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The Traveling Wilburys

Biography

The Traveling Wilburys
Neal Preston

Though most of its members got their start in the 1960s, the Traveling Wilburys is the kind of supergroup that could only have been formed in the late-'80s, a time when baby-boomer nostalgia was rampant, and when major labels were still interested in giving deals to musicians in their forties and fifties.

In 1988, George Harrison — experiencing a solo-career boost thanks to his Jeff Lynne-produced Cloud Nine album — recorded a B-side with Lynne, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Roy Orbison. When Warner Bros. heard "Handle With Care," they decided the tossed-off number, a bittersweet lament bolstered by Orbison's high voice, was decidedly A-side material, and encouraged Harrison and Co. to come up with an albums' worth of material. Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1 (Number Three, 1988) was the resulting collaboration, and one of the stranger albums to reach the Top 10 that year, with Orbison taking lead vocals on the ballad "Not Alone Any More" and Dylan grumbling through "Tweeter and The Monkey Man," a hard-luck crime narrative that many critics suspected was a gentle dig at Bruce Springsteen's songwriting style.

Two months after the album's release, Orbison died at the age at 52, forever voiding the idea of a Wilburys tour. Petty continued working with Lynne, recording 1989's Full Moon Fever, and the surviving Wilburys reconvened for the far less satisfying Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3,/I> (Number 11, 1990), which lacked Orbison's vocal subtlety and piled on producer Lynne's trademark high-production polish. Harrison retained the rights to the albums, which went out of print in the 1990s, and could be found only through bootleggers or file-sharing sites; in 2005, four years after Harrison's death, a version of "Handle" recorded by Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst, Death Cab for Cutie's Ben Gibbard, and Rilo Kiley's Jenny Lewis appeared on Lewis' Rabbit Fur Coat album, indicating that Wilbury nostalgia was thriving among the indie-rockosphere. Rhino Records reissued both albums, plus a selection of B-sides, as The Traveling Wilburys Collection (Number Nine) in 2007.

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