Playlist, Bob Dylan style

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Special to The Times

Who would ever imagine recordings by Billie Holiday, the Clash, the Sons of the Pioneers, Aretha Franklin, Charles Mingus and the White Stripes all on the same album?

If the mixture of jazz, punk, country-western, soul and rock sounds radical in an era of rigid musical segregation on commercial radio, it’s only fitting that we have a genuine musical revolutionary to thank for the new package: Bob Dylan.

In his role as DJ on satellite radio broadcaster XM for nearly two years, Dylan has been playing a mixture of these sounds. The problem is you can’t hear the show unless you subscribe to XM.


But Ace Records, the imaginative reissue label in England, has come up with the next best thing. “Theme Time Radio Hour With Your Host Bob Dylan,” a two-disc set available as an import in the U.S., contains 50 of the most colorful records played on the show.

In his introduction to the set, Gavin Martin quotes Dylan about the marvelous range of musical styles brought together on the show: “I never understood no border patrol when it comes to music.” The Ace package illustrates the wisdom of his thinking. It’s easily one of the most entertaining and, even, illuminating historical music packages in ages.

The back story: “Theme Time” is a weekly radio show with the records chosen to fit a particular theme -- “mother,” “baseball” and “tears” are some of them -- with Dylan playing and commenting on the various tunes.

Only three selections are from this decade: the White Stripes’ explosive “Seven Nation Army,” Mary Gauthier’s downcast “I Drink” and the Yayhoos’ country-soaked “Bottle and a Bible.” Among the major figures from earlier years are Joe South (“Walk a Mile in My Shoes”), the Clash (“Tommy Gun”), Merle Haggard (“Mama Tried”) and Bo Diddley (“Mona”).

But the real thrill of “Theme Time Radio Hour” is discovering some artists and/or lesser-known tracks by established musicians. To aid in your search, the set includes a booklet with details about all 50 recordings. The package was produced and compiled by Eddie Gorodetsky, Roger Armstrong and Jeff Rosen.

The music: Here are some of the standouts among the more obscure recordings.

Paul Chaplain & His Emeralds’ “Shortnin’ Bread”: If you heard this minor hit from 1960 without knowing who made it, you’d probably swear it was Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Eddie Cochran singing lead on this seeded-up version of an old folk tune. It was featured on Dylan’s show that was themed “Food.”


The Hurricanes’ “Pistol Packin’ Mama”: This playful, upbeat novelty was such a big hit in 1943 that Al Dexter’s original, country version and Bing Crosby’s pop rendition with the Andrews Sisters both made the national Top 10 charts. This R&B; treatment came a decade later but is just as infectious as the earlier treatments -- with an especially winning lead vocal by Clyde McPhatter sound-alike Henry Austin. Show theme: “Guns.”

Eddie Noack’s “Take It Away Lucky”: The remarkable thing about this vintage honky-tonk single is how Noack’s vocal style seemed equal parts Hank Williams and John Prine. Show theme: “Luck.”

Betty Hall Jones’ “Buddy, Stay Off the Wine”: In the liner notes, Bob Porter suggests this cautionary 1949 single was an answer song to Stick McGhee’s hugely successful “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee.” Key line: “If you don’t want to hasten your recline / In that little box of pine / buddy, stay off that wine.” Show theme: “Drink.”

Charlie Rich’s “Tears A Go-Go”: Well before his “Behind Closed Doors” sales explosion, Rich, one of the most soulful vocalists of the modern pop era, was turning out mournful gems like this mid-’60s track about a man so lonely in the age of lively go-go dance clubs that he spent his hours in an imaginary “Tears A Go-Go.” Show theme: “Tears.”

Li’l Millet & His Creoles’ “Rich Woman”: If you’ve wondered where the stylish opening number on Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ recent duet album came from, here’s your answer. Millet co-wrote and recorded the R&B; song in the mid-’50s for Specialty Records, the home of Little Richard. Show theme: “Rich Man, Poor Man.”

Jimmy Nelson’s “I Sat and Cried”: One intriguing thing about this R&B; single from the early 1960s is that Nelson begins the lament by saying, “Two minutes and 38 seconds is all I need to tell you people of my misery.” But the record itself runs two minutes and 59 seconds. What gives? Show theme: “Tears.”


Bobby Peterson Quintet’s “Mama, Get Your Hammer”: This isn’t just the strangest record on the album, it’s also one of the strangest of the rock era. The opening lines in the rollicking number: “Mama, get your hammer, there’s a fly on baby’s head / If you don’t hurry up, the baby will soon be dead.” He goes on to warn that if she doesn’t hurry up, “I’m gonna fill you full of lead.” The R&B; arrangement of what is apparently an old country song sounds as twisted as the lyrics. Show theme: “Mother.”

And on it goes for more than two hours -- every step a delight.


Backtracking is a biweekly feature devoted to CD reissues and other historical pop items.