While the new generation may ask, without irony, "who’s Bob Dylan?" and, "who cares about Willie Nelson?" many of us know it wasn’t always this way.
Once, there was an era that hung on Dylan’s every move, and when the folk singer eventually retired as the protest voice of his day, even his turncoat fans paid close attention. Then as now, through countless styles and periods — even a religious conversion or two — it’s precisely those fearless, shape-shifting ways that anointed Dylan reigning king of folk rock.
Nelson’s rise was different, though nonetheless fascinating: a Nashville-based songwriter whose irrepressible talent couldn’t be contained to the likes of Patsy Cline and Faron Young, who popularized his songs “Crazy” and “Hello Walls,” for starters. That he would go on to be a founding father of outlaw country while being the beloved spokesperson of everything from marijuana law reform to Farm Aid speaks not only to his enduring appeal but to his basic good nature.
When the veteran showmen converge in Phoenix this weekend, it’s an apt moment to consider the similarities between the two, likenesses that reveal not only a common thread but the spirit of the generation they share.
Both rose to prominence in the tumultuous '60s. Nelson was a clean cut, close-shaven song-slinger with talent to burn. Dylan was a wide-eyed troubadour self-made in the image of Woody Guthrie, harmonica harness and all. Both made career-defining moves during this time. Dylan tried his hand at protest music, peeling off a few timeless anthems like “The Times They Are a-Changin’” and “Blowin’ in the Wind,” before ultimately deciding to shuffle along (a change in course not well liked by his cohort Joan Baez, who wrote the song “To Bobby” as an attempt to bring him back). Nelson, after years of failure, finally got a record contract and an audience willing to hear him sing his songs.
Wildly prolific careers flecked with collaboration, experimentation, and high-profile struggles mark another parallel. Each has had his troubles — Nelson with the IRS, law enforcement, and multiple divorces, to name a few; Dylan with critical reception, crises of faith, a motorcycle accident — but neither strayed too far from the studio (Nelson, though, has far outpaced Dylan in overall output).
Both were integral members of heavyweight super-groups: The Highwaymen — Nelson shared with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson — and Dylan’s Travelling Wilburys, with George Harrison, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne. Elsewhere, Nelson’s collaborations with everyone from Snoop Dogg (“Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die”) to Merle Haggard (Pancho and Lefty) are the stuff of legend, as are Dylan’s alliances with Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler (on his first Christian album, Slow Train Coming), Allen Ginsberg and the Rolling Thunder Revue, and his celebrated run with Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, and the Band.
Both have covered the standards (Nelson’s Stardust, Dylan’s recent Shadows in the Night and Fallen Angels) while adding their own classic tunes to the songbook (“On the Road Again,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Hurricane,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” for instance). Both have requisite Christmas albums and soundtracks (Dylan’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Masked and Anonymous, Nelson’s Honeysuckle Rose), and both have
Over the years, each man’s distinct vision was eventually understood to be the standard-bearer of his respective genre — Dylan via folk rock, Nelson to country — while simultaneously producing catalogs associated with counterculture and leftist idealism. Dylan with his prose-based and probing, existential lyrics (for which he was just awarded a Nobel Prize), and Nelson with his guns-blazing, “fight the power” attitude, these uncommon talents — both unlikely success stories built around unconventional vocals, and each with a die-hard, deeply committed approach to craft — have long been constructing musical legacies difficult to improve upon, or add to.
It is very much unfair, and perhaps, unnecessary, to compare Dylan to say, Conor Oberst, or Nelson to Chris Stapleton, but perhaps the strongest commonality the two share is that Dylan, who is 75, and Nelson, 83, emerged within a generation so very different than today. There’s no need to pit today’s rising stars against the old guard, but it remains important to honor the songs and stories both these artists have given the world, and crucially, while there’s time left to do so. For many fans of pop and American music history, this equals the price of admission to see each perform live.
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The best part is, that through the magic of seasoned showmanship, Dylan or Nelson live in concert is not just a mere check off the bucket list, but something with the power to incorporate said ticket holder into each artist's living mythology. Nelson's iconic ballad "You Were Always on My Mind," when heard whistling through the weathered hole in his trusty guitar, Trigger, is nothing short of spellbinding. Encountering Dylan, you’re more likely to experience a display of shuffled rhythms, re-adapted melodies, and an artist ever in the crowning act of his career: reinvention.
Each artist packages his legacy in different ways, but at his best, the live experience can feel like being in the presence of a passing comet: There’s only so much time left to linger in the stardust that remains.
Willie Nelson is scheduled to play Celebrity Theatre on Saturday, October 15, and Sunday, October 16. Bob Dylan is scheduled to play Comerica Theatre on Sunday, October 16.