Once ubiquitous in used CD racks and college dorm rooms, The Wallflowers’ 1996 smash Bringing Down The Horse picked up enough fans to make the list of the decade’s 100 best-selling albums. Perhaps more importantly, it sounds even better in today’s Americana-heavy landscape than it did booming out of speakers 16 years ago. The time from then to now has shown The Wallflowers – who recently got back together to release another excellent LP, Glad All Over, to be a rock band of great stature and its leader Jakob Dylan to be one of rock’s top songwriters.
It’s easy to forget that, at the time, the band was far from a sure thing.
“You know, we had a lot of defeat with the band’s first record (1992’s The Wallflowers),” says Dylan today. “Some guys in the group had to be replaced, or some left. Rami Jaffe, Greg Richling, and myself were left, which was a quality problem. We had to re-juggle the band, but we felt we had a real opportunity here.”
It helped that Dylan dug deep and wrote a collection of songs that did honor to some of his musical influences.
“My heroes were writing big, epic songs,” he says. “That’s what I was trying to do. I wasn’t trying to write anthemic, angst-ridden songs at that time in the mid-‘90s. That wasn’t really ever my calling. I was always trying to find characters and I did want to be epic. I thought I could get a grip on that.”
Q&A: The Wallflowers’ Jakob Dylan Remembers Bringing Down The Horse
Those epics, including “One Headlight” and “6th Avenue Heartache,” placed Dylan’s incisive characterizations alongside catchy shout-along choruses, and rock radio couldn’t resist. Yet the album is more than a collection of singles. From the sprinting energy of “The Difference” to the endearingly raucous “God Don’t Make Lonely Girls” to the moving country-tinged balladry of “I Wish I Felt Nothing,” there isn’t a false move on Bringing Down The Horse. One of the secret reasons for the album’s success was the way that those who created it avoided some of the trendier sounds of the era and also resisted making a throwback record, resulting in a finished product that sounds remarkably fresh.
“Yeah, I think it has stood up well,” Dylan says now. “I hear those songs occasionally and I’m surprised too. I think T-Bone [Burnett, the album’s producer] said to me at one point that it was a ‘hyper-modern folk record.’”
The album was also notable for the guest stars who came aboard to help out, which Dylan says was necessitated in part by the departures of other band members shortly before the album was recorded. As a result, Heartbreaker Mike Campbell played the inimitable slide guitar part on “6th Avenue Heartache,” while Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz duetted with Dylan in the chorus. In addition, Sam Phillips and The Jayhawks’ Gary Louris were among the prominent backing vocalists helping out on the album.
“I always thought he had a lot of humor, and I love his songs,” Phillips told American Songwriter in 2011. “I thought that he had a lot of guts to stand up and be a songwriter, considering who one of his relatives is.”
And Nashville legend Leo LeBlanc provided the unforgettable pedal steel on closing track “I Wish I Felt Nothing.” Such a confluence of events can’t help but make the album’s architect shake his head in wonder at the serendipity of it all.
“It was a time of getting a lot of people at their best,” he said. “It was a record company [Interscope] that was at their best. It was a band that was just beginning to learn how to be at their best. You had T-Bone Burnett who was becoming his best. And you had Tom Lord-Alge, who mixed it, and was really crucial to that process, at his best. At that point, we were catching everybody, including the songs, at their peak. It was a perfect storm of characters that really made it all happen.”
The Wallflowers used the momentum gained by the success of Bringing Down The Horse to spur on a steady career of solid albums. Still, Dylan knows how fortunate he is to have had the opportunity to create such a well-loved classic.
“I have nothing but appreciation for it,” he says. “I don’t know that bands have the opportunity to have songs like that at this point. And I think bands go through a moment right afterward where they get frustrated and they don’t want people coming just to hear those songs. But as you march along, you realize it doesn’t really matter when they came from. If you’ve got songs in your back pocket that, not only do your fans know, but the guy working the concession stand knows it too, or the guy that took the tickets in the parking lot, you can only have gratitude for that, because not everybody gets the opportunity.”