Leave it to a Canadian to supposedly “invent” Americana music.
A road warrior since the late Fifties, Robbie Robertson left an indelible mark on folk, rock & roll, blues and all points between through the second half of the the 20th century. He’s been the Band’s guitarist. Bob Dylan’s right-hand man. Ringo Starr’s sideman. Martin Scorsese’s go-to film composer.
As the newest guest on Chris Shiflett’s Walking the Floor podcast, Robertson is talkative and honest, willing to discuss everything from his career-starting gig with Ronnie Hawkins to his supposedly controversial relationship with Levon Helm. Below, we’ve rounded up a half-dozen highlights from the conversation, followed by the premiere of the episode.
Robertson carries no ill will for his late bandmate Levon Helm.
When asked if he harbors any resentment toward the Band’s legendary drummer, who lashed out against Robertson in the autobiography This Wheel’s on Fire, Robertson demurs. “I love Levon,” he tells Shiflett. “He was my dearest friend in the world. After years and years of us being that, we went in different directions, and then at one point, I heard that he was saying some things that I knew were preposterous, so I never acknowledged them really. I had nothing but respect and appreciation for his gift, and what a dear brother he was to me.”
The Band found its sound while serving as the backup group for another artist.
Robertson, Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko first played together as the Hawks, the backing band of rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. The job involved a lot of traveling, and it was that experience – a near-constant stream of gigs through America and Canada – that ultimately pushed the musicians to find their own sound as the Band.
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“When the Band came out and presented its musicality,” Robertson remembers, “it was exactly what our background had led us to. We had played the Chitlin’ circuit. We had played everywhere. Because I was so young, I was absorbing these things like they needed to be absorbed. I was drinking it all in. When we left Ronnie Hawkins, we were going out to play the music that we had gathered in all of this experience. We were taking a little bit of gospel from here, a little mountain music from over there, a little bit of Delta blues here, a little bit of Chicago blues there. All of these things, you know? And it starts with rockabilly and it keeps spreading out, and by the time we got Garth Hudson in our group, with the Hawks, the musicality opened up a whole other horizon. He was turning us onto to Mingus and Monk and Anglican choirs and belly-dancer music.”
Why did they leave Hawkins? They’d simply grown up.
“I was no longer 16,” says Robertson, who joined Hawkins’ lineup as a teenager and left just shy of his 20th birthday. “I was now 19, going on 20, and we outgrew Ronnie, musically. We were rising to another place, and his thing was his thing. Rockabilly wasn’t the same standard that it had been. We wanted to be more challenged, musically. At one point, it was like a kid leaving home. We just grew up.”
Somewhere in Robertson’s guitar collection rests a very special Telecaster.
“When I first met up with Bob Dylan,” recalls Robertson, who toured with Dylan for years, “he was very new to the electric guitar, and he was playing a Stratocaster. I told him, ‘You know, I’ve been on the road, I know about this kind of stuff. There’s a guitar that’s lighter, that doesn’t go out of tune like a Stratocaster. A Telecaster.'” Dylan wound up with a black Telecaster, which he used throughout his controversial 1966 world tour – the one “when everybody booed us every night,” Robertson adds – as well as the albums Blonde on Blonde and The Basement Tapes. During the latter album’s tracking sessions at Big Pink, though, the guitar fell into Robertson’s hands, where it remained throughout much of the Band’s career. Robertson eventually had the guitar’s coat stripped, telling Shiflett that “the wood under it was beautiful. There was something about it that was just extraordinary, and the guitar took on a different tone. I was hot-rodding it, trying different pickups and electronics over all these years. I kind of forgot about the guitar and I gave it to my son to use. . .There’s not many guitars in rock & roll history that have this kind of war wounds on it. It’s been everywhere, in the most incredible occasions of rock & roll history.”
He’s flattered by the idea that he helped invent Americana. . .even though he’s not quite sure what the genre actually means.
“After the Band made their second album,” he explains, “these people came and said, ‘We wanna put you on the cover of Time magazine, and we don’t put music groups on the cover of Time magazine.’ We were very suspicious of it. We were very suspicious of ever crossing over into a trendyness. We weren’t part of anything. We were kind of set over here, doing what we do, and that was our comfort zone. Along the way. . .we heard this expression, ‘Americana.’ People then were saying, ‘You’re Americana.’ And I was like, ‘We’re from Canada. We’re North Americana, maybe.’ But isn’t that ironic? Isn’t it ironic that you’re accusing me of something, and I’m not even from here? There’s a poetic beauty in the way things work out. I’m still not sure I know what it is.”
It took a lot of rehearsal to get ready for The Last Waltz.
“As a musician,” Robertson tells Shiflett, “you can appreciate that we had to learn 20-some odd songs that we had never played before, going from Muddy Waters to Joni Mitchell, who has too many chords in her songs, and tunings that your fingers can’t even reach! It was a feat of musicianship to play all these different songs with all these different people. We had no cheat sheets. We had no music stands. None of us read music except Garth. . .It was a music feat of everything: dynamics, styles, everything, to play with all these different people, and nobody screwed up anything the whole night. It was a Guinness Book of Records! Match this!”