New, Weird America: The Basement Tapes Continued

[As Dylan fanatics, we worked for months to secure some engagement around the New Basement Tapes project, which eventually hailed an exclusive track-by-track commentary with legendary producer T Bone Burnett. I wrote the below piece to accompany that exclusive.]

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Lost On The River: The New Basement Tapes is a musical event 47 years in the making.

Following a mercurial rise between 1961 and 1966 – having released several landmark albums, going electric at Newport Folk Festival, and releasing the earth-shattering track “Like a Rolling Stone” – Bob Dylan famously turned his back to the public eye after being nearly killed in a July 1966 motorcycle accident. Although Bob would not perform live for eight years, his creative output continued to pour at high volumes, and at high, if ever-morphing, caliber.

Among the most mythologized of events to occur during Dylan’s reclusion was what became known as the Basement Tapes – a happening that has long fascinated generations of musicians, fans and cultural critics alike.

Recovering from his injuries and very much in a state of hiding, Dylan ensconced himself in 1967 with members of his touring ensemble, The Hawks, who would later achieve their own fame as The Band.

In the basement of a small house they named “Big Pink,” in West Saugerties, N.Y., Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel, Garth Hudson, and later Levon Helm would record more than a hundred songs over the next several months. Cuts included traditional standards, wry and humorous ditties, off-the cuff performances and, most importantly, dozens of newly-written Dylan originals, including future classics like “I Shall Be Released,” “The Mighty Quinn” and “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.”

In his 1997 book Invisible Republic, Greil Marcus called these songs “palavers with a community of ghosts,” resurrecting the spirit of “The Old Weird America” – a term that would come to popularly describe the folk, blues and country music that came out of the rural American countryside.

While rumors of the Basement Tapes sessions came to surface, none of the cuts would be officially released for the greater part of a decade. In the meantime the demand of fans, eager to hear these mysterious and allegedly revelatory recordings, would give birth to a completely new segment of the music business: the bootleg record. Even when Columbia released the scant 16-track Basement Tapes album in 1975, the full story of those sessions would remain something of a enigma.

Bob Dylan writing at Big Pink (Photo: Elliott Landy)

Bob Dylan at Big Pink (Photo: Elliott Landy)

Nearly 50 years after the recordings occurred, 2014 is perhaps the biggest year for common folk to become fully immersed in the Basement Tapes.

As if it wasn’t enough to release the forthcoming addition to Bob Dylan’s bootleg series, The Complete Basement Tapes, in its 138-track glory, the Dylan camp seems to be making up for the long wait with something big and new.

In a story that sounds as dreamlike as the original Basement Tapes saga, Bob Dylan gifted legendary producer T Bone Burnett with unused song lyrics allegedly written during those same very months below that big, pink house in upstate New York. Burnett in turn enlisted the proven and reverent talents of Elvis Costello, Marcus Mumford (Mumford & Sons), Jim James (My Morning Jacket), Taylor Goldsmith (Dawes), and Rhiannon Giddens (Carolina Chocolate Drops) to bring those words to life in song.

Each participant was supplied the never-before-seen lyrics, bringing in-progress interpretations of the songs to the studio. Over two weeks the ensemble collaboratively and democratically recorded every rendition they had, 20 of which show up on this album. The results are less of a forced effort to recreate a unique event, and more a resurrection of the Basement Tapes zeitgeist, with the common source material of Bob Dylan’s transcendent songwriting.

According to Burnett, “What transpired during those two weeks was amazing for all of us. There was a deep well of generosity and support in the studio at all times, which reflected the tremendous trust and generosity shown by Bob in sharing these lyrics with us in the first place.”

Notable tracks include Jim James’ lead on “Nothing To It,” Costello’s “Married To My Hack,” Mumford’s “When I Get My Hands On You,” Giddens’ “Spanish Mary,” and Goldsmith’s “Liberty Street” – all of which received music video treatment. Actor Johnny Depp also filled in guitar for Costello on the Mumford-led track, “Kansas City.”

Of the experience Goldsmith told Esquire, “It wasn’t lost on me the rare privilege of getting to have a co-write with a guy like Dylan, even if we weren’t in the same room for it…But what I really learned from this project…was that everything is better when you don’t treat things too preciously…don’t over-write things, and don’t over-record, and as a result things will feel fresh every time you go back to them.”

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The New Basement Tapes: (from Left) Elvis Costello, Jim James, T Bone Burnett, Jay Bellerose (drums), Rhiannon Giddens, Marcus Mumford, and Taylor Goldsmith.



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