Chris Maxwell on Five Songwriters Who Matter Most

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

First known as member of Skeleton Key, Chris Maxwell is now out with his second solo album, New Store No. 2, which was released on Valentine’s Day, 2020 by Max Recordings. We wondered which songwriters impacted his singular journey the most, and invited him to tell us.

Here’s Chris Maxwell on five of the most important songwriters in his life.

  1. James McMurtry.
    You could do a quick scan of McMurtry’s songs and think he’s just another Texas outlaw-songwriter in the vein of artists like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark or Joe Ely. Great company to be lumped in with! But a closer listen to a song like “Cooper Canteen” you can hear a tale of love limping,that’s neither at the beginning or the end and, to me, feels more like a Raymond Carver short story than a three minute ditty. 
  2. Vic Chestnut.
    Like Randy Newman, Vic Chestnut exists in a universe that only he occupies. Where Newman’s characters come alive and step out of the grooves, Vic is the character that you find sitting next to you uncomfortably close as he croons a song like “Coward” or “Bug.” Partly what makes Vic’s voice so unique is the irreverent sense of humor, scathing at times, and the courage to skewer himself as well as others.
  3. Joni Mitchell 
    Joni is someone I’m still trying to get my head around and that’s what I love about her. As a kid listening to my mom’s records, I could imagine playing a Dylan song or even trying to write a Neil Young song, but Joni seemed to tower over everyone. How she tells a story just seems impossibly beautiful, pinning every word to bird-like notes. She writes hooks, but they aren’t always where they’re suppose to be, and they might be different for everyone. It’s good to listen to a 40 year old record that still makes you scratch your head. 
  4. The Great American Songbook as sung by Frank Sinatra.
    Okay, he was not a songwriter but he had great taste, especially in his Capitol years. He was also lucky.  Songwriters like Harold Arlen, Cole Porter and Rodgers & Hart had discovered a new way of putting together words and music, technology had elevated recording, and the long-playing record had just arrived. All at just the right time. Add an orchestra with Nelson Riddle or Count Basie as your orchestrator and you have some of the most perfect musical moments ever recorded. Songs like “I’ve Got the World on a String” (by Harold Arlen & Ted Koehler) or “My Funny Valentine” (by Rodgers & Hart) kill me every time: “Is your figure less than Greek /Is your mouth a little weak /When you open it to speak/ Are you smart?” Giving answers in the form of questions strips away the sentimentality and makes it achingly honest.
  5. Michael Jukes.
    This is one that will take you to the Google machine ( ). Trust me, you don’t have his music. Recorded over decades with an ever changing lo-fi format, churning out tons and tons of songs and they’re all gorgeous. The greatest songwriter that you’ve never heard and one of the people I was most influenced by when I started out. I need more room than a paragraph to talk about his music. They defy category. At moments a song may sound familiar but then you realize it’s nothing you’ve ever heard before. The words and melodies follow you around like shadows – impossible to ignore or forget.


Chris Maxwell is a quintuple threat: gifted songwriter, singer, guitarist, producer, arranger. He’s best known for the catchy, jagged junkyard rock he made with the legendary New York band Skeleton Key in the ’90s and more recently as half of the Elegant Too production team. With the latter he’s composed and recorded music for hit TV series like the Emmy Award-winning Bob’s Burgers. He’s produced many artists, including They Might Be Giants and Jon Spencer. His newest albums is “New Store No. 2,” which was released on Valentine’s Day, 2020 by Max Recordings.

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