The Curmudgeon: Bob Dylan's Guitarists

Or How To Play Guitar Behind Lyrics

Music Features Bob Dylan
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The Curmudgeon: Bob Dylan's Guitarists

John “J.J.” Jackson absorbed many lessons while serving a stint in Bob Dylan’s band from 1991 to 1997, but the most important was how to play electric guitar behind a singer who leans heavily on lyrics. He learned how to stay out of the way of the words while at the same time making his presence felt whenever there was an opening.

This would seem like the most obvious thing in the world, but I’m forever astonished by all the guitarists who haven’t grasped this basic concept. At concerts in any genre at any locale, I’ve encountered guitarists who play at the same aggressive volume from the start of the song to the finish, reducing the vocals to mere sounds without intelligible words. (See Hey, E Street Punk, I Can’t Hear You.)

This is annoying in any context but especially so when the bandleader is a singer/songwriter with a literary bent. You’re attracted to those words when you hear the studio versions of the songs and you come to the concert looking forward to hearing that verbal imagery come alive, only to find the language has been bulldozed into a rubble of indecipherable syllables by a guitarist who’s cranked up his amp to 11.

Maybe he doesn’t pay attention to the lyrics himself, so he assumes no one else is interested either; maybe he believes it’s all about the buzz and throb of the music and the words are a disposable accessory. Maybe he’s reinforced in that belief by that rowdy, inebriated segment of the audience that doesn’t care about words either. But it’s a real drag for those of us who do care.

Only slightly less irritating is the guitarist who plays so politely behind the singer that the instrument adds nothing to the performance. Maybe this guitarist doesn’t obscure the lyrics as his more overbearing colleague does, but neither does he contribute anything more than a chordal pulse, taking up sonic space without justifying the acreage. It’s not enough to know when to step back; you also have to know when to step forward.

Jackson demonstrated this while playing with Kevin Gordon’s quartet during Nashville’s Americanafest on September 14. The show took place in Nashville’s The Basement, a much smaller (or euphemistically, more intimate) venue than Dylan plays, but one that allowed a close-up observation of what Jackson was up to. A tall man with a shaggy goatee, a gray suit and a gold-top Les Paul, Jackson seemed to sway in place, leaning back when he was playing minimally and crouching forward when jumping in.

On Gordon’s best known song, “Colfax (Step in Time),” a true story about his middle-school marching band’s encounter with the Ku Klux Klan in small-town Louisiana, Jackson reinforced the tension of the story with the clenched restraint of his chording. On the instrumental turnaround after each chorus, however, he unleashed a short, stabbing solo.

When the song reached its climax, the band dropped out to let Gordon sing about the band’s African-American band director staring past the white-robed intruders: “Looking straight ahead like there was somewhere better he was going, but this was the only goddamned way to get there.” As Gordon kept chanting, “Straight ahead, straight ahead,” the band welled up around him, bolstering the momentum of both the determined director and the song itself, climaxing in a glorious guitar freak-out from Jackson that meant so much more thanks to his prior understatement.

Learning the same lessons as Jackson was Charlie Sexton, who enlisted in Dylan’s band from 1999 to 2003 and then re-upped in 2009 for a second tour that so far is never-ending. The long, tall Texan played lead guitar in a Doug Sahm tribute that was the highlight of this year’s Americanafest. Sexton stood next to Sahm’s son Shawn at the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Ford Theatre as they followed a panel discussion about Doug’s importance with an hour of music that demonstrated it.

Joining the band to sing Doug’s songs were Rodney Crowell, Delbert McClinton, Kelly Willis and others. This kind of tribute concert with a lot of guest stars is often a recipe for under-rehearsed mediocrity, but not this time. Instead of the band adjusting to the singers, the singers adjusted to the band. And because the band was full of Tex-Mex virtuosos steeped in Doug’s music, it all sounded like the Sir Douglas Quintet or the Texas Tornadoes, Doug’s best known groups.

Crucial to this miracle was Sexton. He only sang one entire lead vocal, on “Mendocino,” but his playing was the rudder that allowed the band to navigate between playing too much and too little. If it had been too much, one wouldn’t have heard Doug’s underrated, smartass lyrics, and if it had been too little, the singers could have pulled the vibe this way and that, till the show sounded more like Spotify on shuffle and less like a unified presentation. Sexton hit the sweet spot, pulling back the reins when needed and spurring the horse when required.

Roger McGuinn has never been a member of Dylan’s band, but McGuinn had recorded so many Dylan songs that it seems as if he had been. At the Country Music Hall of Fame, just four days after the Sahm tribute, McGuinn and his old Byrd-mate Chris Hillman joined Marty Stuart & the Fabulous Superlatives for a reprise of their Sweetheart of the Rodeo tour last year. Together the six musicians did eight songs recorded by the Byrds, half of them written or co-written by Dylan.

The original line-up of the Byrds was not a very good live band, thanks in large part to David Crosby’s ego and Michael Clarke’s weakness as a drummer. These days Hillman is willing to play the sidekick role—and play it well—while the Fabulous Superlatives’ Harry Stinson is a terrific drummer. Hillman did get one lead vocal on “Have You Seen Her Face,” inspired by a blind date arranged by Crosby in 1966 that went terribly wrong, and legendary as the first “country-rock” song.

But it was McGuinn who made the show work, because he had long ago learned the guitarist’s duty to let the lyrics speak and then to respond to them forcefully. He was the person who invented the rhythm guitar sound known as “jangly,” and he knew how to deploy it. The term comes from a line in Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” (“in the jingle-jangle morning, I’ll come following you”), and when McGuinn sang that song at the Hall of Fame, his red-and-white Rickenbacker surged forward on the intro and on the turnarounds, but receded when the glorious tumble of words spilled out.

Stuart, who was hosting the evening as the Hall of Fame’s Artist in Residence, has learned this lesson as well. Two days later he was leading the Fabulous Superlatives at the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion, a wonderful festival on 19 stages strung out along State Street between the Virginia and Tennessee sides of the city where Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family made their first recordings.

Playing the string-bender Telecaster that once belonged to the Byrds’ Clarence White, Stuart quoted the Byrds’ “Eight Miles High” and “I’ll Feel a Whole Better” in the instrumental intro before singing his own composition, “Time Don’t Wait.” Whether singing his top-five country-radio hit, “Tempted, or Ola Belle Reed’s Appalachian classic “High on a Mountain Top,” Stuart knew when to let his guitar murmur support behind the lyric and when to let it roar.

Stuart is one of the most prominent commentators in Ken Burns’ Country Music series, which debuted on PBS during the Americanafest. His on-camera observations and his off-camera advice to Burns and scripter Dayton Duncan were crucial to making the series success. Stuart even has an exhibit of his striking black-and-white photos—many of them capturing country-music legends—on display at Bristol’s Birthplace of Country Music Museum through January 31. But Stuart was quick to ditch his professorial persona when his band played hillbilly versions of such surf-guitar staples as “Wipe Out” and “Misirlou.”

Such tasteful guitarwork contributed to other highlights of this year’s Americanafest. On Friday the 13th  at Country Music Hall of Fame, Rodney Crowell showcased his new album Texas, the most convincing rock ’n’ roll of his long career. If most of his past work could be described as a mash-up of Johnny Cash and the Beatles, this new recording sounds more like a mash-up of Waylon Jennings and the Rolling Stones.

Crowell emphasized that shift in tone by bringing along David Grissom, trusting his new lead guitarist to sit back during the lyrics and to lunge forward between vocal parts. Grissom, who was trained in how to work with wordsmith singers during his years with Joe Ely and John Mellencamp, carried off his mission impeccably.

Crowell describes the subjects of his new song “Flatland Hillbillies” with affectionate mockery as “My brother’s on an offshore rig; my sister’s on the pole at Slick’s. Mama takes in people’s washing; she was widowed by a pipeline man.” Grissom allowed the words to come through clearly then added to both the fondness and the humor with his swaggering guitar solo.

Later that same night, the Mavericks played a two-and-a-half-hour show at the Ryman Auditorium. Only two of the original members (lead singer Raul Malo and drummer Paul Deakin) remain, but they are now joined by longtime keyboardist Jerry Dale McFadden and relatively new guitarist Eddie Perez as well as five auxiliary musicians. At the “Mother Church of Country Music,” this nonet had a big-band sound, thanks to three jazz-schooled horn players and Tex-Mex accordion virtuoso Michael Guerra (who also played in the Doug Sahm tribute).

As a result, you had Malo singing terrific country songs over a muscular Latin dance groove, punctuated by impressive solos. Holding these two parts of the formula together was Perez, who never played with Dylan but who knows when to be supportive and when to add an exclamation point to the lyrics. When Malo sang Jennings’ “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” from the Mavericks’ forthcoming album of standards, it was clear that Hank Williams had never used borderland squeezebox and guitar like this, but he probably would have approved.

It was significant that these lessons in sophisticated guitar playing happened during the Americana Music Association’s annual celebration. Americana offers many things, but one thing it promises is a refuge for thoughtful lyrics tied to melody in an industry less and less interested in that combination. To make good on that pledge, the genre needs not only talented lyricists but also smart backing musicians who will let those words be heard. Most crucially, it needs guitarists who will provide room for the lyrics and then reply to them with sympathetic solos and fills.

Americana hasn’t always had such guitarists, but this year’s festival showcased several graduates from the Bob Dylan Graduate School in Guitar Playing who can serve as much needed role models.

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