Jakob Dylan called in some impressive collaborators to help with his new “Women and Country” album that’s coming out next month, at the top of the list being producer extraordinaire T Bone Burnett and singer-songwriter Neko Case, the latter of whom serves as his vocal foil on several of the songs.
But it’s entirely possible the whole project never would have existed if not for Glen Campbell.
The Campbell connection came up earlier this year when Dylan went to visit Burnett, a longtime Dylan family friend, at work in the studio with another artist. They’d periodically talked about another collaboration after “Bringing Down the Horse,” the Burnett-produced 1996 collection by Dylan’s band, the Wallflowers, that yielded three Top 40 singles on its way to two Grammy Awards and quadruple-platinum sales.
“T Bone asked me if I had any songs to play, and I didn’t. He said ‘You must have something.’ ” The only thing Dylan had in his back pocket was a song he’d written with Glen Campbell in mind. Jakob’s friend Julian Raymond had produced a surprising late-career album for the guitarist and singer on which he covered material by Green Day, U2, the Replacements and Velvet Underground. Raymond and Campbell were considering a follow-up with new songs from a similarly varied batch of writers, and asked Dylan for anything he might have to offer Campbell. So he wrote “Nothing But the Whole Wide World,” which became the genesis for “Women and Country,” which arrives April 6.
“I hadn’t thought of that song as being something for myself to sing, but I was so embarrassed I didn’t have anything else, I said, ‘Well, I do have one.’ . . . I played it for him and he was so enthusiastic. He said ‘That’s great -- why don’t you write 10 more of those and we’ll make a record?’ That’s how it began, so thank you, Glen Campbell.”
Burnett not only had a key role in Jakob’s big breakthrough in establishing himself as a credible singer, songwriter and bandleader in the Wallflowers, he also played alongside Jakob’s father, Bob Dylan, in the 1970s as a member of his Rolling Thunder Revue.
“He and I have always been in touch, and we always said that we would do something again eventually,” Dylan, 40, said recently following a break in preparations for several appearances and performances he’s doing this week in Austin, Texas, for the annual South by Southwest Music Conference.
“I had wanted to make an acoustic record last time, and I don’t know that T Bone would have been interested in doing something like that,” he said.
Fortunately for Jakob, one of pop music’s other superstar producers -- Rick Rubin -- was completely interested, and steered the ship on his 2008 album “Seeing Things,” for which the singer veered into territory he’d consciously -- and understandably -- avoided: that of the solo folkie singer-songwriter.
“Oftentimes, it’s been suggested to me that I started the Wallflowers so I could be part of something and kind of hide out,” he said. “That couldn’t be further from the truth.”
He leaned his wiry frame on the vintage bar in a back room of a Hollywood rehearsal space where he’d been practicing with Case and the rest of her band, who are backing him at SXSW on the way toward a summer tour.
“I’ve just really found rock ‘n’ roll bands to be a blast when I was growing up,” he said. “I still don’t think there’s a whole lot of things out there that are cooler than that. But it’s very difficult to keep them going year after year, and it’s been 20 years. So you’re bound to want to do something different or have a different sound at some point.”
Once “Seeing Things” fulfilled that mission, he again faced the question of what direction to go next.
Burnett’s challenge for him to write more in the vein of “Nothing But the Whole Wide World” sparked a songwriting flurry, in which he did indeed write 10 more songs in about five weeks, the fastest he’s ever written material for an album. The process yielded surprising results, Dylan said.
Probing the process
“I feel like I tapped into something special and kind of followed my nose, and subconsciously a language developed that does transport me when I listen back to it,” he said. “Even when singing at rehearsal it has a similar effect. I’d like to say it was completely methodical, but I don’t think the real strong ideas and concepts like that -- from my end, at least -- are ever born out of anything other than being open and available to it. You just follow your nose, and I think it’s led me someplace really exciting.”
He gives much of the credit to Burnett, who has been both friend and a mentor.
“He really puts something in the room that is very unique, and I couldn’t tell you how he does it,” Dylan said. “If I could, I would do it myself. We’ve known each other most of my life. As a collaborator, as much as a human being, he’s been a real beacon in my life. I’ve said before that it doesn’t really matter what it is I’m doing; if you ask me to bake a cake I will hope T Bone’s in the room, because my cake will be better.”
And that other mystical presence -- the other Dylan -- that’s so much a part of his life?
“Some of the things I’ve done, just sonically, I’m educated enough to know it’s not necessarily the kind of music he always responds to,” Dylan said. “But I’m always excited for him to hear the music, and he’s always encouraging, and always has been.
“But I do think there are certain things about this that he’ll recognize, and that he may appreciate more than others.”