The New Dylans in the New Millennium

From left, Ken Coomer, Eric Fritsch, Reese Campbell, Jim Reilley, Chris Autry. Photo by Ray Tarantino.
From left, Ken Coomer, Eric Fritsch, Reese Campbell, Jim Reilley, Chris Autry. Photo by Ray Tarantino.

Nearly three decades ago, the New Dylans garnered rave reviews from Rolling Stone and the Village Voice. R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe sang their praises and they were featured on MTV and BBC Radio One. The New Dylans finagled opening slots with The Band, Shawn Colvin, Townes Van Zandt and others of serious note. Band members Jim Reilley and Reese Campbell, boyhood friends from Pennsylvania, were living the dream. Could major success be far off?

Well, yeah, it was pretty far off, as it turned out. After a decade of struggling on the road, performing for next to nothing in towns where venues were sometimes nearly empty, the New Dylans called it quits in 1996. Campbell continued to play on the East Coast, while Reilley moved to Nashville and found work as a staff songwriter, getting some cuts and honing his chops in the studio as he produced other acts.

About a year ago Reilley and Campbell decided to give it another go. With a fire in their bellies to make a really good new album, and with the media support of an unexpected champion in Nashville’s Gannett-owned newspaper The Tennessean, they wrote and recorded Meta.

The old New Dylans were classified as a “folk-rock” band, maybe sort of an alternative one, a precursor to the Americana of today. And while there’s nothing too folky about the new album, Americana is probably still the section that Meta will inhabit at the record stores when the album – as in actual vinyl, with selected tracks – hits stores next month (the CD is available online now). “We were sort of lumped in with ‘folk-rock’ during those days, with bands like the Jayhawks, with things that were maybe more jangly like the Byrds,” recalls Reilley, whose songs have been recorded by Vince Gill, Sam Bush and others, and who co-wrote a song with Texas artist Casey Berry that was recently featured on the television show Nashville. “This new album is far more rock, more loud and angry. There’s a song about pedophilia, a song about fracking…’agenda’ isn’t the right word, but it’s about things that we think about, a ‘get off our lawn’ kind of thing.”

Meta has a bite and a Petty/Beatles/ELO bent at the same time. “There’s just something about what we do that makes it sound New Dylans-y…Reese and I bring out the best in each other,” Reilley says. “The songs have our mark on them.” With Reilley playing the guitar parts and Campbell on keys on the nearly hour-long CD, co-produced by busy East Nashville producer Eric Fritsch, the rhythm section features two of Nashville’s finest. “We got Ken Coomer from Wilco to play drums, and Chris Autry, a great session player here in town, is on bass.”

Even though Reilley still works as a contracted songwriter, he says the New Dylans never really went away in his mind or heart, or in the minds and hearts of many others. “It seemed like, no matter what I’ve done in Nashville, people would say, ‘Hey, good job, when are the New Dylans gonna get back together?’ For years I was insulted by it,” he says. “I was like, Come on man, get with it, this [songwriting] is what I’m doing now. But the older I get, I realize how cool it is that people still remember something that was such a big part of my life, so why would I deny it?”

The band has also hooked up with Featuring.me, a website that allows consumers to download a song and remix it to their own specifications, with some preset parameters, for three dollars. “Selfishly, as a music fan, I wish that more bands would be part of Featuring.me so we could all remix songs that we like,” Reilley says of the innovation. In this case the song “Camel Through a Needle,” the opening track of Meta, is available for remixing through this site. And if the New Dylans were so named out of senses of both sarcasm and irony, “Camel Through a Needle” is filled with cryptic and mysterious imagery that definitely reflect the namesake’s influence.

The band recently played a sold-out show in Nashville, has shot a documentary, and is talking about hitting the road to support Meta. “We do plan to go on the road, to do what makes sense,” Reilley says. “We’ve always done things our own way…we’ve always been an indie band, never been a corporate band, always done it ourselves. This record is the best thing we’ve done and I’m proud of it. I’m proud to be written about in American Songwriter, proud to have been written about in Rolling Stone again. It’s like we never stopped, and it definitely feels like the right time.”