Jonathan Wilson: Curator of Song and Sound

With the excellent Dixie Blur, Roger Waters’ go-to guitarist returns to his Southern roots

Jonathan Wilson (Collage by Ron Hart)

In October 1908, Henry Ford watched proudly as the first Model T rolled off the production line, offering freedom in the form of affordable transportation to Americans everywhere.

But it wasn’t until 1926, when Highway 40, an east-west traversal spanning some 3,228 miles, made a new kind of cross-country car travel possible. Interstate 40 literally brought the country together in a way unimagined since the Golden Spike connected the transcontinental railroad in 1869. Even today, you could hit the road from, say, North Carolina to California and spend most of the 2,500 mile trek on I-40.

Jonathan Wilson, who grew up in Thomasville, NC before hearing the siren call of the musical Mecca of Laurel Canyon, CA, has now made that journey nearly into a round trip – from North Carolina to L.A. and back to Nashville, where he recorded his latest album, Dixie Blur. But when I catch up with him just as the nation is heading into pandemic lockdown, he’s in a faceless airport hotel (“I forgot what room I’m in,” he tells me) at JFK, trying “to get the hell out of Dodge,” after his show at Brooklyn Bowl was cancelled. Two nights before, he played his last concert for the foreseeable future, up in Toronto. It was “a little eerie,” he says, “It wasn’t super-crowded, some of the people who bought tickets didn’t even show up.”

Even though it feels a little like the end of world right now, I’m still dwelling on the end of the decade just past, like most music writers. I wonder if Wilson feels like he made his mark on the 2010’s, during which he released three albums of increasing ambition and textural depth while also producing numerous other artists.

“I would hope so,” he answers, pensively. “Particularly in this country, with the Dawes stuff, with my stuff and Father John…some of that spreads out across the globe, which is a good thing.”

But he’s not someone who dwells on the past: “I tend not to think and reflect back that much, I just like to keep my head down and make an attempt to keep things popping. That’s what I’m up to now.” But I have to agree when he adds, almost as an afterthought, “I definitely feel that we made some of the most interesting songs.”

 

While I often find Taylor Goldsmith’s lyrics lacking in depth, the melodic song-craft in Dawes is always topnotch. But when it comes to “interesting songs,” Wilson is being far too modest about what he achieved alongside the man he calls “Tillman,” with whom he made three albums that defined the era: Fear Fun (2012), I Love You Honeybear (2015), and Pure Comedy (2017). Looking at the credits for the first will give you a sense of the depth of their collaboration. In addition to producing and engineering, Wilson also played (deep breath): electric, acoustic, 12-string, and baritone guitars, bass, mandolin, VOX and Hammond organs, and even trumpet on the opening track. This was par for the course after having made his own debut, Gentle Spirit (2011) essentially on his own. The fact that he played all the instruments on  a groovy masterpiece like “Desert Raven” would give even a notorious one-man-band guy like Paul McCartney pause. 

While I can’t be sure if Macca ever heard Gentle Spirit, when I ask Wilson about his hopes for the album, it turns out some other notable musicians gave him an infusion of confidence when he needed it most. “I was just trying to get somebody to put it out, where it felt right. I was super-fortunate to find a home [at Bella Union] for my work. That all came down to Fleet Foxes and Tillman, who were fans, so that’s how that all got off the ground. I had been sitting on the thing, sort of existing on accolades, nice e-mails from Elvis Costello, shit like that, which was giving me a sense of hope, a sense that I had something special and not to just pop it out on BandCamp or something. To make sure to give it a proper space to grow.”

Grow it did, ending up on several end of the year lists in British magazines like the late, lamented Word, which is how I learned about it. When I reminisce aloud about needing the English press to point me in the direction of one of America’s finest, Wilson interjects, “Kinda like the Hendrix style!” Indeed. 

Another artist whose sound Wilson has helped to shape is the enchanting singer who calls herself Jenny O., with whom he made both Automechanic (2013) and Peace & Information (2017). In fact, the second time I saw Wilson, back in 2012, Jenny O. opened for him and something she said made me wonder about his personality as a producer. She mentioned that she had a new album coming out that had been “produced by, for and at me by Jonathan Wilson.” Having always sensed a steely determination on his records, I came right out with it: Is he a bit of a tough guy in the studio? 

 

VIDEO: Jenny O “People”

Before answering, he chuckled a little in a way that made me feel I wasn’t entirely off base – but not with Jenny O: “No, not with her. She’s so great, you don’t have to do much, you don’t have to say much. Those really cool songs, and her attitude in the studio is so fantastic. She also was down to give me, not carte blanch, but the freedom to be that guy. She’s just a pleasure to work with.” Easy peasy, then…and why wouldn’t you want to give Wilson the freedom to be “that guy,” or even carte blanch? 

Considering all the work he’s done for others, I was curious about what he got out of the exchange. Quite a bit as it turns out, on both practical and creative levels. “I started out doing the production just because I had built this big studio and people were like, ‘Oh shit, can I come over there to record?’ So that was what got that off the ground. But then you start to get into it, you have some things that catch on, that become successful. But, it was always a vehicle for my own stuff, I was just trying to sort of pass the time and be able to experiment with sounds on someone else’s dime, that was the whole point. And then I could take some of the stuff I learned and apply it to my own shit.”

Eventually things caught on enough that Wilson started working with Roger Waters, playing on his last solo album, 2017’s Is This The Life We Really Want, and going on the road for the ensuing Us + Them tour, putting him in arenas around the world. I wondered if the man Waters called “our resident hippy” ever felt like a cog in the machine (pun intended). Not hardly, as it happens.

“It was a cool turn, they way it all unfolded,” Wilson tells me, his excitement building at the memory, “We did 75% of the album at my studio, so it’s a lot of my curation, my cymbals, my amps, my piano, all that shit, so it’s really, really fun for me to hear it – Oh, shit, those are my tones on stuff.” 

 

VIDEO: Roger Waters performs “Pigs” in Mexico City, 2017

Looking back at it now, Wilson grows philosophical. “That’s one of those once in a lifetime synchronistic events, and then it’s not really a stretch for me to play with him and sing those songs, it kind of makes sense in some weird way. I bend the guitar in this soft, lyrical way that’s not to far off from that band and style, and I sing in a sort of breathy…whatever, which kind of fits those songs. That’s was sort of, well, of course this is happening. It makes no sense but then it makes total sense.” 

Few people alive could step into David Gilmour’s shoes like its no big deal, but being on tour for nearly 18 months must have taken its toll, hinted at in the opening stanza of “69 Corvette” from the new album: “Been in this hotel room too long/The marble prison requires housekeeping.” Would he get on that merry-go-round with Waters again? “Yeah!” Wilson answers with an “Are you crazy? Of course!” edge to his voice. “I was just with the man last night, we were drinking mezcal and getting fucking wild. We’re going to kick back off – if all this corona slows down – we have a tour booked for the summer. Should be cool.” (Waters’ This Is Not A Drill tour was subsequently postponed until 2021).

While the longing for home was real, Wilson had no hard and fast ideas about making a record closer to home until Steve Earle gave him the idea after they met up during a bluegrass festival. As Wilson recently told Rolling Stone, “We got together and played this NPR show and at some point I was explaining to him that I wasn’t sure what the fuck I was going to do. He said something to the effect of ‘go to Nashville. So I imagined what a crack session band would sound like and what I could do with that.

Heading to Nashville, where Dixie Blur was recorded in Cowboy Jack Clement’s studio, also put Wilson in one of the epicenters of Americana, that blend of country and rock that goes back to at least when Bob Dylan decamped from New York to finish Blonde On Blonde. Considering that Wilson’s last two albums delved more deeply into psychedelia, often with a British flair, I wanted to hear if he had thoughts about what might mark something as quintessentially American. “There’s obviously a deep sense of tradition and pride, some of the disciplines of the particular instruments, the fiddle being a big part of it. When I first heard the term Americana, it probably was more pertaining to some British guys, you know, who were doing the wordless chorus and stomps, with the bass drum at the front of the stage – I thought it sucked, I didn’t like that title, it had a sort of derogatory feeling.” Even though I agree wholeheartedly, I can’t help thinking that somewhere Marcus Mumford’s ears are on fire.

Coming back to Dixie Blur, Wilson says, “This time I was really interested to sort of explore that and taste-make or curate what I felt was a quality version of a definite American offering.” Even though Nashville is closer to Wilson’s roots than Laurel Canyon, some fans might find the sound of the new record off-putting and not exactly what they signed up for when Gentle Spirit caught their ears. I find the confidence with which Wilson pursues his tangents makes it easy for me to follow him wherever he goes. How does he stay in touch with his muse? “Just so happens that the Dixie Blur stuff is more of my true identity, my upbringing or where I’m from…it’s not a stretch for me to go to Nashville and to play with a fiddle and a pedal steel, ‘cause  that’s what I was exposed to as a kid. My uncle, for example, was in the Bill Monroe band, that was all in the blood.”

Continuing the thought, Wilson ends up giving insights on all of his previous work: “Some of the other stuff I’ve done is just more things I like, and tones and sounds from my imagination, I just imagine the perfect psych, acid-fuzz solo. That’s just coming from me imagining what a sound can be. This is just unapologetically where I’m from.”

A sort of homecoming, then? “It didn’t really happen as a planned-out thing, this album, it just sort of fell into place. When some of the advances started going out, and I started doing some of the press, and seeing some of the press, and it was ‘Jonathan has done a coming home thing, a coming back to his roots thing,’ and I was, like, ‘Well, it’s kind of true.’”

Jonathan Wilson Dixie Blur, Thirty Tigers 2020

For this listener, the impression is of a country being stitched back together, with Wilson’s return east, whether on I-40 or not, reminding us of all we have in common as Americans. The perfect message at a time of great division. Before we get into the nitty-gritty about Dixie Blur, I opine about the many sonic call-backs to our musical past, whether in the flashing fiddle of Mark O’Connor, the weeping pedal steel of Russ Pahl, or Phil Spectorized drum sounds. Was this a way of reflecting on what actually made America great decades ago, how music has often showed us at our best, even when we’re failing to care for our people in other ways?

“Definitely,” Wilson answers quickly, “The cross-pollenization…musicians have always been cross-pollenating with the blues and country in the south. There’s always been friendships that crossed social norms. Musicians have always been in the know that things should be, no pun intended, more harmonious. I was just in a shop on 13th Street where these young urban cats were listening to Dolly Parton and it sounded great. Now more than ever people can appreciate some of the great things that were done across the different genres, people can discover some cool stories, like Charley Pride, which is just a good vibe.”

While Wilson is a brilliant songwriter, with seemingly all of rock history at his fingertips, he has also staked his claim to the past in another way, through dazzling cover versions. Some of these are well-known songs, such as “Isn’t It A Pity,” recorded with Graham Nash for a George Harrison tribute album. When I mention that, I can’t help putting in a pitch to hear him cover “Hear Me Lord,” a slightly neglected track from All Things Must Pass, telling him I can imagine just playing those chords would bring him great satisfaction. “That’s such a beautiful song, man. Yeah, dude, for sure.” If it ever happens, I’ll give myself A&R credit.

 

AUDIO: George Harrison “Hear Me Lord”

But most of his covers are more obscure, like “Angel,” a gem from Bob Welch’s time in Fleetwood Mac, often taken into the stratosphere by Wilson in concert. Then there’s “Fazon,” a deep cut by long-forgotten SF band Sopwith Camel. Wilson’s version, included on Fanfare, seems to me richer and more musically assured than the original, so I ask him if he sees some of these as a way to more fully realize songs that are somewhat schematic. 

“Right…that can happen. That one [‘Fazon’] was pretty great, the OG version. I’ve found a couple of songs through the years that I thought I could make a part of my sound. I’m not fixated on being the composer of every single thing I ever sing. There can be a power or strength in concentrating on some of the other parts of a song, not necessarily being a composer of the words and stuff like that. You get that with someone like a Jerry Garcia, his job was concentrating more on the chordal part of the whole thing and he liked to get the poetry from another guy. That’s something I’ve done a bit. There’s two songs on Fanfare where I got the words from a friend.”

It sounds like he sees the covers as an act more of homage than rescue, and a way to spread his wings as a producer and singer. That’s certainly the case with “Just For Love,” a Quicksilver Messenger Service chestnut that opens Dixie Blur, which has Wilson pushing his voice into new expressive territory that aims directly for the gut – and lands like a haymaker. Still, I thought it was unusual to open with someone else’s song. “It’s a song I picked up and started singing with my band,” Wilson explains, “Then we tracked it with this band, cause the band was so good, just fucking A-list, the Nashville cats…it sounded so good. I was going through my notebooks just trying songs. That one…something about the way it starts, it just has this intro feeling.” Very true to form, Wilson put his ego as a composer to the side when deciding what was best for the album. 

Wilson, a master guitarist who is known for building his own axes and pedals, was also self-effacing enough to give Kenny Vaughan the spotlight on the spectacular rockabilly-inflected solo on “In Heaven Making Love,” an exuberant burst of sexy fun. Not too many people in this day and age could have nailed that sound the way Vaughn did, so I figured it was a thrill to have a front-row seat as it took shape. “It’s really, really cool man,” Wilson remarks, “I had that part, I wrote the melody and then he expounded on it in this really fucking cool way.” 

He went on, giving some key production tips – you may want to take notes: “And I put the whole band through the tape slap, to give it more of that…super Sun Studios vibe. And then, for him to kick it over to that killer fucking fiddle work. That was really fun to be a part of that, to hear how tight that band was, particularly…we’re going to have to talk a minute about O’Conner, who’s like an American treasure. His spontaneous composition on solos is just fucking unbelievable.”

Mark O’Connor, who won competitions in both fiddle and flat-pick guitar at the tender age of 13, is certainly an American legend, as known for bringing down the house at the Grand Ol’Opry as for collaborating with Yo Yo Ma and Edgar Meyer. His first response to being asked to work on Dixie Blur was something along the lines of “No thanks – I don’t do sessions anymore.” But Wilson’s deeply musical spirit must have convinced him as he ended up working on five songs on Dixie Blur, conjuring up memories on “69 Corvette” or blitzing his way through “El Camino Real.” His work is so perfect, with each solo telling its own story, yet still spontaneous. Were these first takes?

“Not necessarily first,” Wilson says, “We did two or three usually for each song. But each one, when he launches into a solo, it’s completely different, completely through-composed, where from the moment he starts to the moment he stops the solo, he knows where the fucking arc is. It’s like listening to fucking Sonny Rollins or something. It’s super, super fucking high end. That was one of the most exciting parts, you know, was just to be a fly on the wall for his solos.”

Jonathan Wilson 2020 (Art: Ron Hart)

This relates back to Dylan’s experience working on Blonde On Blonde, where the absolute professionalism of the musicians was a change from the scrappier New York scene. Wilson agrees: “Yeah – they’re just ready to do a master-quality take that’s gonna live on the shelves of a store forever. That’s not everybody, but when you get to the higher end, some of the more experienced folks who have done fucking hundreds of sessions, if not albums, they start to understand what it takes. It’s like an unspoken thing, like, are you going to play a solo that gonna live on a Garth Brooks thing forever? And if you can’t, we’re going to find somebody who can. It’s a bit of cutthroat thing, but for someone like me, that was an honor and I was into it.”

As honored as Wilson felt to be among studio royalty, nothing would keep him from his musical vision. For example, the way Jon Radford’s drums sound on “Oh Girl” – those high-tuned toms – is so specific, and not very Nashville, so I assumed it was something he imposed on the session.

“Oh, yeah, that’s all me, curating all those tones and bringing drums and bringing cymbals…there’s certain tonal requirements and frequencies that I kind of have to have, and I bring a snare drum that’s got that sound and the high-tuned toms, you know. That’s just me aping 60’s psychedelia, a band like, fucking, J.Kaye & Co., or Euphoria, they made an album in 69. That’s just me being such a big fan of that stuff and no one else has gotten those tones since then. I’m going to at least try. That’s what that’s all about. And the top end of the cymbals is kind of a big deal, too.”

Wilson’s curation and musical references sometimes extend to his lyrics, too, as on “Riding The Blinds.” Mournful, almost ethereal at times, the words call out to no fewer than five blues classics, including “Dust My Broom” and “Killing Floor.” It is decidedly not a blues song, but it did get me thinking if he was contemplating a new direction. Might he pivot again from cosmic American music, to make a blues album? After a brief pause, he answers, with perfect deadpan, “As long as you can spell it with a “zed” on the end, then I’m down!” A “blooz”album then…and with that my career as Wilson’s A&R comes to a crashing halt.

But I do hit the mark when I recount the first time I heard “El Camino Real” and thought it must have been the most fun he’s ever had in the studio.

“Now, that IS true,” he answers, “That fiddle solo at the end is just over the top, c’mon, I mean it’s over the top, over THE top…”

Then it hits that double-time section…

“Yeah, when the fucking Orange Blossom Special starts coming in, yeah, we were like, OK, you played this song – I’m talking about O’Connor – you played this song with Chet Atkins, with George Jones, at the Grand Old Opry a million times, this is as real as it gets.”

So real, and such a blast to hear.

After that kick in the pants, Dixie Blur settles us down on the featherbed of “Golden Apples,” with Jim Hoke’s filigree of flute and chromatic harp lending yet more novel textures to Wilson’s oeuvre. Wilco’s Pat Sansone, who co-produced and contributed bass, backing vocals, and keyboards to several songs, also plays a big role in bringing new angles to Wilson’s sound on Dixie Blur. They’re old friends, it turns out, having known each other “A long time, since the year 2000. Patrick is guy I’ve done a number of things with through the years, he’s a wonderful fucking player, singer, kick-ass fucking bass player, he shreds the piano, he’s just fantastic. He’s known me a long time, he knows my family and shit, my whole story.” With so many new folks to play with it must have been nice to have that level of comfort with someone. “Right,” Wilson concurs.

 

As a skilled multi-instrumentalist, Wilson must have the highest standards for anyone who plays with him, which is certainly in evidence at every show I’ve seen.  “Yeah, man, I’ve been lucky enough to segue to where I can get those people to play with me on stage and on tour, you know, which you can’t always do in the early days. It’s super-cool.”

 

With that in mind, and although the tour for Dixie Blur is currently on hold, I’m curious about which musicians Wilson has “curated” for the road band. Any of the folks from the record?” “Yeah! The drummer from the record, a guy by the name of Jon Radford, really fantastic guy. Then, beyond that, we have a few other folks from the Nashville scene that are in this band, so it’s called the Nearly Nashville band. We have a wonderful singer-songwriter, kick-ass fiddle player named Joshua Hedley, he’s got his own shit, you know, he’s an amazing fucking country singer who really shreds the fiddle. That’s part of the configuration for this band, so it’s called the Nearly Nashville band.”

A friend of mine shared some video from the kickoff show at Hollywood Forever in early March and I couldn’t help noticing the upright bass on stage. “That’s my friend, a wonderful bass player from Seattle named Abbey Rae Blackwell, she’s the shit. So, it’s a six-piece band, it’s a cool sound. We have an amazing fucking pedal steel player [Spencer Cullum, Jr.], that’s giving us sort of a Sneaky Pete, cosmic country feel to the show.” Having seen Wilson every year he’s played New York since 2012, there may be no one looking forward to the tour resuming more than me, besides Wilson himself. “I wish you could see this band,” he tells me, “It’s 99 percent it will be the same band, it’s such a special, kind of different thing. Especially with the older songs.”

 

VIDEO: Jonathan Wilson Live in Hollywood, March 6, 2020

All of his songs draw on classic structures and mood so it’s easy to imagine even epics like “Dear Friend” achieving liftoff with a mostly acoustic band. Wilson concurs: “Yeah, man, that’s the idea, the bigger songs from Rare Birds and other stuff, they started out on guitar, you know the basis of them is fairly simple.”

Picturing Wilson strumming an acoustic and coming up with tunes is easy, but then there are the lyrics, which across his albums form a tapestry from the personal to the phantasmagorical. “I just keep a running log,” he reveals, “A long fucking document of things that come to mind. I can scan that at the time I’m trying to find something. It’s all part of one big sonic stew…that’s where I found the title for Dixie Blur, that’s at the bottom of some long fucking document.”

“I just gotta keep it constantly going,” he goes on, “Rarely do I sit down with just a blank page and a guitar and finish a song. There’s always fragment there that needs to be expounded upon. With the Dixie Blur stuff, once I had a plan in place and knew how I was going to do it, I started to examine all the things I had, fragments and stuff, and what might work with this band and this sound. Suddenly, you find a clearer path to finishing something.”

Now that he’s sidelined, could another path appear sooner, writing new songs and the like? Wilson speaks slowly, figuring it out while he talks. “To be honest, what’s coming next…I’m not really sure, man. I’m going to have to get this thing out there…now with all this shit going on, postponing the touring, it’s good and bad, that means that the campaign for this thing will last a bit longer, so, you know, I have some time to figure out what’s going to be the next move.”

Jonathan Wilson

Maybe clues to the future come from what been in Wilson’s ears lately. His answer hints that we shouldn’t be completely taken aback if he doubles down on country music. “I’ve been listening to a lot of George Jones. He’s probably one of the greatest, or the greatest singer, fucking country or otherwise, of all time. I’ve been listening to him a lot. I recently discovered a singer from back in the day, a cool Nashville singer by the name of Gary Stewart, I think he’s super-cool, he’s a guy I had not explored.” Nor I – thanks for the tip. 

“Some of the current stuff, newer stuff,” he continues, “I’ve been listening to Bill Callahan in my studio. I always tend to listen to k.d. lang, I’m a big fan of hers. The Owen Bradley sessions are incredible. Yeah, man! I jump around a lot, from genre to genre, I see it as all one huge lifetime, I can’t be pigeonholed into a certain genre.”

One huge lifetime, one huge country, and so many musical roads to explore. Here’s to Wilson’s next itinerary, whether he strays far from the I-40 or follows an old billboard showing the way back to another version of home.

 

AUDIO: Jonathan Wilson Dixie Blur (full album)

Jeremy Shatan

Jeremy Shatan is a dad, music obsessive, and NYC dweller, working to enable the best health care at Mount Sinai Health System. He’s also a contributing writer for RockandRollGlobe.com. Follow him on Twitter@anearful.

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