Bob Dylan's Gospel Period Sidemen Share Memories of His Most Divisive Era

Bob Dylan
Richard McCaffrey/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Bob Dylan performs on stage with a Gibson acoustic guitar at the Fox Warfield Theatre in November 1979 in San Francisco, Calif.

It all began with a little silver cross Bob Dylan found on tour in support of his 1978 LP Street Legal.

“I said, ‘I need something that I didn’t have before,’” he explained to an audience at a 1979 concert. “And I looked in my pocket and I had this cross.”

He would extrapolate upon where he was coming from in 1980. “There was a presence in the room that couldn’t have been anybody but Jesus,” he explained. “Jesus put his hand on me. It was a physical thing. I felt it all over me. My whole body trembled. The glory of the Lord knocked me down and picked me back up.”

His “Come to Jesus” moment hit him like an atom bomb, and for the next three years he would write, record and tour behind music exclusively dedicated to his newfound faith, which emerged at a time when America had a Born Again in the White House with Jimmy Carter, counterbalanced by the rise of the Evangelical right. Dylan would write and record three albums during this time -- 1979’s Slow Train Coming, 1980’s Saved and 1981’s Shot of Love -- all filled with songs inspired by a combination of the King James version of the Holy Bible and a controversial book called The Late, Great Planet Earth, written in 1970 by Hal Lindsey, a man who would go on to declare Barack Obama was preparing the world for the Antichrist during the 2008 presidential election.

The reaction from fans was comparable to when Bob went electric at Newport in 1965. People who were hoping to hear “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” were walking out of concerts because Dylan wouldn’t veer away from the religious material, sometimes opting to check out the street busker outside the arena who would play the songs being ignored inside. Critics were particularly vicious in their reviews, too.

“With a leap of faith he plummeted to the level of a spiritual pamphleteer,” sneered Kurt Loder in his review of Saved in Rolling Stone. “What made the Gospel According to Bob especially tough to take was his hook-line-and-sinker acceptance of the familiar fundamentalist litany, and his smugness in propounding it. Dylan hadn't simply found Jesus but seemed to imply that he had His home phone number as well.”

But through the years, the specter of his Born Again period dissipated with the releases of such new classics as Infidels, Oh Mercy, World Gone Wrong, Time Out of Mind and Love & Theft. And for younger fans who were either too young to remember or not even born yet, this most misunderstood period has been gradually gaining traction; enough, in fact, to help make the 13th volume of Dylan’s quarter-century-strong Bootleg Series collection perhaps the most anticipated installment since Live 1966.

Entitled Trouble No More, the eight-disc, one-DVD set focuses on the wealth of live recordings stemming from the tireless three years Dylan spent on the road spreading his word. And the band he put together for the lion’s share of these dates ranks among the best he’s ever assembled -- a ragtag team of elite rock and soul session men who helped to pass the Bard’s Thin Wild Mercury sound through the garden of gospel music, resulting in twin pillars of brawn and beauty strengthened by the likes of Little Feat guitarist Fred Tackett, iconic Muscle Shoals studio men Tim Drummond on bass and Spooner Oldham on keyboards, and legendary drummer and future Traveling Wilburys sideman Jim Keltner, along with a mighty squad of backup singers including Clydie King, Carolyn Dennis, Regina McCrary, Helena Springs, Madelyn Quebec, Mona Lisa Young, Gwen Evans and Mary Elizabeth Bridges.

Listening to these live versions of such key tunes of the era as Slow Train’s “Gotta Serve Somebody,” Saved’s “Pressing On” and Shot of Love’s “Solid Rock” across eight discs, it's amazing to hear this incredible group of musicians evolve with a spirited sense of intensity and passion that suggests each member was seized by the Holy Ghost as if by pure osmosis. To get a sense of what it was like being on the road with Dylan at the time, Billboard spoke at length with Tackett and Keltner to get a better understanding of what it was like on the inside of this most magnificent and misconstrued period of Dylan’s six-decade career.

What are your thoughts on the fact that Dylan’s gospel era is considered one of the low points of his career. As someone from that period, does it bother you to hear that?

Fred Tackett: To me, he’s such a great artist, a great writer and a great musician. He’s got so many different styles, and you might not like all of them. If you read his Chronicles, he admitted that some of his records were an absolute attempt at getting people to not like him so he could just go away (laughs).  He said, ‘And nothing worked.’ People still loved him. So he just decided to himself, ‘People are gonna love everything I do, so I don’t have to worry about it anymore.’ (laughs).

Jim Keltner: In hearing people talk about this time, they’re appreciating the music and not worrying so much about the message that confused them at first. But it was a slammin’ band and we were all at a certain peak—that peak you get when you’re in your thirties still. And Bob was certainly at an amazing point. He still had the Bob Dylan hair and he was in great shape. He had cut down on his smoking a bit; he didn’t smoke in public at all during those years. So we had everything going for us. I was personally feeling really good about the music and everything. I felt we got real good. But then that was the undoing of everything at the end because Bob, he likes stuff to change up.

From the looks of the film and the sounds of this live material, the band worked pretty hard on this tour.

Fred: I guess it was a combination of wanting to please Bob and put reality into his vision and the message he was trying to convey. That’s why he hired us, to present this project, this evangelical music, the best way we could. Everybody was intent on that, and at the same time there’s this stress of playing with Bob and wanting him to dig it. So we’re really concentrating in hopes we don’t do anything that’s gonna screw things up. On some nights, Jim Keltner would do this drum fill and Bob would just whip his head around like ‘What the heck was that!’, or I’d play a different lick and he’d do the same to me! (laughs). There was a certain tension that made you want to throw down, man.  You didn’t want to get one of those stares. It was a little bit of that and a little bit of wanting to do the best job, of course. It was a great band, and a great opportunity, and we were all very aware of it.

Jim: As a musician, being out on the road -- because my thing had always been playing on records and being at home -- I was fortunate to be able to play with that kind of intensity. Being on tour was difficult for me. But being on the road with Bob and especially during that period, his music was so strong that we rose to the level where he was at. And that’s what you hope to do as musicians. You have a great band and some kinda mediocre music and not such a great singer, or even a great singer, if the music is not touching you in some kind of way, it will be okay because you’re pros. But it will not have the impact it does when you really love the music and the artist singing it.

Did you guys study your tapes on the road?

Fred: Yeah, every night we would go up to Jim Keltner’s room and listen to the tapes; just the guys in the band, not Bob. So it would be Tim Drummond and myself, Jim and Spooner Oldham in Keltner’s room having a few and listening to the tapes and dissecting them and talking about what was a good solo, what was a bad solo. Keltner was a real inspiration for pushing the real righteousness of the grooves and everything; he was careful not to let anything slip (laughs). He was almost like our bandleader in a way, though the same could be said for Tim Drummond as well. But it was Keltner who would have us up there listening back to the tapes to see what was good and what went terrible.

Jim: For me, and I believe for Freddie, Tim, Spooner and all the guys, I think we were really led upward and onward with Bob. He was on fire during this time. His vocals and phrasing were like nobody else. And when you put that together with the music that he wrote -- and it was very powerful music -- it was real easy for us to rise, and I’m glad that other people see it.

What would you consider to have been the inspirational template for the way the stage show was laid out for this tour?

Fred: The Staples Singers were a big, big influence on us. Pop Staples is just soul city, and we were so blown away by how they put that together with gospel. And we had the best gospel singers we could possibly get for this tour with Clydie King, Carolyn Dennis, Regina McCrary, Helena Springs, Madelyn Quebec, Gwen Evans and Mary Elizabeth Bridges. Terry Young, the pianist and Mona-Lisa Young, who were on the road with us, they looked like Ashford & Simpson. Terry is such an expert of that gospel piano style. I kind of felt like we were doing up the Memphis soul style like Jim Dickinson and Lonnie Mack. Tim Drummond, you know, he was the only white man to play bass for James Brown (laughs). And Spooner, he was on those classic Aretha Franklin albums like I’ve Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You and Lady Soul.

Jim: When you consider artists like John Coltrane or Johnny Cash or Bob Dylan or John Lennon or George Harrison or even Bono to a degree, they’ve been given gifts. They’ve been touched by the hand of God in a certain way. You have to say that, because it’s so obvious; it’s right in front of your eyes. Coltrane changed the world of music. And that certainly lent an element of influence to a degree.

What were your thoughts on Bob keeping the set lists exclusive to the non-secular material for majority of these tours?

Fred: Well, it was real exciting, because Bob was very committed to the religious thing he was putting forward. He wouldn’t do any of his old tunes at all. Then, later on when we started doing his old songs again during that last year on the road, it was so much fun. I remember the first time we played “Like A Rolling Stone.” We opened the show in San Francisco with that song when we did those residencies at the Warfield Theater, and when people heard the opening chords and realized what we were about to play the place went crazy. I had a chill that went right up my spine from it. It was wonderful. But then it got to be, just like playing with any of the other great musicians that I’ve played with like Boz Scaggs and Little Feat, you go about playing the songs. Yet when we were doing the strictly gospel shows, we’d go out there every night and play for people who were there to hate on it (laughs). But then there were others who loved it. We’d play a lot of cities where the reviewers would say in the previews “I’m not really sure of this Christian thing that Bob’s doing, but he hasn’t been here in 16 years and he might not be back again for another 16 years so I’m definitely going!” Then there were people who felt vindicated by what he was doing during this time, and then others who wanted to make their point known that they didn’t dig it at all. So you had all that goin’ on, and I think that had something to do with the intensity of the band, too, because every night when we’d go onstage there were people out there who were hostile and some people who were diggin’ it. It was definitely like, ‘Here we go guys! Let’s shove this down their throats!’ (laughs).

Jim: Here’s the way I see it: Christianity is basically a message of love. That’s what it’s always preached; it’s love. But many, many Christians came up in a time and a place where you didn’t get love from the preacher. You got scary sermons or threatening sermons. And it’s not just Christianity, it’s the same in any religion. People like to use the phrase “organized religion." When they say that, what that means, I think, is man having taken the things of God and turned them into these tools for them to use. If there’s a great preacher and a man who’s got God in his heart that’s the power of good. I think Jimmy Carter is a good Christian. Look at what he’s doing now in his '90s. And I think he was a positive example for Bob. Bob used to say, "I don’t believe in priests, rabbis, preachers or imams. I believe in the music." What he said there was a mouthful, man. If you call yourself a Christian, you should be paying attention to what Jesus said and what he admonished you to do.

Also, when you finally get to the Earl’s Court concert on Trouble No More, what’s most exciting about hearing the old songs is how well they blend with the Christian material in this seamless way.

Fred: I remember those Earl’s Court gigs. My wife was sitting next to Stevie Wonder in the audience, and Eric Clapton was there. It was real exciting, man. We went over to Ray Cooper’s after the gig and hung out. It was right after John Lennon had been shot, and Julian Lennon was there so everybody was gathered around him to protect him, you know. It was a real special time. I remember, my wife and I were running around sightseeing and going back to the hotel on the subways. I had my guitar with me, and we were on the train with all these people who were just at the show. So we’d hear both, ‘Yeah, that was a load of bullshit!’ and ‘That was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen!’ It was wild, being with the crowd as we went home. Those were really great gigs. The acoustics in Earl’s Court were strange.

Jim: I do remember it was pandemonium. People went crazy that first time we played “Like A Rolling Stone” during that Earl’s Court show. When they heard the opening chords to that song, which is so well identifiable, they flipped out. The thing that I noticed is that even though we were playing songs that were confusing to his real loyal fans, people were just so blown away by just seeing him in concert, it didn’t matter. And I’ll tell you what was interesting then and still to this day because we always go see Bob when he comes to town, you look around the crowd  and most of the audience is young people and a smattering of people my age and older. It’s a tremendous amount of young people, almost like it’s this college rule requiring you to go see Bob Dylan (laughs). It’s part of the curriculum.

None of the sermonizing Dylan had done on these tours had made it onto Trouble No More, but it would be great to know what you thought about the stuff he was saying between songs during that time.

Fred: There were some classics, man. Bob had some funny material. One of the things I remember was he’s talking to the audience telling them, “I was talking to this audience about Jesus, and all of a sudden they starting making this noise like ‘Boo!’” He was saying it in a way like he’s never heard that sound before. And he went on to say, “And I was telling them about Jesus, and they kept wanting to call him Boo.” But the best one was when he’d riff on album titles, something like “The Eagles are on The Long Run. Bob Seger’s Running Against The Wind. Jackson Browne is Running on Empty. One of these days these guys have got to come back home.”  

Jim: Really if you were to think about his songwriting, what Bob did was he made the Bible he was following, which I believe was the King James version, into modern translation. All those songs he did during that time with the sentiment they had you can hear it. I was talking to Jon Pareles of The New York Times recently and we were getting into it over the subject of Dylan’s Christianity, and I told him because it was Bob up there singing these songs, I took it very much more serious and I got into it enough to where I wanted to go see how accurate he was. I would look in the Bible, and I didn’t know how to read it, but I found that the more I went to it anyway not knowing with what I was doing but I was guided along through Bob and these songs. I guess that’s the way God works in a person’s life: If you want to know about Him, you have to go and learn from Him. It could be through somebody or it could be just opening up His Word. As I got to reading, I found that Bob was spot-on, man. I don’t think any ministers or anybody said he wasn’t legit. Some of the criticism was that he was yelling at people (laughs). He was more like preaching at them than preaching to them. Then there were others who were like, "Well, he’s telling the truth and you have to make up your own mind as to how you react to it.”