Even though Bob Dylan opted not to play Friday night when he was honored as MusiCares Person of the Year annual dinner at the Los Angeles Convention Center, he had his hand in every performance.
Billboard talked to several of the evening’s performers on the red carpet about their personal history with Dylan and what it meant to have the man many consider to be the greatest songwriter of the 20th century handpick which song they would sing to honor him.
For many of the artists, it was validation that the enigmatic Dylan approved of the versions of his songs they had already cut. “I can die happily now,” said Bonnie Raitt, after Dylan selected her to sing “Standing on the Doorway,” a song she covered on 2012’s Slipstream, “because he said he just loved the way I did it.”
Raitt, who has known Dylan since she was 19, was so pumped after Thursday’s rehearsals, she went home and re-read his memoir, Chronicles. As big a fan as she is, she admitted that she can’t listen to his music when she gets ready to write for a new album “because it will make me too intimidated, but he’s been an incredible inspiration.”
“He knows who sings his songs. If you do his songs well, he likes it,” said Crosby, Stills & Nash’s David Crosby, who performed “Girl from the North Country,” a song CS&N plays every night in concert. “I’m honored he wanted us to do it.”
Crosby and Dylan go back nearly 50 years to when Crosby’s then band, The Byrds, had a massive hit with Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and Crosby predicted that Dylan would be “acutely uncomfortable” with the attention lavished on him at MusiCares. “What he doesn’t like is if you kiss his butt, [but] if you razz him like we do: ‘Hey fish lips!,’ then he’s ok.”
For as long a history as they have, Dylan can still throw him for a loop. “I sang on one of his albums a couple years ago and it was fun, but daunting, because he won’t let you rehearse. He wants you out on the edge and you gotta try to stay with him.”
Tom Jones‘ manager got a call requesting he perform “What Good Am I,” a song he recorded for his 2010 album, Praise & Blame. “They said, you know Bob Dylan’s being honored by MusiCares and he said he would only do it if he could pick the people that have recorded his songs that he liked,” said Jones, who has never met Dylan. “So that means a lot to me that he liked my version because I’m almost afraid to ask a songwriter, ‘Well, what do you think of my version’ and now I know and I feel great about it.”
For other artists, Dylan picked songs with which they were unfamiliar. Even though Aaron Neville and his brothers have recorded at least eight Dylan songs, including “With God On Our Side,” and “You Gotta Serve Somebody,” Dylan requested he sing “Shooting Star,” a song Neville didn’t know. “When they presented it to me, I loved it,” he said. Though Neville and Dylan don’t talk about music much when they meet because “he’s quiet and I’m quiet,” Neville says, Dylan hung out in the studio when he recorded “With God On Our Side.” “He was sitting there with [producer] Daniel Lanois,” Neville says.
Both Susan Tedeschi and husband/bandmate Derek Trucks, whom Dylan assigned “Million Miles,” were among the few artists on the bill who have played with Dylan: Trucks was 12 the first time he joined Dylan on stage, Tedeschi was 30. “I thought I was going to get to sing with him when I opened for him,” Tedeschi says. “I was shocked because he wanted me to play guitar. I was a little intimidated. Thank God for his upright bass player at the time who was yelling out chords for me. [Dylan] would just look at me and go ‘ Solo!'”
With Dylan calling the shots at MusiCares that meant that some artists didn’t get to perform their first choice. Tom Morello, who joined Bruce Springsteen for a muscular, electric version of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” said that Springsteen wanted to do “Blind Willie McTell” a song that Dylan had already earmarked for Jackson Browne, so the Boss then chose “Door.” It turns out that wasn’t Morello’s only beef with Dylan. “I am one of the few remaining number that believes that Bob Dylan did indeed sell out at Newport,” said Morello of Dylan’s historic moment when he first played electric guitar and shocked festival goers in 1963. “I don’t think there’s a Bob Dylan song that isn’t best served by being played by him and just a guitar. That’s my take, even though the world disagrees with that.”