Indiana Music: Bill Wilson – Album Reissue – “Ever Changing Minstrel”

billwilsonOne night in February, 1973,  Indiana folk rock legend Bill Wilson was a 25 year-old musician looking for a break. So he drove to Nashville and knocked on the kitchen door of producer Bob Johnston, the guy who had produced Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde albums, and Johnny Cash’s at Folsom Prison and I Walk the Line records

What happened after that is murky, beautiful and puzzling.

According to the liner notes of Wilson’s debut album, Johnston answered the door to find Wilson standing there, saying “I’m Bill Wilson and I want to make a record.”

“Well, you came to the wrong house,” Johnson answered. “You can’t just show up and make a fucking record.”

“Will you listen to one song?” asked Wilson.

“One song,” said Johnston.

A Vietnam vet who hung around in the Austin scene, Wilson’s spark must have been evident to Johnston, because the producer let the singer in, allowed him to play, and as legend has it – there are no official notes that confirm it – rounded up many of the guys who played on Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde to record Ever Changing Minstrel in one night.

The remastered (from the original tapes) album is now reissued by Tompkins Square with rare photographs, notes by reissue producer and Tompkins Square label owner Josh Rosenthal. “I bought the original album for a quarter at a record store in Berkeley, California in January 2012,” Rosenthal says. “I had never seen it before. I worked at Sony for 15 years, and thought I knew the catalog pretty thoroughly. I loved it and worked out a license with Sony We’ve almost sold through our first press. We can probably sell a few thousand around the world,” Rosenthal says.

Originally released on Windfall Records (an major imprint of CBS/Columbia at the time) in 1973, the tracks laid down are a time capsule of the Nashville-Dylan hybrid of folk rock from the early 1970s Folk rock framed by piano, filled with airy drums, kept gritty with some surprisingly dirty guitar lines and, just because that’s what was happening at the time, includes Elvis-inspired gospel backup vocals. Lyric-driven ballads backed by session pros and swampy, Memphis-like singer/songwriter soul cuts; the sound of Dylan, Jerry Jeff Walker and Joe South.

As it happened, Columbia Records was changing management when the record came out and Wilson, the singer-songwriter from Indiana, suddenly wasn’t a priority. The record faded away. It doesn’t make the record any less thrilling. Instead, there a mystical quality to the music. How does this fall through the cracks? And how many other talented musicians suffered the same circumstances?

“Rainy Day Resolution” talks of “singing this song of freedom,”, and “Pay Day Giveway” is highlighted by Clapton-esque guitar lines and rolling blasts of words that give the verses a “Blinded By The Light” feel.

It’s a revealing glimpse of the early, fire-is-burning Wilson, who still holds a legendary place among the cult of Hoosier folk rock affecianados. A Central Indiana influence for 20 years of songwriters, he spent more time playing clubs, coffee houses and lounges than he did pursuing another record deal. He struck one more time as a songwriter, co-writing “Sultans of Swing” for Dire Straits. He later told an audience that he bought a truck with the money he made off the song after it became a hit.

“To Rebecca” is a beautiful slow build slice of acoustic guitars, while one of the best cuts is “Father Let Your Light Shine Down, straight out of the Saturday night gospel barns; inspirational church music cut from the musical cloth o”f south. “Following My Lord” carries forward the subtle theme of looking for faith that rides through the record.

The title cut sounds like it could have come the same hazy dawn that inspired Kristofferson to write “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down.” The set’s closer, “Monday Morning Strangers,” pulls out a “sleepy sidewalk pushes on” line that furthers that connection, with the loniliness of Sunday replaced by a “whenever Monday morning rolls around.” Added bonus: the track contains one of the juiciest Allman Brothers-like guitar solos unearthed in a long time.

After the debut, Wilson went on to record more independent albums, including Made in the USA (1982) and Talking to Stars (1977). His final album, Traction in the Rain, came out a year before his death. “Indianasong” from that album revealed how good Wilson was at what he did, all those years later. He had grown into a John Prine-like performer, and that genius is part of what makes this reissue sweet and beautiful and sad. He was really good.

A massive heart attack claimed Wilson’s life in November of 1993, while he was in Nashville visiting a friend.

Website: Bill Wilson tribute site
Website: Tompkins Square record label

Interview: Bob Johnston interviewed about Bill Wilson and the recording of the album –   Nashville Scene – September , 2012

Interview: Indiana guitarist (John Prine) and singer/songwriter Jason Wilber and WFHB radio’s (Bloomington) Program Director Jim Manion talk about Bill Wilson – from Wilber’s “In Search of a Song” interview series/sho

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