Wallflowers frontman reunites with T Bone Burnett for new solo disc

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Editor’s note: Jakob Dylan will promote his new album at the inaugural Nateva Music & Camping Festival at the Oxford County Fairgrounds over the Fourth of July weekend.

Wallflowers frontman reunites with T Bone Burnett for new solo disc

By Chris Riemenschneider

Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

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AUSTIN, Texas — As a small crew of Columbia Records staffers and artists converged in a cafe courtyard during last month’s South by Southwest Music Conference, everyone’s attention — including that of fellow rock stars James Mercer and Brian (Danger Mouse) Burton of Broken Bells — appeared to be centered on one guy, who sat in the corner holding court.

He long ago came out from under his father’s shadow, but Jakob Dylan still has Bob Dylan’s aura.

Wearing aviator sunglasses and a brown suede hat, the 40-year-old Dylan looked understatedly cool. He sounded that way, too, once he broke away to discuss the origins of his new album, “Women + Country,” a twangy collection featuring alt-country bellower Neko Case on harmonies and the red-hot-again T Bone Burnett as producer.

“I worked with T Bone back in ’95, and we had a little success together,” he started off. Dylan was being coy about his first “little” Burnett collaboration.

It was his breakthrough album with the Wallflowers, “Bringing Down the Horse,” which sold more than 5 million U.S. copies, won two Grammys and produced four hit singles, including “One Headlight” and “6th Avenue Heartache.”

But that was 15 years ago. The Wallflowers maintained a devoted following but never came close to matching that success, and since 2005 the group has been largely inactive.

Making a modest debut at No. 12 on the Billboard chart two weeks ago, “Women + Country” hardly comes off as an attempt to rekindle that success, but it is quite an ambitious artistic achievement. Some of Dylan’s best lyrical and vocal work to date, songs such as “Nothing But the Whole Wide World” and “Everybody’s Hurting” are laden with references to wars and wounds — products of the record’s two title words.

“The album title pretty clearly states what the record is thematically,” he said. “The ‘Country’ isn’t necessarily this country, but just the qualities that those two different subjects bring out in all of us, ranging from wonderful to completely disastrous. They seem to bring out the best and worst in us.”

Burnett certainly seems to know how to bring out the best in Dylan. If anything, “Women + Country” might be cast as a repeat of another hot Burnett product, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ “Raising Sand.” It features a lot of the same session musicians, plus there’s a country-ish female singer harmonizing with a male rocker.

“People liked that record a lot, and it’s an understandable comparison, so I’ll accept that,” Dylan said. “And I’ll take half as many Grammys as it got.”

After the Plant/Krauss record, Burnett co-helmed the soundtrack for the Oscar-winning “Crazy Heart” and produced Willie Nelson’s latest album (and greatest in more than a decade), “Country Music.” As planned, he and Dylan knocked out the bulk of “Women + Country” in about a week with some of Burnett’s go-to musicians, including guitarist Marc Ribot, pedal-steel wiz Greg Leisz and drummer Jay Bellerose.

“T Bone has been making his records for quite some time with a cast of people he’s put together,” Dylan said. “He built that sound. It’s the sound I could hear myself singing in.

“It’s tricky. It’s not just about picking up a mandolin or a pedal steel or fiddle. He has figured out something that’s very unique and special.”

Case was brought aboard after those initial sessions, along with her singing partner, Kelly Hogan, who tours in her band.

“We made the record knowing we were going to have space for someone to harmonize all over it,” Dylan recounted. “In the past, I’d go back and do the harmonies, but I didn’t want to hear myself again in this case. The nature of the material was it had to be a woman. T Bone’s the one who thought of Neko and Kelly.”

Dylan had actually never met Case but was confident she was right for the job.

“We ran in similar circles, knew a lot of the same people,” he said. “The chemistry was great. We’re cut from a similar cloth. I think we’ve listened to a lot of the same people. The shorthand was already in place.”

Dylan was happily surprised that Case was available and willing to hit the road with him, since she tours with the New Pornographers in addition to her solo outings.

“I’m going to have to assume she really likes these songs,” he said with a smirk.

The Wallflowers, by the way, are still an active band. “We just haven’t reconnected a lot recently,” he said. “We toured some last summer, and now we’re talking some more and sort of restrategizing, and if we come up with something that everybody feels good about doing together, we certainly will.”

Like a certain other Dylan, though, Jakob seems content to mix things up from here on out in his career, with “Women + Country” leading the way.

“This feels pretty adventurous in the end,” he said, “and it feels great.”

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