Tom Russell on Bob Dylan

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How did you first get into Bob Dylan?

I used to hear him in early concerts with Joan Baez in L.A., and then at the Santa Monica Civic in the early ’60s. I bought his second record.

How has he influenced your music?

I don’t think Dylan has influenced the way I write so much as he’s inspired me to start and continue my journey as a songwriter. I don’t think anyone writes like Dylan. He’s a unique and powerful voice with an unmatchable catalog. I think the shadow of Dylan intimidates young writers these days because no one is measuring up. Dylan never went away. It’s a mighty long shadow.

How many times have you seen him play live? What were those shows like?

I’ve seen him live maybe ten times. From those early shows to shows in the 1990s, to a recent show in El Paso. All shows were different… like watching a jazz or blues cat constantly reinterpret the music.

Did it take you awhile to get into Bob Dylan, given his strange singing style?

I was instantly into it. I heard him on the radio in 1962, at the same time I first heard Buck Owens, and I thought they were both “hillbilly rock cats,” until I learned where they both came from. I think Dylan’s a great singer. It’s like watching Picasso paint… it comes out in different fragmented, soulful lines that are always changing… it alters the way you hear the song.

What’s the closest you’ve ever gotten to him?

I got to talk to him, briefly, behind the Santa Monica Civic in 1963, I believe. A bunch of us kids brought harmonica boxes for him to sign. He rolled down the window of his station wagon. He asked me: “Hey, kid, where’s the nearest liquor store?” We followed his car for a few blocks, and they stopped, and Dylan got out and danced around our car, like a circus performer, and then he got back in his station wagon and they raced off. Into history. It’s like a dream now. The next time I saw him, I was backstage at the Hollywood Bowl, and he’d just debuted “Desolation Row.” Unreal. I was standing back there next to Johnny Cash. The world turned upside down for me at that moment. I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I sort of allude to that in the new song “Mesabi” on the new album.

Do you have a favorite Bob Dylan quote or lyric?

“I consider myself a poet. I’ll live like a poet, and I’ll die like a poet.”

What are some of your favorite songs or albums, and why?

Highway 61 Revisited is the bottom line for me. Or those three records: Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61, and Blonde on Blonde. He recorded them all within 18 months. It’s unimaginable now. Maybe 50 songs and outtakes that are part of history. It’s like Van Gogh painting 300 paintings in one year (which Van Gogh did.) Within these three records Dylan changed the history and direction of modern song. They still sound fresh.

Is there a period of Dylan’s music you think is underrated or overrated?

I think the Christian period is underrated, and some of those mid-career records which were overlooked, turned out to be great when your revisit them.

What do you admire about Bob Dylan?

He’s an artist. We have precious few. He’s kept going, in spite of the constant booing and critical distractions along the way. He shattered our idea of poetry and song. He virtually altered our notion of folk music. He built his own church on the old concepts, and created a new vision. He gave me religion.

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