.”

In between is an emotional cornucopia. “The Same Love That Made Me Laugh,” the album’s most commercially successful song, again reveals Withers’ ability to wring sentimentality from a simple word or phrase. When he stretches “why” — as in “Why must the same love that made me laugh make me cry?” — over several beats in a stair step sort of vocal run, it has the double effect of adding a legible sense of drama and creating a moment that burns the song in your brain. Elsewhere, “Heartbreak Road,” with its disgustingly infectious groove, is a bridge between the hollow loneliness in the aftermath of heartache and the optimism that nothing is for waste, not even misery.

If ever there was a thesis for not only +’Justments but for the Withers’ career as a whole, it might be “Stories.” Backed only by piano, played by John Barnes, and harp, played by Dorothy Ashby, Withers belts as one might a church hymn. At once, he delivers one of the most stunning vocal performances of his catalogue and makes fools of any who have ever doubted his soul bona fides. It’s a gorgeously austere arrangement, but it sums up the only thing he’s ever been here to do: relay the human condition. In the climax, he sings of “Tales of how you get to heaven, and how we been through hell” — an idea made literal over and over again by the lyrics of the songs around it.

There’s a 2014 interview Withers did with WNYC’s Death, Sex and Money wherein he downplays the process of songwriting. “You’re scratching yourself, and something crosses your mind. You try to say it and make it rhyme,” he said, later adding that “It’s really not as spiritual as people try to make it.” But there is something profound in even that recognition of the mundane as the center from which art evolves. Though he may not have claimed it himself, it’s a testament to his virtuosity that he understood he didn’t need any more than his day-to-day thoughts in his day-to-day language to connect. And +’Justments, like the releases that preceded it, does not betray that ethos, but it is the last album where its raw potency is unfettered.

So who was Bill Withers, and how did someone who resolutely believed in himself but not in the myth that surrounded him (or the industry) still achieve alchemy? He inscribed the answer on the cover of +’Justments itself. His words capture the infinite wisdom contained in these 37 minutes, but also in the expanse of his discography; they are, in effect, the magic that is not magic at all. “We have the choice of believing or not believing in things like God, friendship, marriage, love, lust or any number of simple but complicated things,” he writes. “We will make some mistakes both in judgment and in fact. We will help some situations and hurt some situations. We will help some people and hurt some people and be left to live with it either way.”

This wasn’t a man aiming for perfection or absolution — simply for some semblance of integrity and enough grace to make room for adjustments along the journey.

Bri Younger

Briana Younger is an N.Y.-based writer whose work has appeared in Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, the Washington Post, NPR and more.

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