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Jeff Walker Reviews: Jonathan Wilson “Dixie Blur” (BMG/Bella Union)

Native North Carolinian, Jonathan Wilson revisits his Southern roots on “Dixie Blur,” an album loaded with many gently reflective songs about youth, relationships, and loss.

Jonathan Wilson “Dixie Blur” 

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Wilson, whose long resume includes ‘70s-inspired solo albums, production work and a touring stint as a key band with Roger Waters’ touring unit, can be seen in the recent “Us + Them” concert film and on a new “This Is Not a Drill” tour starting this fall. That’s Wilson assuming a lot of David Gilmour’s old Pink Floyd parts. He’s built up a solid reputation as a producer for artists like Father John Misty and Dawes, as well. But for many fans, his own recordings are the thing, and there’s been no shortage of initial praise for this new album. 

When you think of Jonathan Wilson you may think of Southern California, since he started out being associated with the neo-Laurel Canyon scene around the turn of the last decade. But the singer-songwriter-producer spent his earliest years growing up in North Carolina, and he brings some of the sounds of that region into his music pretty much for the first time on the new album, “Dixie Blur.”

He traveled from his own Los Angeles studio to head to Cowboy Jack Clement’s old headquarters in Nashville. Clement, who passed away in 2013, worked with legends including Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bob Dylan, and U2, to name a few. Wilson appeared on NPR’s eTown with Steve Earle a while back who suggested, “The thing you should do is go down to Nashville.”

Wilson’s last album, a primarily solo affair, had taken nine months to record. He recalls, “I thought about that at the time, thought about it the next day and decided, ‘Damn, that’s a concept I definitely have not considered.’ Then I started to daydream about what that could be, kind of like the classic, session vibe. I started to get excited and decided to go for it.”

In making the trip, he traded psych-rock for steel guitar, although for fans it will not be a completely unrecognizable sound. On this effort, he also took longtime collaborator Patrick Sansone, of Wilco fame, along for the ride.

Wilson recorded the album in six days in Nashville with first-rate session musicians, including legendary fiddler Mark O’Connor, Russ Pahl on pedal steel, and bassist Dennis Crouch along with Kenny Vaughan on guitar, harmonica player Jim Hoke, drummer Jon Radford, and Drew Erickson on keyboards. They recorded all tracks live in the studio. Produced by Wilco’s Sansone, the album benefits from a light touch and the group setting that lets the songs’ folky, acoustic sounds breathe. “Dixie Blur” opens with a restrained, mellow cover of Quicksilver Messenger Service’s “Just for Love,” setting the mood for much of what follows. “69 Corvette” is full of nostalgia for family, expressing grief amid a flood of memories.

The album ends with a reworking of “Korean Tea,” a song he recorded with his band Muscadine back in the ’90s. Wilson claims it’s about “having a shining musical gift to share with the world.” Yet it’s also a song filled with sadness that the band mines to full effect: “I’m trying not to tap that emotion, the one where you feel alone.”

What makes “Dixie Blur” so special is Wilson’s ability to allow a team of crack musicians to come along for this ride. Together they have created an organic collection of songs that once again illustrates the immense talent that is Jonathan Wilson. It’s a perfect album to listen to in these times when we may all need some comfort from others. Key tracks are “Just for Love,” “Oh Girl,” “69 Corvette,” and “Korean Tea.”

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