By Eleni P. Austin
Twenty years into the 21st century no one could have envisioned that the inhabitants of planet earth would be experiencing “quarantine fatigue.” If you feel yourself coming down with a case, an easy way to lift your spirits and nourish your soul is by listening to Jonathan Wilson’s newest long-player, Dixie Blur.
Born in late 1974, Jonathan grew up in the tiny hamlet of Forrest City, North Carolina. He came from a musical family and learned guitar and piano before puberty hit. In the early ‘90s he formed the band Muscadine with his pal Benji Hughes. They received a record deal and relocated to Los Angeles, recorded their 1998 debut, The Ballad Of Hope Nicholls, and promptly broke up. Jonathan spent time in Georgia and New York before putting down roots in L.A.
He began to amass a remarkable collection of analog recording equipment and managed to teach himself the rudiments of engineering. Setting up his own studio, in Laurel Canyon, he made a living as a session musician and producer, working on albums by artists like Elvis Costello, Erykah Badu, Dawes and Jenny Lewis.
Of course, back in the ‘60s, the woodsy enclave, situated between Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley, had become home base to legendary artists like Joni Mitchell, Jim Morrison and Gram Parsons, as well as assorted Byrds and Monkees. Early in the 21st century, Jonathan added to that legacy by hosting Wednesday night jam sessions. The weekly get-togethers attracted members of the Wallflowers, Wilco, the Jayhawks, Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers, Pearl Jam and the Black Crowes, as well as elder statesmen like Jackson Browne and Graham Nash.
Between session work and production chores, Jonathan remained in-demand. But he still made time to write and record his own music. His solo debut, “Frankie Ray” was self-released in 2007. Essentially, he just handed out CD-Rs to friends. His official long-player, Gentle Spirit, arrived four years later via the indie label, Bella Union.
The critics quickly snapped to attention. The album received rapturous reviews, especially in the U.K., where it hit #15 on their Indie chart. Landing somewhere between Neil Young’s Harvest and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side Of The Moon, the record was elegantly bucolic, yet expansive. Jonathan was named Best New Artist by tastemaker mags like MOJO and Uncut. He closed out 2011 playing a transcendent show at Pappy & Harriet’s.
Back behind the boards the following year, he produced Father John Misty’s solo debut, Fear Fun as well as Man & Myth for legendary British Folkie, Roy Harper. At the end of 2013, he dropped Fanfare his sweeping sophomore effort. Delivering on the promise of his debut, he expanded his sonic palette, blending touches of Prog-Rock and Jazz. He also received some assistance from Heavy-Hitters and Heartbreakers like David Crosby, Jackson Browne, Graham Nash, Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench. Once again, critical acclaim was unanimous, and this time he reached #8 on the U.K. Indie chart.
For the next few years he remained busy, producing a couple more for Father John Misty, as well as Bright Eyes front-man, Conor Oberst. It was around this time that he began a synergistic association with Pink Floyd architect, Roger Waters. In addition to playing guitar and keys on Roger’s fifth solo album, The Life We Want, he also became musical director of his touring band. Still, he made time to work on his fourth solo effort, Rare Birds, which hit stores in Spring, 2018.
Clocking in at nearly 80 minutes, that album offered a dazzling cornucopia of styles. Hopscotching from British Invasion touchstones, to Glitter/Glam to Cosmic American flavors, it deftly boomeranged between London and Laurel Canyon. Ambitious, labyrinthine and majestic, it’s one of those records that revealed a new array of aural colors with each spin. Now nearly two years later, Jonathan has returned with his fifth album, Dixie Blur.
Instead of recording on his home turf, Jonathan followed a suggestion from Steve Earle (the pair had recently been guests on the syndicated radio series, eTown), that he make an album in Nashville. Recruiting Wilco’s Patrick Sansome to co-produce, they headed down to Music City. They quickly landed at Sound Emporium Recording Studio, which was originally founded by the late Country legend, Cowboy Jack Clement.
The album opens with a mellow take on the classic Quicksilver Messenger Service cut, “Just For Love.” Jonathan swaps out the insistent Bolero beat of the original, employing a stutter-step rhythm instead. Plangent piano drifts atop Flamenco-flavored guitar and a fluttery flute solo that would make Ron Burgundy proud. His pronounced Carolinian croon caresses Hippie-ish lyrics like “someone will touch you softly, and it will be me/Someone will call your name, then come to me, free as the wind, free as nature, she’s calling.”
Jonathan has never been afraid to just let his music breathe, and that policy remains in place on three tracks here. “New Home” offers the kind of tender benediction that echoes Bob Dylan’s (unusually) sincere “Forever Young.” Supple piano notes intertwine with hushed Mellotron, bloopy organ, six and 12-string acoustic guitars, lapping pedal steel, and brushed percussion. The lyrics offer a quiescent housewarming; “May you retire by the warmth of the fire, my good friend, inside your new home/May the sunniest days wake you up where you lay, my good friend, inside your new home…stay to the end of your days.” The instrumentation accelerates slightly on the break, giving way to just the right amount of emphatic “la-la-la-la-la-la’s.”
“Pirate” seems to hint at swashbuckling and sybaritic excess, before discreetly subverting expectations. Not so much an ode, as a lament, braided acoustic riffs, vibrant baritone guitar, ticklish piano, Mellotron, vibes, see-saw bass and elegiac fiddles are wed to a tick-tock beat. The musings of this freebooter are tinged with tedium as he details the day-to-day; “And I am a pirate, I attack in maritime, Danes and Vikings on my mind/Marijuana and crimson wine, I smoke I drink, repeat, oh a pirate’s life, it is so sweet.” Fiddles swoop and sway on the break, nearly glossing over the latitudinal lassitude.
Meanwhile, on “Fun For The Masses,” the sarcasm seems baked into the title. Tentative piano connects with searing pedal steel and ascending acoustic notes over a cracked Country Waltz rhythm. The melody shares a cosmic connection will Bill Withers’ graceful “Lean On Me,” and Jackson Browne’s yearning “These Days,” but that’s where the good will ends. The lyrics take a licentious lady to task; “Oh, I won’t be the last to ponder your past, how many girls and how many guys/How many goes a thousand times, how many girls and how many guys….I will not be another page in your book of photos, see I never really could get on with sheep in hip clothing.” Pedal steel notes swirl around each verse, buttressed by churchy keys, nearly taking the sting out of this caustic reproach.
Setting aside the Thomas Wolfe caveat, “You Can’t Go Home Again,” three songs simply yearn for bygone days. “69 Corvette” is a glorious slice of nostalgia anchored by feathery acoustic guitar, lonesome pedal steel, muted keys, aching fiddle, lowing bass and a sturdy beat. Jonathan’s melancholy is palpable; “I came to this city full of smiles, opportunity every miracle mile/I still think of Carolina sometimes, I miss family, I miss that feeling, I miss home.” The arrangement and instrumentation bottle some of the gentility of the South, but vivid recollections like “Daddy Loves adventures in his ’69 Corvette, me and mamma drink cheap tequila and it gets us cackling,” lean closer to “Smokey And The Bandit” than “Look Homeward, Angel.” The maudlin fiddle on the break underscores the carpe diem resolve of the final verse; “Well, it floats right by until one day when you are looking at polaroids and grieving, so remember to tell them you love them every time, one more time.”
Saturnine piano notes are shaded by sylvan pedal steel at the start of “Oh Girl,” but before things become too lachrymose, the song suddenly shapeshifts, adding airy woodwinds, jaw harp, harmonicas and buttery backing vocals to an insistent, kick-turn beat. Just as that gathers speed, the tempo ratchets once again, locking into a playful, Glam-Funk groove, propelled by prowling bass lines and phased guitars. Lyrics rewind scenes from a fractured romance, touching on both the highs and lows; “Hey girl, they were such good times, we sang our songs and we drank our wine, all the riches and gold in the world I wouldn’t take in trade/And missin’ someone is a kind of hurt a heart should be grateful to feel.” That final epiphany is reinforced by a piano and harmonica coda that is both gilded and bittersweet.
Finally, “In Heaven Making Love” offers a rollicking trip down memory lane. The arrangement is a bit of a hee-haw hoedown, tethering shimmery guitars, razor sharp fiddles and Honky-Tonk piano to a clip-clop rhythm. The buoyant melody shares some musical DNA with Don McLean’s “American Pie” and Manfred Man’s souped-up version of Springsteen’s “Blinded By The Light,” and is matched by lyrical exuberance; “We were in heaven making love on a Saturday night, we were laughing it was hot, everything was alright/I am remembering a moment as clear as a bell, we were laughing, we were lovers, we were smiling still.” The manic, Nashville-tuned guitar solo on the break is equal parts Charlie McCoy and Django Reinhardt, and it’s followed by a suitably frenetic fiddle solo.
The best tracks stack back-to-back, toward the end of the album. On “Platform,” gossamer piano notes wrap around rippling acoustic guitars and smoky harmonica. As the arrangement expands, flute, bass clarinet, pedal steel, mellotron and vibes wash over a propulsive conga beat. Druggy, fever dream lyrics seem to search for the perfect chemical cocktail, but they’re neatly overshadowed by an incandescent melody that recalls the best collaborations between Jimmy Webb and Glen Campbell.
“Riding The Blinds” starts off downcast and soporific, as lyrics lean on a series of sexual double entendres; “dust my broom, honeydripper, salty dog, killing floor” that were employed by Blues progenitors like Elmore James, Howlin Wolf and Leadbelly. Weepy pedal steel blends with languid organ notes, serrated guitars, tensile bass and a slow-cooked thump. On the bridge, the action shifts, slipping into a loping rhythm as propulsive piano, courtly Spanish guitar and winsome pedal steel snatch the spotlight, taking the song from darkness to light, before the entire enterprise powers down at the close.
The sunshiny “El Camino” is a bit of a barn burner, cascading piano runs collide with shivery fiddle, Hammond organ, a wall of acoustic and electric guitars, stinging bass, and a hell-for-leather rhythm. Although the song’s title namechecks the historic California thoroughfare, the lyrics offer a bit of jabberwocky surrounding some serious food obsessions; “Every day I have a wish, that the Haitian man will have fresh fish, and as I walk to greet them a thousand miles beneath my mind/Corn, liquor and BBQ, Lexington or Compton, and as sit to eat a thousand miles beneath the sea.” The proceedings shudder to a halt before a Punky “1-2-3-4” count off kicks the song into interstellar overdrive, accented by a fleet fiddle breakdown.
Capping this sly quaternion is “Golden Apples.” Silvery harmonica swirls around plaintive pedal steel, crystalline piano and liquid acoustic riffs over a Waltz-y ¾ time. Stream-of-conscious lyrics place mythological Greeks in the Garden Of Eden, but it’s really just a declaration of love; “If I could change the law of time, well, I’d turn it back to love you, for longer in my life/Well, I’d trade it all to meet you, to have known you all those years too.” Swivel-hipped flutes crest over conga beat on the break, give the song a Mancini-esque grandeur.
Other interesting tracks include the expansive heft of “Enemies” and the ecclesiastic back-porch ramble of “So Alive.” The album closes with the haunting elegy, “Korean Tea.” The song owes as much to Ennio Morricone’s Spaghetti Western themes as it does to Elton John’s masterwork, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.” Finger-picked acoustic riffs tangle with lush Mellotron, wily pedal steel and stately piano, all neatly bookended by a chunky back-beat. Although he isn’t going back to his horny back toad and plow, Jonathan displays the same brittle disenchantment, noting “It may be five minutes of fame, but it’s arriving just a little too late.” The track manages to feel jaded and ethereal at the same time.
Jonathan relied a crack cadre of pickers and players to bring this album to life. They include Jon Radford behind the drum kit, Dennis Crouch on bass and bass fiddle, Drew Erickson on piano, keys, alternately Russ Pahl and Joe Pisapia on pedal steel, Kenny Vaughan added electric guitar and Jim Hoke provided flute, saxophone, jaw harp, harmonicas and bass clarinet. The real coup was convincing world class fiddle sensation Mark O’ Connor to add his magic. A Nashville cat since the ‘70s, and a solo performer in his own right, these days, he rarely plays other people’s sessions. Along with producing, Pat Sansone played bass, acoustic guitars, Mellotron, M-400 synthesizer and vibes. Jonathan tackled nearly everything else, Mellotron, Prophet synthesizer, percussion, drums, organ, vibes, Arp string machine, congas, all manner of guitar and tiny tourist tambourine.
By flipping the script on his usual recording process, Jonathan left his Canyon comforts and got back to his Southern roots. Dixie Blur manages the neat trick of feeling ornate, yet uncluttered. It’s the perfect record to get lost in, as the world continues to shelter in place.