A little advice from Steve Earle is what propelled Jonathan Wilson into his fourth solo album, Dixie Blur, which arrives March 6, but premieres exclusively on Billboard today (March 2).
The Topanga Canyon-based Wilson — who’s been Roger Waters’ musical director since 2017 and has also produced and played with Father John Misty, Dawes, Conor Oberst, Laura Marling and others — was trying to figure out what to do to follow up his 2018 release Rare Birds. He and Earle were on the same episode of NPR’s eTown, and the veteran singer-songwriter told Wilson, “The thing you should do is go down to Nashville.”
“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,'” Wilson tells Billboard. “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.”
Heading East, Wilson enlisted his friend Pat Sansone of Wilco to serve as producer on the melody-focused, stylistically diverse set. They set up shop at Cowboy Jack Clement’s historic Sound Emporium Studio and recorded mostly live with a top-shelf band that included Mark O’Connor on fiddle and other Nashville session luminaries.
“I had experienced this with others, but it was the first time for my own stuff that I saw the magic the band can create,” Wilson, who’d played most of the instruments on his previous albums, says. “You’ve got this collective thing there where you can change on a dime. You can change the feel, the tempo, just right there as you’re [recording] — which is a definite opposite to what I’ve done in the past, when you try to wrangle a song for days and days and days into something awesome.”
Wilson was particularly stoked to have O’Connor as part of the proceedings, which was not an easy get. “I was thinking that [fiddle] was the sound that could be the signature of the album,” Wilson recalls, “but the problem with that instrument is if it’s not completely fu–in’ stellar, it’s kind of a bummer. So I was thinking, ‘Who’s the best of the best of the best?’ and it came to me — Mark O’Connor. I contacted him and he was like, ‘Holy s–t, man, it sounds like a lot of fun,’ but he’d stopped doing the whole session thing in, like, 1990. So I basically begged and scratched and stole until he said yes … The first day he pulled out the fiddle and started playing it blew everybody’s mind, off the bat.”
Dixie Blur blends uptempo honky tonk (“Heaven Making Love”) with rolling Americana (“I’m So Alive”) and airy mood pieces like “69 Corvette” and “Riding the Blinds,” all flavored with fiddle and pedal steel. But it’s not an easy album to categorize. “I would say I was consciously exploring the word or the genre Americana, just because I was on a personal vibe,” says Wilson, who listened to country and roots music growing up in North Carolina. “That’s the sound of the South, the sound of the hills of Carolina. That’s my home, where I’m from. Certain things I’ve done in the past are more the sounds of my imagination, like exploring the British kind of acid fuzz. But these songs and this sound, this is the sound of my dad, my uncles and all that s–t. I was basically finding my own way back into it.”
Wilson has formed a new group, the Nearly Nashville Band, to play some shows in the U.S. and Europe to promote Dixie Blur. Come summer, however, Wilson will be back with Waters for his This Is Not a Drill Tour, an in-the-round show that kicks off July 8 with dates into October. Wilson, who was recommended to Waters by mutual friend Nigel Godrich, will again be musical director and is looking forward to another inventively staged immersion into Waters’ solo and Pink Floyd catalogs.
“It’s just like a dream the way it’s all sort of transpired,” says Wilson, who will be getting married during one of the tour breaks. “He’s just constantly, constantly, inspiring. He’s the s–t. I was sort of peripherally influenced by [Pink Floyd] but not a super fan, but I am now that I’ve really gotten to dig in and know those songs and play ’em and sing ’em. They’re so beautiful and they’re so many of them. It’s just something that’s great to be part of.”
Listen to Dixie Blur below.