A precociously gifted songwriter, Browne signed a publishing contract with Nina Music, and his songs were performed by Joan Baez, Tom Rush, the Eagles, Linda Ronstadt, the Byrds and Steve Noonan, among others. After moving to Greenwich Village, New York, Browne was briefly in Tim Buckley's back-up band. He also worked on Nico's Chelsea Girl, both by playing guitar and penning the classic song "These Days". After leaving New York City, Browne formed a folk band with Ned Doheny and Jack Wilce. Except for this short period of living in New York, Browne has, to this day, lived in Southern California.
His next album, For Everyman (1973) — while considered of high quality — was less successful than his debut album, although it still sold a million copies. The upbeat "Take It Easy," co-written with The Eagles' Glenn Frey, had already been a big hit for that group, while "These Days" (actually written by Browne and first recorded by Nico in 1967) captured the essence of Browne's youthful, morose angst. The title track, meanwhile, was the first of Browne's studies of personal exploration, soul-searching, and despair set against the backdrop of a decaying society.
Late for the Sky (1974) consolidated Browne's following, with some fans drawn in purely by the record's intriguing, Magritte-inspired cover. Highlights included the searching, heartbreaking title song, the elegiac "For a Dancer" and the apocalyptic "Before the Deluge". The arrangements featured the evocative violin and guitar of David Lindley, Jai Winding's outstanding piano, and the stellar harmonies of Doug Haywood. The title track was also featured in Martin Scorsese's film Taxi Driver. Around this time, Browne began his fractious but lifelong professional relationship with singer/songwriter Warren Zevon, mentoring Zevon's first two Asylum albums through the studio as a producer after browbeating Asylum head David Geffen into giving Zevon a recording contract.
Browne's disaffected, wondering character struck out even more starkly in his next album, The Pretender, which is arguably his darkest and yet musically and lyrically his brightest. It was released in 1976, after the suicide of his first wife, Phyllis Major. The album features stronger production by Jon Landau and a mixture of styles, ranging from the Mariachi-inspired peppiness of "Linda Paloma" to the country-driven "Your Bright Baby Blues" to the near-hopeless sadness and surrender of "Sleep's Dark and Silent Gate". The title track "The Pretender" is Browne's magnum opus, a vivid account of romanticism losing the battle with the realities of day-to-day life. "Here Come Those Tears Again" was cowritten with Nancy Farnsworth, the mother of Browne's wife, after the untimely death of her daughter.
By then, Browne's work had gained a reputation for its compelling melodies, clear, honest, and insightful lyrics, and a flair for composition rarely seen in the world of rock and roll. He was often referred to as "a thinking man's rock star."
Browne began recording his next LP while on tour, and Running on Empty (1977) became his biggest commercial success. Breaking the usual conventions for a live album, Browne used all new material and combined live concert performances with recordings made on buses, in hotel rooms, and back stage, creating the audio equivalent of a road movie. Running on Empty contains many renowned songs, such as the propulsive title track, "Running on Empty", "The Road" (written and recorded in 1972 by Danny O'Keefe), "Rosie", and "The Load-Out/Stay" (Browne's affectionate and knowing send-off to his concert audiences and roadies).
He was in a relationship with Daryl Hannah from 1978 (when she was 18) through 1992 with the exception of his January 1981 marriage to Australian model, Lynne Sweeney with whom he had a second son, Ryan Daniel, born in 1982. Jackson and Lynn were divorced in 1983 and he continued with Hannah until she left him for John F. Kennedy, Jr. He has been in a relationship with artist Dianna Cohen since the mid '90s.
Political protest came to the fore in Browne's music in the 1986 album, Lives in the Balance, an explicit condemnation of Reaganism and U.S. policy in Central America. Flavored with new instrumental textures, it was a huge success with Browne fans, though not with mainstream audiences. The title track, "Lives in the Balance", with its Andean pan pipes — and lines like, "There's a shadow on the faces / Of the men who fan the flames / Of the wars that are fought in places / Where we can't even say the names" — was a cri de coeur against U.S.-backed wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The song was used at several points in the award-winning 1987 PBS documentary, The Secret Government: The Constitution in Crisis, by journalist Bill Moyers, and was part of the soundtrack of Stone's War, a 1986 Miami Vice episode focusing on American involvement in Central America.
During the 1980s, Browne frequently performed at benefit concerts for causes he believed in, including Farm Aid; Amnesty International (making several appearances on the 1986 A Conspiracy of Hope Tour); post-Somoza, revolutionary Nicaragua; and the Christic Institute. The album, World in Motion, released in 1989, was even more politically-oriented and polarizing and contains a remarkable cover of Steve Van Zandt's "I am a Patriot," a song which he has performed at numerous concerts.
In 1995 he performed in The Wizard of Oz in Concert: Dreams Come True a musical performance of the popular story at Lincoln Center to benefit the Children's Defense Fund. The performance was originally broadcast on Turner Network Television (TNT), and issued on CD and video in 1996.
Browne was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004. In his induction speech, Bruce Springsteen noted that while the Eagles got to the Hall first, "You [Browne] wrote the songs they wished they had written". The previous year, three of Browne's albums — For Everyman, Late for the Sky, and The Pretender — had been selected by Rolling Stone magazine as among its choices for the 500 best albums of all time.
Browne appeared in several rallies for presidential candidate Ralph Nader in 2000, singing "I Am A Patriot" and other songs. He participated in the Vote for Change tour in October 2004, playing a series of concerts in American swing states. These concerts were organized by MoveOn.org to mobilize people to vote for John Kerry in the presidential election. Browne appeared with Bonnie Raitt and Keb' Mo', and once with Bruce Springsteen. In late 2006, Browne performed with Michael Stanley and J. D. Souther at a fundraiser for Democratic candidates in Ohio. For the 2008 Presidential Election he endorsed John Edwards for the Democratic Presidential Nomination and performed at some of Edwards' appearances.
Solo Acoustic, Vol. 1, was released in 2005 on Inside Recordings. The album consists of live recordings of eleven previously released tracks and "The Birds of St. Marks", a song that does not appear on any of Browne's studio albums.
Browne's new studio album, "Time The Conqueror", was released in September 2008 via Inside Recordings, his first studio album since leaving longtime label Elektra Records in 2003.
Browne also covered John Lennon's "Oh My Love" to benefit Amnesty International's campaign to alleviate the crisis in Darfur. The song appears on the album Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur, which was released on June 12, 2007 and features many other prominent artists performing other Lennon covers, such as Jack Johnson, U2, Avril Lavigne, Green Day, and the Black Eyed Peas.