|Photo courtesy Conqueroo Music Publicity
Singer/songwriter Willie Nile is one of rock music’s lesser-known treasures, a talented performer and artist who has forged his own path to create an enduring career and a catalog of recordings that would be the pride of any musician.
The Reverend has long been a fan of Nile’s music and songwriting skills, from his 1980 self-titled debut and the following year’s Golden Down to more recent work like 2009’s House of A Thousand Guitars or 2016’s World War Willie (and a lot of great records in between). As I’m also a big Bob Dylan fan (no surprise), I’ve been particular enamored as of late by Nile’s recently-released tribute album Positively Bob: Willie Nile Sings Bob Dylan.
Nile provides the ten-song collection of vintage Bob with his own reverent but unique spin on the songs, making for an exhilarating and entertaining listen. I thought it would be interesting to get a little behind-the-scenes info on Positively Bob, and Nile was gracious enough to answer a few questions by email for this Q5 interview, providing answers that are as intelligent and enlightening as his music usually is. You can check out the Reverend’s review of Positively Bob here.
Q1. What does Bob Dylan mean to you as an artist and as a fan?
I was a teenager in the ‘60s into all kinds of rock and roll and was knocked out by Bob’s music. Nobody was writing songs like he did. They were interesting, funny, poignant, mystical, passionate, compassionate, sarcastic, idealistic, realistic, surrealistic. There was nothing remotely like it on the radio. It was really inspiring. He was one of a kind and single-handedly changed the conversation completely. He raised the bar for everyone, artists and listeners alike.
These songs opened up a lot of doors for me, and for a whole generation of kids. Discovering Dylan’s songs in the ‘60s was incredibly liberating; it made me realize that there were no limitations or walls that could not be scaled or knocked down. I started reading the poetry of the Beats, Walt Whitman, Rimbaud, and it was off to the races from there.
Q2. Considering the depth of the Dylan songbook, how did you choose the songs to include on Positively Bob?
When I got the invitation to sing four Dylan songs at a Bob 75th birthday concert in NYC last year I stayed up late one night and just looked at all the songs in his catalog. I wanted to see if there were some songs I could pull off that would be fun to play live. I went by feel and instinct. I grabbed my guitar and went through his song list and tried a few of them that I thought might work in concert and knocked out the arrangements pretty quickly. I didn’t want to force anything. If a song didn’t come together right away, I moved on to something else. They were such a blast to play live I thought it would be fun to do an album of Bob songs. They’re still so relevant and need to be heard. I just wanted to do them justice and bring some good energy in a respectful way.
That’s a tough one because there’s a lot of great ones. Probably Blonde On Blonde. There are so many great songs on it, including 9 or 10 stone cold classics. There’s humor, sarcasm, beauty, depth, love, sorrow, madness, edge, you name it, it’s there, and it ends with the stunning “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” It’s the voice of a true poet and seeker at the top of his game, and it has that great mercury sound he spoke of. I love the live feel and excitement of the performances. It sounds so real and alive. It’s a high water mark in the history of music.
Q4. What's the hardest aspect of interpreting Dylan's songs?
The songs mean so much to me and after all these years of living they felt like old friends coming around to share some wine and talk about the world. It all happened very naturally in the studio so it wasn’t that hard. We didn’t rehearse. I just played a tape of the arrangement of each song I had recorded on my phone to the band and everybody brought their experience and appreciation of the songs to the table. We’d listen once in the control room, talk a little bit, and go into the studio and play our hearts out. 90% of it was all done in two days. We didn’t labor over it. Most of it is live. It was a labor of love I guess you’d say. If I’d had any doubts I wouldn’t have made the album. I think the key was in picking the right songs so maybe that was the hardest part. Once that was done it all just kind of fell into place.
I think the tallest mountain to climb was attempting “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.” It’s such a masterpiece and more relevant today than ever. I wanted to do it justice. My first thought was what if we approached it like “Bolero?” There’s so much power in the lyric and in the melody. There’s nothing like it on radio today. When we cut it I just took a deep breath and went for it. The band killed it and I just gave it all I had. I was pleasantly surprised listening back to it. And to think he was only 21 when he wrote it! Way to go Bob!
Q5. Much of Dylan's music displays a blues influence, as do many of your songs. Will we ever see a Willie Nile blues album and, if so, what shape would it take?
I recorded a blues song on my World War Willie album last year, a song called “Citibank Nile.” I never thought I could pull something like that off but it sure worked out all right. I love how it came out. I don’t know that I’d do a full album of blues songs but you never know. I’m still learning and have a lot more to learn. Maybe one day I’ll get there and be able to do a full album of blues. I could call it Willie Nile Sings The Lookout World Here I Come Blues.