Jonathan Wilson plays two nights at Madison Square Garden this August. On the massive stage at one of the world’s most prestigious venues, he’ll be singing and playing guitar on one of the most iconic songs in rock, written the year before he was born. No, Wilson’s not a household name. But for his (enviable) “day job,” Wilson channels Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour on the inescapable tune “Money” (and more!), serving as an integral member of Roger Water’s touring band. Last year found the multi-instrumentalist on the road with Waters for 156 dates, including the New Jersey gig where he fucked up some verses, leading Waters to tease: “Thanks a lot for singing your version of ‘Money.’”
Wilson, 45, who has produced Father John Misty and Conor Oberst and played with top luminaries, including Elvis Costello, made time to create his seventh album (since 2007), one that’s not-so-arguably his strongest and most affecting to date, but also destined to end up on year-end best-of lists. It’s that good. Dixie Blur — so named because of the quick, intuitive and live-style recording of the 14-song disc cut in Nashville — is an intimate, personal and transcendent Americana-style, singer-songwriter record. Instantly familiar and memorable with shades of Cat Stevens loveliness and Marty Robbins flourishes on the rousing foot-stomper “In Heaven Making Love,” the original and intimate songs are both deserving and appropriate for a stage as big as MSG. (Dixie Blur is out March 6, and Wilson plays two gigs at Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever on March 6-7).
Dixie Blur was created with an immediacy that was welcome, explains Wilson via phone from his record label’s U.K. offices. “This record ties into the narrative of what not to do, which was take nine months to obsessively make an album, which is what I did in the case of [2018’s] Rare Birds. It kind of fell into place to go down to Nashville and cut with a band and then keep all the vocals. Basically, like 93 percent of them.”
Capturing that “lightning in a bottle” with session players could have proved elusive, but Wilson, who produced the album along with good friend Patrick Sansone from the band Wilco, said he needed to “go with the flow and put a trust in that [process]. I’ve been a part of some magic on the floor with a band in the studio. But to be honest, it’s sort of a rare thing.”
It turned out to be freeing for Wilson, having top-of-the-line players he could trust; “the thing was just to be able to turn on a dime, because you can change keys, you can change the feel, you can change the tempo, boom, boom, boom, so quick.” He offers up major kudos to Sansone: “The keys to the kingdom of that came from Patrick. I’ve been friends with him for such a long time; he knows my past, where I’m from [the hills of North Carolina] and my parents and all the songs I’ve ever done.”
If Sansone helped secure the “session cats who’ve played with Marty Stuart, George Jones and Dan Auberach,” Wilson sought one player out on his own. “It came to me that I needed a fiddle, and I love the fiddle, but it can be a little fucking harsh if it’s not played by a certain hand; it can be a cruel instrument.” The answer to his own query of “who is the best in the world?” was Mark O’Connor. Wilson went to O’Connor’s website, sent him a missive and asked him to guest on the record.
[“O’Connor] goes, ‘Thanks, man, for thinking of me. But you know, I haven’t been in a studio since 1990. I don’t like doing the session thing.” But it wasn’t exactly a “no,” so Wilson persisted. “I just kept sort of bugging him.” He figures O’Connor googled him, and eventually, “surrendered and he came down. He’s probably the most celebrated session guy in that whole town, and that includes Chet Atkins,” raves Wilson.
O’Connor’s contributions add yet another color to the layered but not-too-dense songs. On the poignant, reflective “’69 Corvette,” Wilson’s dusky vocals and O’Connor’s melancholy playing set a palpable sense of place. “I was on this endless tour with Roger and I found myself with lots of spare time with the guitar. I was just sort of thinking about the old days, and that sound kind of popped up, really simple and right to the point. It’s the first track I did with Mark. You can hear that mystical, weird connection coming to fruition.”
Small portraits of Wilson’s mom and dad are painted in the song. “It was interesting thinking about putting that song into the cosmos and it being heard, for instance, by my parents, ’cause it gets very specific; the fact that my dad would pound, you know, thousands of fucking Coors Lights. That was a vivid memory. He definitely was driving around with those [beers] on his legs. Those are things a child sees and goes, ‘Hmm.’ But since then he’s definitely straightened up his act, so that’s all good.”
Wilson’s songs on Dixie Blur definitely skew personal and thoughtfully nostalgic, which is often in contrast to what he’s playing on tour with Waters, architect of Pink Floyd’s The Wall and numerous other images and songs with direct sociopolitical context.
“For me it’s not a necessity for a song to carry that message, not at all,” Wilson says. “For some people I feel like it is. I have a few friends who, later in their careers, pretty much all the songs have had sort of a political focus, which can be a fantastic thing. I’m too involved in the beauty of the whole thing; it could even be, you know, like 100 percent instrumental. I kinda fuck around with that part of it. It may sound like a cop-out–type thing, but I would rather contribute to like the transportation of a listener being able to go somewhere else.”
I’d mentioned to Wilson that I’d smoked a lot of pot at one of the Floyd concerts I attended as a teen, and he builds on my confession: “For instance, like you said, maybe you could get high and listen to me and sort of go somewhere else where maybe you’re not thinking about the Trumpisms and that kind of stuff. I know some of my fans look to me for that — for an ethereal sort of escape. So that’s something that I think about, but yeah, a shouty political song, not my bag. Not my bag.”
His bag on Dixie Blur is indeed about beauty and transcendence and connection, transmitted via both quiet moments and more raucous raveups. That connection goes beyond the record, as well. Wilson is never stingy with his time or talents, as evidenced by his major role in the Laurel Canyon “living room” jams he hosted over the last several years, redolent of the creative intermingling that took place in the late ’60s and early ’70s, leading the L.A. Times to call the scene “the connective tissue between the LC of the ’60s and the LC of today.”
However, Wilson’s since switched canyons, so open-minded musicians looking for a collective of cool people would be wise to look to Topanga Canyon. Back in the day, the storied Topanga Corral club hosted Canned Heat and Spirit, and it’s the rumored topic of the Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues.” “I’ve got to say, I feel like people are totally fucking snoozing a little bit on Topanga,” observes Wilson. “I’ve been there for 12 months. It’s a really special, weird, magical spot that I kind of feel is underpopulated, maybe.” That said, catching the busy musician at home between tours for Dixie Blur, with Roger Waters and his producing gigs will be no easy feat. Wilson acknowledges that he will, regretfully, have to turn down some production opportunities to focus on his own work. “But yeah, there are a few I feel would be really fun to do. So at this point, I’m definitely constantly exploring,” he says. “But basically, I have to pick and choose.”
Jonathan Wilson plays at 7 p.m. on Friday, March 6 and Saturday, March 7 at the Masonic Lodge, Hollywood Forever.