AS THE STEEL GUITAR swells with a simple, plodding rhythm on Nothing but the Whole Wide World, you know youre hearing a different side of Jakob Dylan. in this, the opening track of Dylans new sophomore solo album, Women + Country (Columbia records, $12), the Wallflowers singer and son of Bob inches closer to the rootsy mix of country, folk, blues and Bayou jazz thats also been embraced by his iconic dad in recent years.
But if the younger Dylan, 40, has proved anything in his nearly two decades in the music biz, its that hes not content just trying to sound like Pops. The Wallflowers five releases, peaking with 1996s Bringing Down the Horse, showed him as a singer-songwriter whose clever, muscular pop tunes (notably One Headlight) fit nicely into modern radios playlists.
And considering the stark, straightforward folk on his 2008 debut solo record, Seeing Things (produced by Rick Rubin), the rich Americana of Women + Country seems like a natural progression.
When I was growing up, I was obviously first interested in rock n roll bands, and I suppose I discovered over the years that most rock n roll had a heritage and history, so I dug deeper to the roots of that, he says. I always equate making music with being an architect. Being the most creative makes more sense if you appreciate the craft of it all.
The singer found some inspired collaborators to help him create Women + Country. He reunited with his Bringing Down the Horse producer T-Bone Burnett, who has garnered acclaim for his work on the O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Crazy Heart soundtracks as well as the Grammy-winning Robert Plant and Alison Krauss record, Raising Sand. And the slightly twangy backup singers on eight of the albums 11 tracks are Neko Case (of New Pornographers) and Kelly Hogan. Their harmonies transform the choruses of more countrified songs such as Holy Rollers for Love from pretty to downright gorgeous. Theres no doubt that Dylan wondered during recording where people like Neko Case had been all his life.
She can do anything, he says. Shes got experience in not always being the lead singer, so she knows how to back somebody else up. And her approach to songwriting has a lot more restraint and finesse than I might have.
The guy doesnt give his writing chops enough credit. In Women + Country, he channels the spirit of a war-plagued, cash-strapped America (Everybodys Hurting). He also manages social consciousness without getting preachy in the brassy, New Orleansflavored Lend a Hand.
But the true highlight of the new record is Dylans physical voice. While a lot of Wallflowers vocals were more about finding the right tone than achieving perfect pitch, the husband and father of four now sings with greater maturity and precision.
I wanted the sound of this record to be big and beautiful, unlike the last one, where it was all about exercising discretion, he says. So the vocals here came naturally when I found the right register.
While Dylan hasnt had a problem finding his voice or setting his own course in the music world, he still knows theres a wealth of family knowledge and experience at his disposal, and he doesnt take it for granted. He sees his father live in concert whenever he gets the chance.
I got to see Bob Dylan live at the Palladium a few months ago in Los Angeles; it was probably my 750th show, he says with a laugh. I had backstage passes and everything. Yeah, I got the full VIP treatment.