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- Singing as a spiritual practice

I do a lot of public speaking and spend all day on the phone for my job. I had sustained a serious injury to my throat years ago that left a lot of scar tissue.

Joan Masover

Bob Dylan Talks About "Together Through Life" with Bill Flanagan

A lot of this album feels like a Chess record from the fifties. Did you have that sound in your head going in or did it come up as you played?

Well some of the things do have that feel. It’s mostly in the way the instruments were played.

You like that sound?

Oh yeah, very much so. . . the old Chess records, the Sun records. . . I think that’s my favorite sound for a record.

What do you like about that sound?

I like the mood of those records - the intensity. The sound is uncluttered. There’s power and suspense. The whole vibration feels like it could be coming from inside your mind. It’s alive. It’s right there. Kind of sticks in your head like a toothache.

Do you think the Chess brothers knew what they were doing?

Oh sure, how could they not? I don’t think they thought they were making history though.

Did you ever meet Howlin’ Wolf? Muddy Waters?

I saw Wolf perform a few times but never met him. Muddy I knew a little bit.

I suspect that a lot of men will identify with MY WIFE’S HOME TOWN. Do you ever get in hot water with your in-laws over your songs?

No not really. The only person it could matter to gets a kick out of it. That song is meant as a compliment anyhow.

Do relatives come up to you at cookouts and ask when you’re going to write a song for THEM?

Oh yeah, one of my uncles’ wives used to pester me all the time, “Bobby, when are you gonna write a song about me … put me on the radio?” It would make me uncomfortable.

How would you get out of it?

I’d say, "I already did Auntie. You’re just not listening to the right stations."

Do you have a picture in your head of where these songs take place? Where is the guy in LIFE IS HARD standing when he sings that song?

Well the movie’s kind of a road trip from Kansas City to New Orleans. The guy’s probably standing along the way somewhere.

Movie?

Yeah.

Right, you mentioned something about that before. How did you get involved?

The French director, Olivier Dahan, approached me about composing some songs for a film he was writing and directing.

When was that?

I can’t remember exactly, it was sometime last year.

What did you find intriguing about that? You must get approached for movie songs all the time.

I had seen one of his other movies, the one about the singer Edith Piaf, and I liked it.

What’s this new one about?

It’s kind of a journey. . . a journey of self discovery. . . takes place in the American South

Who’s in it?

At the time we were talking I didn’t know who was going to be in it. I think Forest Whitaker and Renee Zellweger are in it now.

And he wanted you to do the soundtrack?

Yeah, pretty much. But he wasn’t too specific. The only thing he needed for sure was a ballad for the main character to sing towards the end of the movie. And that’s the song LIFE IS HARD.

Were all the songs on this record written for the movie then?

Well no, not really. We started off with LIFE IS HARD and then the record sort of took its own direction.

The new record’s very different from Modern Times which was a number one hit. It seems like every time you have a big hit, the next time out you change things around. Why don’t you try to milk it a little bit?

I think we milked it all we could on that last record and then some. We squeezed the cow dry. All the Modern Times songs were written and performed in the widest range possible so they had a little bit of everything. These new songs have more of a romantic edge.

How so?

These songs don’t need to cover the same ground. The songs on Modern Times songs brought my repertoire up to date, and the light was directed in a certain way. You have to have somebody in mind as an audience otherwise there’s no point.

What do you mean by that?

There didn’t seem to be any general consensus among my listeners. Some people preferred my first period songs. Some, the second. Some, the Christian period. Some, the post Colombian. Some, the Pre-Raphaelite. Some people prefer my songs from the nineties. I see that my audience now doesn’t particular care what period the songs are from. They feel style and substance in a more visceral way and let it go at that. Images don’t hang anybody up. Like if there’s an astrologer with a criminal record in one of my songs it’s not going to make anybody wonder if the human race is doomed. Images are taken at face value and it kind of freed me up.

In what way?

Well for instance, if there are shadows and flowers and swampy ledges in a composition, that’s what they are in their essence. There’s no mystification. That’s one way I can explain it.

Like a locomotive, a pair of boots, a kiss or the rain?

Right. All those things are what they are. Or pieces of what they are. It’s the way you move them around that makes it work.

A lot of violence in these tunes - you advise anyone going to Houston to keep their gun belts tight, someone's packing a Saturday Night Special in JOLENE, there's a cold blooded killer stalking the town in IT'S ALL GOOD and the woman in MY WIFE'S HOME TOWN is going to make the singer kill someone. Does putting violence in a song up the ante?

How do you mean that?

Does it make the song riskier?

Well no. The main point is to acknowledge things without going off the deep end. I think whatever's there is justified. You choose these things carefully.

You've been working in a lot of different areas lately. Your book was a best-seller, you acted in a movie, "Theme Time Radio Hour" is very popular and you had an exhibit of your art work. Does working in other media feed back into the music?

I think if it happens it might happen the other way around.

Did Chronicles work like that?

Well sure, Chronicles has its own rhythm. And I guess that would come out of playing songs.

How about your art work?

That's completely out of the blue. I've always drawn and painted, but up until recently, nobody's taken an interest. There's never been any support for it.

And now?

Well, I've had a museum exhibit, I have an association with a London gallery, and there'll probably be another exhibition of new works in another European museum in 2010. Now I'm scrambling to keep up. I've been commissioned to do paintings and they want me to work with iron and lead.

How do you find subject matter?

I just draw what's interesting to me, and then I paint it. Rows of houses, orchard acres, lines of tree trunks, could be anything. I can take a bowl of fruit and turn it into a life and death drama. Women are power figures, so I depict them that way. I can find people to paint in mobile home communities. I could paint bourgeois people too. I'm not trying to make social comment or fulfill somebody's vision and I can find subject matter anywhere. I guess in some way that comes out of the folk world that I came up in.

Say you wake up in a hotel room in Wichita and look out the window. A little girl is walking along the train tracks dragging a big statue of Buddha in a wooden wagon with a three-legged dog following behind. Do you reach for your guitar or your drawing pad?

Oh wow. It would depend on a lot of things. The environment mostly; like what kind of day is it. Is it a cloudless blue-gray sky or does it look like rain? A little girl dragging a wagon with a statue in it? I'd probably put that in last. The three-legged dog - what type? A spaniel, a bulldog, a retriever? That would make a difference. I'd have to think about that. Depends what angle I'm seeing it all from. Second floor, third floor, eighth floor. I don't know. Maybe I'd want to go down there. The train tracks too. I'd have to find a way to connect it all up. I guess I would be thinking about if this was an omen or a harbinger of something.

If a young man considering a career in the arts wanted to meet a lot of women, would he be better off learning to paint or to play guitar?

Probably neither. If he had women on his mind, he might think about becoming a lawyer or a doctor.

Seriously?

Yeah, seriously. Maybe a private detective, but that would be the wrong motivation for any career.

In IF YOU EVER GO TO HOUSTON the character sends messages to three sisters in Dallas; two get off with a friendly greeting but then the other is warned to "Pray the Sinner's Prayer." What's the Sinner's Prayer?

That's the one that begins with "Father forgive me for I have sinned."

The guy in IF YOU EVER GO TO HOUSTON mentions he was in Houston during the Mexican War. A lot of people think the Anglos treated the Spanish badly in Texas, but miss the fact that the Spanish had claimed Texas for Mexico without ever populating it. They just drew a big line on the map and said, "All this is ours." The people who actually lived there were either Anglo settlers or Indians, and none of them wanted anything to do with Spain or its Mexican colony. Do you think Sam Houston has gotten a bum rap?

I don't know. I never heard that he had gotten a bum rap. Are we talking about Sam Houston the statesman, soldier and politician? Sam Houston was the governor of two states, both Texas and Tennessee. Who else has ever done that! What was he supposed to have gotten a bum rap for?

Well, he chopped off Texas from Mexico.

No he didn't. He chopped it off from Spain. Just like somebody else chopped off Florida from Spain. Where does the bum rap come in?

Somebody insulted him in the movie GIANT, which got Rock Hudson all worked up. And I think Steve Earle might have taken a shot at him - or maybe it was Colonel Travis.

GIANT'S all about money. That's where Jimmy Dean says to Rock Hudson, "I'll have more money than you and all the rest of you stinkin' sons of Benedict." I thought it was that which got Rock so worked up. Steve Earle, he may know something I don't know. As for Travis, he was a lawyer and died at the Alamo. It could have been something personal.

The instrumental sections on your albums have a different quality than the usual rock instrumental sections. For instance, on an Aerosmith record, at least part of it is about Joe Perry's solo. While there's wonderful playing on BEYOND HERE LIES NOTHING, we don't hear the usual guitar soloing technique. Is there a special way you approach the instrumental sections on a record?

What can I say, if I had Joe Perry with me everything would obviously be different. As it is though, he wasn't there. Soloing is not a big part of my records anyway. Nobody buys them to hear solos. What I try to do is to make sure that the instrumental sections are dynamic and are extensions of the overall feeling of the song.

Who's that playing with you here?

Mike Campbell.

You have a history with Mike?

Yeah, I do. He played with me a lot when I played with Tom Petty.

I saw some of those shows. I particularly liked the segment during the show when it was just you and Mike and Benmont and no bass or drums.

Yeah. We worked out a few things. I would've always liked to have seen that develop more, but it didn't.

How is he to work with?

He's good with me. He's been playing with Tom for so long that he hears everything from a songwriter's point of view and he can play most any style.

A lot of accordion on this record - in places where we might expect to hear harmonica or organ or lead guitar.

Yeah, I guess so. The accordion can sound like all those instruments. Actually, I wished I had used it more on some of my past records.

Who's playing that?

David Hidalgo.

Have you guys ever played together before.

I think so. Los Lobos played some shows with me in Mexico a while back. I remember playing some things with David and Cesar then.

Is there a chance you'll add an accordion on stage?

Well sure, if I could fit it into my rhythm section.

Did you write any of these songs with the accordion in mind or did it come up during the sessions?

I use an accordion player when I play off-road shows. It's a perfect instrument in a lot of ways. It's orchestrative and percussive at the same time. Actually accordion players were the first musicians that I had seen a lot of growing up.

"Opened his eyes to the tune of the accordion."

Precisely.

Tell me about Joey Gallo.

Tell you what about him?

You wrote a song about him. Some say it takes liberty with the truth.

Really? I wouldn't know. Jacques Levy wrote the words. Jacques had a theatrical mind and he wrote a lot of plays. So the song might have been theater of the mind. I just sang it.

Some say Davy Crockett takes a lot of liberties with the truth and Billy the Kid too - FDR in Trinidad. Have you ever heard that?

I certainly do remember it. "When Roosevelt came to the land of the hummingbird."

I wonder if anybody in Georgia or Ukraine wrote a song about George Bush's visit? I know they named the airport road after him and his popularity in those places remained very high, even when no one liked him at home.

They name roads after a lot of people.

In MY WIFE'S HOME TOWN there's the line, "Dreams never did work for me anyway." Do you really believe that?

Well, yeah. Dreams can lead us up a blind alley. Everybody has dreams. We go to sleep and we dream. I've always thought of them as coming out of the subconscious. I guess you can interpret them. Dreams can tell us a lot about ourselves, if we can remember them. We can see what's coming around the corner sometimes without actually going to the corner.

Can't dreams also mean hopes about the future?

Oh sure. It's about how we use the word, I guess. Hopes for the future? I've always connected them up with fears about the future. Hopes and fears go together like a comedy team. But I know what you are talking about. Like in the Everly Brothers song, ALL I HAVE TO DO IS DREAM. If they said, "All I have to do is hope," it wouldn't be saying the same thing. It wouldn't be as strong.

What about political dreams?

Oh yeah. Politicians would have political dreams - dreams and ambitions. Maybe we are talking about two different things.

What's your take on politics?

Politics is entertainment. It's a sport. It's for the well groomed and well heeled. The impeccably dressed. Party animals. Politicians are interchangeable.

Don't you believe in the democratic process?

Yeah, but what's that got to do with politics? Politics creates more problems than it solves. It can be counter-productive. The real power is in the hands of small groups of people and I don't think they have titles.

In that song CHICAGO AFTER DARK, were you thinking about the new President?

Not really. It’s more about State Street and the wind off Lake Michigan and how sometimes we know people and we are no longer what we used to be to them. I was trying to go with some old time feeling that I had.

You liked Barack Obama early on. Why was that?

I’d read his book and it intrigued me.

Audacity of Hope?

No it was called Dreams of My Father.

What struck you about him?

Well, a number of things. He’s got an interesting background. He’s like a fictional character, but he’s real. First off, his mother was a Kansas girl. Never lived in Kansas though, but with deep roots. You know, like Kansas bloody Kansas. John Brown the insurrectionist. Jesse James and Quantrill. Bushwhackers, Guerillas. Wizard of Oz Kansas. I think Barack has Jefferson Davis back there in his ancestry someplace. And then his father. An African intellectual. Bantu, Masai, Griot type heritage - cattle raiders, lion killers. I mean it’s just so incongruous that these two people would meet and fall in love. You kind of get past that though. And then you’re into his story. Like an odyssey except in reverse.

In what way?

First of all, Barack is born in Hawaii. Most of us think of Hawaii as paradise – so I guess you could say that he was born in paradise.

And he was thrown out of the garden.

Not exactly. His mom married some other guy named Lolo and then took Barack to Indonesia to live. Barack went to both a Muslim school and a Catholic school. His mom used to get up at 4:00 in the morning and teach him book lessons three hours before he even went to school. And then she would go to work. That tells you the type of woman she was. That’s just in the beginning of the story.

What else did you find compelling about him?

Well, mainly his take on things. His writing style hits you on more than one level. It makes you feel and think at the same time and that is hard to do. He says profoundly outrageous things. He’s looking at a shrunken head inside of a glass case in some museum with a bunch of other people and he’s wondering if any of these people realize that they could be looking at one of their ancestors.

What in his book would make you think he’d be a good politician?

Well nothing really. In some sense you would think being in the business of politics would be the last thing that this man would want to do. I think he had a job as an investment banker on Wall Street for a second - selling German bonds. But he probably could’ve done anything. If you read his book, you’ll know that the political world came to him. It was there to be had.

Do you think he’ll make a good president?

I have no idea. He’ll be the best president he can be. Most of those guys come into office with the best of intentions and leave as beaten men. Johnson would be a good example of that … Nixon, Clinton in a way, Truman, all the rest of them going back. You know, it’s like they all fly too close to the sun and get burned.

Did you ever read any other presidential autobiographies?

Yeah, I read Grant’s.

What was he like? Any similarities?

The times were different obviously. And Grant wrote his book after he’d left office.

What did you find interesting about him?

It’s not like he’s a great writer. He’s analytical and cold, but he does have a sense of humor. Grant, besides being a military strategist, was a working man. Worked horses. Tended the horses, plowed and furrowed. Brought in all the crops – the corn and potatoes. Sawed wood and drove wagons since the time he was about eleven. Got a crystal clear memory of all the battles he’d been in.

Do you remember any particular battle that Grant fought?

There were a lot of battles but the Shiloh one is most interesting. He could’ve lost that. But he was determined to win it at any price, using all kinds of strategies, even faking retreat. You could read it for yourself.

When you think back to the Civil War, one thing you forget is that no battles, except Gettysburg, were fought in the North.

Yeah. That’s what probably makes the Southern part of the country so different.

There is a certain sensibility, but I’m not sure how that connects?

It must be the Southern air. It’s filled with rambling ghosts and disturbed spirits. They’re all screaming and forlorning. It’s like they are caught in some weird web - some purgatory between heaven and hell and they can’t rest. They can’t live, and they can’t die. It’s like they were cut off in their prime, wanting to tell somebody something. It’s all over the place. There are war fields everywhere. . . a lot of times even in people’s backyards.

Have you felt them?

Oh sure. You’d be surprised. I was in Elvis’s hometown – Tupelo. And I was trying to feel what Elvis would have felt back when he was growing up.

Did you feel all the music Elvis must have heard?

No, but I’ll tell you what I did feel. I felt the ghosts from the bloody battle that Sherman fought against Forrest and drove him out. There’s an eeriness to the town. A sadness that lingers. Elvis must have felt it too.

Are you a mystical person?

Absolutely.

Any thoughts about why?

I think it’s the land. The streams, the forests, the vast emptiness. The land created me. I’m wild and lonesome. Even as I travel the cities, I‘m more at home in the vacant lots. But I have a love for humankind, a love of truth, and a love of justice. I think I have a dualistic nature. I’m more of an adventurous type than a relationship type.

But the album is all about love – love found, love lost, love remembered, love denied.

Inspiration is hard to come by. You have to take it where you find it.

Getting back to politics, what did you think of Jesse Ventura, being a Minnesotan and all?

He did some good things or tried to. I never met him. All I know about the governor is that he’s a Rolling Stones fan.

Your old cohorts?

I hear from Keith once in a while but that’s about it.

What do you think of the Stones?

What do I think of them? They’re pretty much finished, aren’t they?

They had a gigantic tour last year. You call that finished?

Oh yeah, you mean Steel Wheels. I’m not saying they don’t keep going, but they need Bill. Without him they’re a funk band. They’ll be the real Rolling Stones when they get Bill back.

Bob, you’re stuck in the 80’s.

I know. I’m trying to break free.

Do you really think the Stones are finished?

Of course not, They’re far from finished. The Rolling Stones are truly the greatest rock and roll band in the world and always will be. The last too. Everything that came after them, metal, rap, punk, new wave, pop-rock, you name it . . . you can trace it all back to the Rolling Stones. They were the first and the last and no one’s ever done it better.

THIS DREAM OF YOU has this wonderful South of the Border feel, but at the same time, I detect echoes of Sam Cooke, the Coasters, the Brill Building, and Phil Spector. Were those records from the 50's and 60's important to you? Did you try to capture some of that flavor in THIS DREAM OF YOU?

Those fifties and sixties records were definitely important. That might have been the last great age of real music. Since then or maybe the seventies its all been people playing computers. Sam Cooke, the Coasters, Phil Spector, all that music was great but it didn’t exactly break into my consciousness. Back then I was listening to Son House, Leadbelly, the Carter family, Memphis Minnie and death romance ballads. As far as songwriting, I wanted to write songs like Woody Guthrie and Robert Johnson. Timeless and eternal. Only a few of those radio ballads still hold up and most of them have Doc Pomus’ hand in them. Spanish Harlem, Save the Last Dance for Me, Little Sister. . . a few others. Those were fantastic songs. Doc was a soulful cat. If you said there was a little bit of him in THIS DREAM OF YOU I would take it as a compliment.

Even though many of the tracks on the album are about love, the album is full of pain – sometimes in the same song. In BEYOND HERE LIES NOTHING, the song is underscored by a feeling of foreboding. You’re moving down "boulevards of broken cars.” You’re going to love "as long as love will last.” Is pain a necessary part of loving?

Oh yeah, in my songs it is. Pain, sex, murder, family - it goes way back. Kindness. Honor. Charity. You have to tie all that in. You’re supposed to know that stuff.

Getting back to THIS DREAM OF YOU, the character sings, “How long can I stay in this nowhere café?” Where is that café?

It sounds like it’s south of the border or close to the border.

You’re not saying?

Well, no, it’s not like I’m not saying. But if you have those kind of thoughts and feelings you know where the guy is. He’s right where you are. If you don’t have those thoughts and feelings then he doesn’t exist.

The character in the song reminds me a lot of the guy who is in the song ACROSS THE BORDERLINE.

I know what you’re saying, but it’s not a character like in a book or a movie. He’s not a bus driver. He doesn’t drive a forklift. He’s not a serial killer. It’s me who’s singing that, plain and simple. We shouldn’t confuse singers and performers with actors. Actors will say, “My character this, and my character that.” Like beating a dead horse. Who cares about the character? Just get up and act. You don’t have to explain it to me.

Well can’t a singer act out a song?

Yeah sure, a lot of them do. But the more you act the further you get away from the truth. And a lot of those singers lose who they are after a while. You sing, “I’m a lineman for the county,” enough times and you start to scamper up poles.

What actor could you hear singing THIS DREAM OF YOU?

Gosh I don’t know, James Cagney, Mickey Rooney

How about Humphrey Bogart?

Yeah, sure, him too. Funny thing about actors and that identity thing. Every time I run into Val Kilmer, I can’t help myself. I say, “Why, Johnny Ringo - you look like somebody just walked on your grave.” Val always says, “Bob, I’m not Johnny Ringo. That’s just a role I played in a movie.” He could be right, he could be wrong. I think he’s wrong but he says it in such a sincere way. You have to think he thinks he’s right.

Do you think actors have to be sincere?

Not at all. Mae West wasn’t. She was just who she was on the screen. Just like Jimmy Stewart and Burt Lancaster.

And Johnny Weissmuller.

Yeah, Lon Chaney, too.

Could that mean that Alec Guinness is Hitler?

Well sure, a part of him is. But of course he’s not Hitler. And neither is anybody else. Hitler was Hitler.

Do you remember images of Hitler from growing up?

No, not growing up. He was dead by the time I was four or five. I never had a real understanding of that.

Never had an understanding of what?

How you take a failed landscape painter and turn him into a fanatical mad man who controls millions. That’s some trick. I mean the powers that created him must have been awesome.

Well, the social and economic conditions of the Weimar Republic were so different than now.

Yeah sure, looking back in hindsight, you can see that someone would have to take control. But still, it’s so perplexing. Like why him? You could see that the man’s a total mutt. No Aryan characteristics whatsoever. You couldn’t guess his ancestry. Brown hair, brown eyes, pasty complexion, no particular type of stature, Hitler mustache, raincoat, riding whip, the whole works. He knew something. He knew that people didn’t think. Look at the faces of the millions who worshipped him and you see that he inspired love. It’s scary and sad. The torch of the spoken word. They were glad to follow him anywhere, loyal to the bone. Then of course, he filled up the cemeteries with them.

It brings to mind Hitler talking to the crowd in Triumph of the Will by Leni Riefenstahl.

Yeah, it’s clear as day.

Going back to that song you wrote for the movie that you mentioned earlier, LIFE IS HARD has the formality of an old Rudy Vallee or Nelson Eddy ballad right down to the middle eight (“Ever since the day. . .”). Do you figure that if you start a song in that style, you stick with the rules right down the line?

Sure, I try to stick to the rules. Sometimes I might shift paradigms within the same song, but then that structure also has its own rules. And I combine them both, see what works and what doesn’t. My range is limited. Some formulas are too complex and I don’t want anything to do with them.

FORGETFUL HEART - how do you decide to put an Appalachian banjo on a minor key blues? Is it something you think of ahead of time or does it come up in the session?

I think it probably came up at the studio. A banjo wouldn’t be out of character though. There is a minor key modality to FORGETFUL HEART. It’s like Little Maggie or Darling Cory, so there is no reason a banjo shouldn’t fit or sound right.

You wrote a lot of these songs with Robert Hunter. How does that process work?

There isn’t any process to speak of. You just do it. You drive the car. Sometimes you get out from behind the wheel and let someone else step on the gas.

You must have known Hunter a long time. Do you remember where you first met?

It was either back in ’62 or ‘63 when I played in the Bay area. I might have met him in Palo Alto or Berkeley or Oakland. I played all those places then and I could have met Hunter around that time. I know he was around.

Didn’t Hunter play in a bluegrass band with Jerry Garcia?

Yeah, it was either that or a jug band.

Have you ever thought about composing anything with those Nashville songwriters?

I’ve never thought about that.

Neil Diamond did an album years ago where he co-wrote with different Nashville songwriters.

Yeah, that might have worked for him. I don’t think it would work for me.

You don’t think it would work for you?

No. I’m okay without it. I’m not exactly obsessed with writing songs. I go back a ways with Hunter. We’re from the same old school so it makes it’s own kind of sense.

Do you listen to a lot of songs?

Yeah – sometimes.

Who are some of your favorite songwriters?

Buffett I guess. Lightfoot. Warren Zevon. Randy. John Prine. Guy Clark. Those kinds of writers.

What songs do you like of Buffett’s?

DEATH OF AN UNPOPULAR POET. There’s another one called HE WENT TO PARIS.

You and Lightfoot go way back.

Oh yeah. Gordo’s been around as long as me.

What are your favorite songs of his?

SHADOWS, SUNDOWN, IF YOU COULD READ MY MIND. I can’t think of any I don’t like.

Did you know Zevon?

Not very well.

What did you like about him?

LAWYERS, GUNS AND MONEY. BOOM BOOM MANCINI. Down hard stuff. JOIN ME IN L.A. sort of straddles the line between heartfelt and primeval. His musical patterns are all over the place, probably because he’s classically trained. There might be three separate songs within a Zevon song, but they’re all effortlessly connected. Zevon was a musician’s musician, a tortured one. DESPERADO UNDER THE EAVES. It’s all in there.

Randy Newman?

Yeah, Randy. What can you say? I like his early songs, SAIL AWAY, BURN DONW THE CORNFIELD, LOUISIANA, where he kept it simple. Bordello songs. I think of him as the Crown Prince, the heir apparent to Jelly Roll Morton. His style is deceiving. He’s so laid back that you kind of forget he’s saying important things. Randy’s sort of tied to a different era like I am.

How about John Prine?

Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism. Midwestern mindtrips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs. I remember when Kris Kristofferson first brought him on the scene. All that stuff about SAM STONE the soldier junky daddy and DONALD AND LYDIA, where people make love from ten miles away. Nobody but Prine could write like that. If I had to pick one song of his, it might be LAKE MARIE. I don’t remember what album that’s on.

A lot of the acts from your generation seem to be trading on nostalgia. They play the same songs the same way for the last 30 years. Why haven’t you ever done that?

I couldn’t if I tried. Those guys you are talking about all had conspicuous hits. They started out anti-establishment and now they are in charge of the world. Celebratory songs. Music for the grand dinner party. Mainstream stuff that played into the culture on a pervasive level. My stuff is different from those guys. It’s more desperate. Daltrey, Townshend, McCartney, the Beach Boys, Elton, Billy Joel. They made perfect records, so they have to play them perfectly … exactly the way people remember them. My records were never perfect. So there is no point in trying to duplicate them. Anyway, I’m no mainstream artist.

Then what kind of artist are you?

I’m not sure, Byronesque maybe. Look, when I started out, mainstream culture was Sinatra, Perry Como, Andy Williams, Sound of Music. There was no fitting into it then and of course, there’s no fitting into it now. Some of my songs have crossed over but they were all done by other singers.

Have you ever tried to fit in?

Well, no, not really. I’m coming out of the folk music tradition and that’s the vernacular and archetypal aesthetic that I’ve experienced. Those are the dynamics of it. I couldn’t have written songs for the Brill Building if I tried. Whatever passes for pop music, I couldn’t do it then and I can’t do it now.

Does that mean you create outsider art? Do you think of yourself as a cult figure?

A cult figure, that’s got religious connotations. It sounds cliquish and clannish. People have different emotional levels. Especially when you’re young. Back then I guess most of my influences could be thought of as eccentric. Mass media had no overwhelming reach so I was drawn to the traveling performers passing through. The side show performers - bluegrass singers, the black cowboy with chaps and a lariat doing rope tricks. Miss Europe, Quasimodo, the Bearded Lady, the half-man half-woman, the deformed and the bent, Atlas the Dwarf, the fire-eaters, the teachers and preachers, the blues singers. I remember it like it was yesterday. I got close to some of these people. I learned about dignity from them. Freedom too. Civil rights, human rights. How to stay within yourself. Most others were into the rides like the tilt-a-whirl and the rollercoaster. To me that was the nightmare. All the giddiness. The artificiality of it. The sledge hammer of life. It didn’t make sense or seem real. The stuff off the main road was where force of reality was. At least it struck me that way. When I left home those feelings didn’t change.

But you’ve sold over a hundred million records.

Yeah I know. It’s a mystery to me too.

LIFE IS HARD comes from a tradition that got pretty much wiped out by the popularity of swing and blues and rock n roll. I remember Leon Redbone said once that the big break in 20th century music was not in the 50’s when rock came in; it was when swing and jazz knocked off parlor piano ballads in the late 20’s and early 30’s. Do you ever wish that old style had stuck around a little longer?

Today, the mad rush of the world would trample over delicate music like that. Even if it had survived swing and jazz it would never make it past Dr. Dre. Things changed economically and socially. Two world wars, the stock market crash, the depression, the sexual revolution, huge sound systems, techno-pop. How could anything survive that? You can’t imagine parlor ballads drifting out of hi rise multi-towered buildings. That kind of music existed in a more timeless state of life. I love those old piano ballads. In my hometown walking down dark streets on quiet summer nights you would sometimes hear parlor tunes coming out of doorways and open windows. Somebody’s mother or sister playing A BIRD IN A GILDED CAGE off of sheet music. I actually tried to conjure up that feeling once in a song I did called IN THE SUMMERTIME.

No one was expecting a new album from you right now. I heard even the record company was surprised. How do you know it’s time to go in and make a new one?

You never do know. You just think sometimes if not now I’ll never do it. This particular album was supposed to come out next Fall sometime; September, October; when the movie’s released. We made it last year and it was supposed to be put away for a year. But then the guys from the record company heard it, and decided that they would like to put it out in early spring and not wait for the movie.

You don’t use elevated language on these songs – it’s mostly every-day speech and imagery. Did you decide to keep a lid on the poetry this time out - was it what the musical style demanded?

I’m not sure I agree. It’s not easy to define poetry. Hank Williams used simple language too.

IT’S ALL GOOD is a terrific song. You use that common catch phrase as a hook and describe a world that gets darker and more miserable with every verse – it’s kind of funny and kind of scary. How did that song get started?

Probably from hearing the phrase one too many times.

Every girl named Roxanne feels a connection to Sting. Every Alison thinks Elvis Costello was singing about her. You expecting to meet a lot of Jolenes?

Oh gosh, I hope not.

Any chance your Jolene is the same woman who got Dolly Parton so worked up?

You mean that woman with the flaming locks of auburn hair?

Yeah! Whose smile is like a breath of Spring.

Oh yeah, I remember her.

Is it the same one?

It’s a different lady.

At the end of JOLENE I noticed that those riffs start happening. I’ve seen you do that live, but I’ve never heard that on any of your records. I assume that’s Donnie playing with you.

Yeah, it is. The organ sound and steel guitar combined make those riffs.

Tony, your bass player has been with you now for. . . what?

Gee, I don’t know, probably for a while. Fifteen, twenty years.

How about your drummer, George?

Not as long as Tony but longer than my last drummer.

Where does George come from to play like that?

George is from Louisiana. He’s from New Orleans.

There’s no characters on this record like the ones in DESOLATION ROW, except maybe Judge Simpson in SHAKE, SHAKE MAMA. Would he be one of these archetypal figures like Cinderella or Shakespeare in the alley?

Oh, most definitely. He’s a possum huntin’ judge.

Certain singers show up in IT’S ALL GOOD. Neil Young and Alicia Keys have popped up on your recent albums. Do you think all your musician friends are going to be looking for shout-outs now? Once you start down that road how do you get out of it?

Well these people are archetypes, too. They might not think of themselves like that, but they are. They represent an idea.

Could you write a song about anybody?

Well I bet you could, yeah.

How would you get Stevie Wonder into a song?

When Stevie Wonder recorded BLOWIN’ IN THE WIND/ I was playin’ cards/ I was drinkin’ gin/

Could you write a song LIKE Stevie wonder?

I could write one like SUPERSTITION but I couldn’t write one like SIR DUKE.

Could you write a song about George Bush?

Well sure. George’s name would be easy to rhyme.

In the song I FEEL A CHANGE COMING ON the character says. . .

Wait a minute Bill. I’m not a playwright. The people in my songs are all me.

I thought we talked about that?

What exactly makes it you?

It’s in the way you say things. It’s not necessarily the things you say that make you who you are.

Okay, I think the line is, “I see my baby coming, she’s walking with the village priest/I feel a change coming on.”

Yeah, but you’re leaving a lot out.

Okay, but that’s the part I remember. I assume the guy, or YOU, are talking about being hooked up with somebody and feeling pretty good about it. Given what a hard time women have given the men, or YOU, in the other songs on the album, we can read this as a happy ending or a sign of trouble ahead. What are the chances that the guy in FEEL A CHANGE is likely to live happily ever after?

You might be reading too much into it. It’s not a fairy tale type song. There are degrees of happiness. You go from one to the other and then back again. It’s hard to be completely happy when those around us are suffering and groaning from hunger. But I know what you mean. You are talking about riding off into the sunset hoping that whatever you’ve done will outlive you.

Isn’t that the Hindu point of view?

Maybe it is.

A lot of performers give God credit for their music. How do you suppose God feels about that?

I’m not the one to ask. It sounds like people just giving credit where credit is due.

How do you think this new record will be received?

I know my fans will like it. Other than that, I have no idea.