Through the lens of social distancing and quarantines, Jonathan Wilson’s new album, Dixie Blur, released March 6th, seems made for this moment. It’s a bittersweet, nostalgic record that recalls both a time and a place that’s impossible to revisit. For Wilson specifically, that’s his native Thomasville, North Carolina, but the message is universal: You can’t go home again.
“I went back to North Carolina not too long ago, to my hometown, and took some footage for a video,” says Wilson a few days before the LP’s release. “That was superweird, to go back to Thomasville and see what that was like.” He now lives in Los Angeles. “I haven’t been back there in more than two decades, and was looking around at those streets going, ‘It’s a long way from Hollywood.’ “
Wilson manifests that sense of displacement on the track ” ’69 Corvette,” a melancholy ballad that will leave you with damp eyes, especially when paired with a music video made up of footage from Wilson’s home movies. “I still think of Carolina sometimes/I miss my family, I miss that feeling/I miss home,” he sings, before offering a sliver of advice: “So remember to tell ’em you love ’em every time.”
It’s tough stuff to process right now, especially when many are unable to see their loved ones in the flesh.
Still, there’s an underlying message of comfort in the album. “I’m So Alive” is defiant in its titular message, and the prayerlike “New Home” makes peace with transition and change. “In Heaven Making Love” is a buoyant county dancer with a video that is in stark contrast to the one for ” ’69 Corvette” — this one features nothing but joyous dogs on the run.
The album’s final track, “El Camino Real,” is an upbeat closer that allows the all-star band Wilson assembled to flex its muscles.
Recorded at Cowboy Jack Clement’s Sound Emporium Studio in Nashville, and co-produced with Wilco’s Pat Sansone, Dixie Blur features some of Music City’s renowned players. Marty Stuart guitarist Kenny Vaughan, pedal steel ace Russ Pahl, bassist Dennis Crouch, and all-but-retired session fiddler Mark O’Connor (who was coaxed into joining the band) all contribute to the LP, recorded live with everyone in the room.
That approach was a departure for Wilson, who usually plays every instrument on his records.
“This is actually something that is greater than a singular thing, which can be extremely powerful. Listen to Prince for example. There is that thing that occurs when there is the magic of a band, together on the floor,” he says.
According to Wilson, it was a run-in with Steve Earle that led him to leave the familiar confines of his L.A. studio for Nashville and a live band.
“We got together and played this NPR show and at some point I was explaining to him that I wasn’t sure what the fuck I was going to do. He said something to the effect of ‘go to Nashville,'” Wilson recalls. “So I imagined what a crack session band would sound like and what I could do with that.”
Wilson, who has produced and played on albums by artists such as Father John Misty and Dawes, had plans to tour Dixie Blur with a group that included Spencer Cullum Jr. on steel and Joshua Hedley on fiddle. The coronavirus pandemic has since put those plans on hold, and it remains to be seen if the crisis will affect his other touring gig: as a guitarist in Roger Waters’ band. He is set to join the Pink Floyd legend on his This Is Not a Drill Tour beginning in July.
Dixie Blur, however, remains out in the world, a sometimes somber document of growing up, moving away, and establishing a new life for oneself. Wilson did that in 2005 when he put down roots in L.A. Even so, he remains connected to his North Carolina origins by the sounds he brings to the studio.
“There is some sort of Southern rhythmic bravado when you listen. It’s the fluidity I try to touch on, like you hear in JJ Cale or in Mike Campbell’s playing,” Wilson says. “That’s the stuff I manage to slip in — some Southern-fried flavor.”