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’97 Flashback: How Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind Survived Stormy Studio Sessions

Ted Drozdowski

Bob Dylan Time Out of Mind

Bob Dylan was 29 studio albums and nearly 40 years into his career when he began recording Time Out of Mind in January 1997. It was a difficult period for Dylan artistically. Although his place as one of the greatest songwriters and personalities in rock and roll was already cemented, his career as a contemporary artist was foundering. Dylan’s most recent studio album of new material was 1990’s Under the Red Sky, which was generally slagged by critics and fans. He’d followed up with two CDs of folk covers, but was shying away from revealing new songs, even in concert.

Then in 1996 a deep snow fell on his Minnesota farm, and with it came inspiration. Dylan began writing a string of fresh numbers. He even demo’d some of them in the studio—a departure from his usual modus operandi of springing just lyric sheets or bare-boned chords on his session musicians to preserve spontaneity.

Dylan booked time at Miami’s Criteria Studios and contacted producer Daniel Lanois, with whom he’d made 1989’s sonically intriguing Oh Mercy. That disc had been Dylan’s most recent commercial success, peaking at 30 on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart and at number six in the U.K.

Bob Dylan, Daniel Lanois, and Jim DickinsonIt was not an entirely happy reunion. Dylan and Lanois, whose production credits by then ranged from U2 to Emmylou Harris, had conflicting visions for the album that would become Time Out of Mind. In later interviews, Dylan said he’d been listening to Buddy Holly records to psyche himself up for the sessions. Holly’s stripped down primal rock and roll beat is nearly the antithesis of Lanois’ textural approach. Lanois was already well established as a smooth conceptualist who blurred lines between instruments to create a warm sonic landscape.

And then there were the musicians. Lanois aimed to play guitar himself and brought in his regulars Cindy Cashdollar on slide and drummer Brian Blade. Dylan brought in Jim Keltner, one of the greatest rock drummers on the planet, Texas organist Augie Meyers (of the Sir Douglas Quintet), Memphis music giant Jim Dickinson on piano, Nashville guitarist Bob Britt, and blues six-string master Duke Robillard—a far brawnier crew with a long history grounded in roots rock and R&B. Typically there were a dozen musicians, including three drummers, playing live on each take.

“Working with Bob Dylan was a great experience,” Robillard says a decade later. “He was very communicative with me, and I really enjoyed it and worked hard. I sat maybe five or six feet from him for the whole session, so to me, there was nothing Lanois could have done, other than send me home, that would have wrecked the experience for me.”

As it was, Dylan and Lanois bumped heads over Robillard repeatedly. “I guess they had been recording a day or two before Bob told his manager to give me a call,” Robillard says. “He felt like he needed me. I flew down the day after I got the call. The only problem, and I didn’t realize this until after I arrived, was that I was replacing Daniel Lanois in his role as guitar player. He didn’t like that, and he hated me.

Duke Robillard“Thus began a really strange battle,” Robillard continues. “I would be playing or going over a tune, and Lanois would come in from the control room and say, ‘I want you to sit this one out.’ I’d say, ‘Okay,’ and about 15 minutes later he and Bob would go into a corner and argue. Then Lanois would come back into the control room and tell me to go back into the studio and play. Dylan was very complimentary of my playing. He said, ‘I’m gonna have to buy more of your CDs so I can learn to play like that.’”

Robillard, whose career started in the late 1960s when he founded jump blues big band Roomful of Blues, had been asked to audition for Dylan’s group before. “The timing was never right,” Robillard says, “and I had other things going on in my own career.”

Robillard’s versatile, lush-toned playing first caught Dylan’s ear after Robillard replaced Jimmie Vaughan in the Fabulous Thunderbirds and they opened for Dylan. Plus Robillard is a friend of Tony Garnier, Dylan’s longtime bassist, who also played on Time Out of Mind.

For the sessions, “I brought only my electric Gibson L-5 and a Telecaster,” says Robillard, “but on my first morning in Miami I went to a vintage guitar shop I’d heard about and picked up a Les Paul, too. I think they had me play through a small Peavey tube amp, a Classic 30 or something.

“Nothing was really loud, because there were so many people playing. The tracking we did was phenomenal. It was 12 hours a day for nine days—a very heavy experience. Bob would make up the arrangement on the spot, and you were expected to fall in without even a count or even knowing if the tape was rolling. It was always rolling. If Bob didn’t like how a song was going, he would change it on the spot without telling anybody and just start playing. You really had to be on your toes.

Bob Dylan“Although we all played at once, Lanois used only five or six musicians’ tracks on each tune,” Robillard continues. “I played on everything, but the ball was in his court because he was producing and mixing, so I can’t hear much of myself in there.”

That said, Robillard got to have final control over his guitar parts on one tune, “Love Sick,” when he recorded it for his own 1999 album New Blues for Modern Man, twining his six-strings around its passionate lyric. “I love that song,” Robillard says, “and although Lanois tried to leave out my guitar part on Time Out of Mind, you can hear the ghost of it in the background.”

After its release in September 1997, Dylan’s Time Out of Mind was hailed as a dark masterpiece. Songs like “Dirt Road Blues” were received as a return to his earlier country-blues-fueled form. More important, “Standing in the Doorway,” “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven,” “Not Dark Yet,” and “Make You Feel My Love” seemed like signposts of the times―full of disconnection and wanting, driven by a hope of redemption in the face of potentially insurmountable spiritual and moral challenges.

And Dylan once again ascended the mountain of pop success. Time Out of Mind sold more than a million copies and received Grammy Awards for Album of the Year and Best Contemporary Folk Album, and Dylan received the Best Male Rock Vocal Performance for “Cold Irons Bound.”

Since then Dylan has stayed on top of his game, making the excellent Love and Theft in 2001 and 2006’s blues-derived Modern Times. He also produced both of those albums himself, using the pseudonym Jack Frost.

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