Theme Time Radio Hour”, Bob Dylan’s Four Dazzling Acts.

There are famous­ly no sec­ond acts in Amer­i­can lives. But as he has on so many oth­er occa­sions, Bob Dylan has proved him­self the glo­ri­ous excep­tion to Fitzger­ald’s famous maxim.

Dylan’s first act cul­mi­nat­ed in an extra­or­di­nary 14 months between March 1965 and May ’66 when he released no less than three epoch-defin­ing albums; Bring­ing It All Back HomeHigh­way 61 Revis­it­ed and the still sem­i­nal dou­ble album, Blonde On Blonde. Then how­ev­er, just as sud­den­ly as he’d emerged, he dis­ap­peared into the under­growth, opt­ing for domes­tic bliss and the anonymi­ty afford­ed by his base­ment in Woodstock.

To every­one’s sur­prise and amaze­ment though, he burst back into rel­e­vance in the mid 70s with Blood On The Tracks in ’74, Desire in ’75 and the Rolling Thun­der Revue tour. But with­in a year or two his brief renais­sance had passed, and by the late 70s he’d resumed his role as a rel­ic of an era that had long since passed. The nev­er-end­ing tour he seemed deter­mined to per­sist with looked like lit­tle more than an excuse for him to avoid hav­ing to ever look him­self in the mirror.

But to every­one’s fur­ther amaze­ment, a decade lat­er he sprang back into life again, first with No Mer­cy in ’89, and then with Time Out Of Mind in ’97, both of which were pro­duced by Daniel Lanois. These three acts would com­fort­ably have seen his name for­ev­er carved in stone on high.

Remark­ably though, these last few years have been arguably his most pro­duc­tive peri­od to date. Three fine albums in Love And Theft (’01), Mod­ern Times (’06) and Togeth­er Through Life (’09), par­tic­u­lar­ly the first. A nov­el­ty Christ­mas album, which was far bet­ter than it had any right to be. That extra­or­di­nary auto­bi­og­ra­phy Chron­i­cles: Vol­ume One (’04), which had noth­ing to say about his per­son­al life, but which was excep­tion­al­ly can­did and bril­liant­ly illu­mi­nat­ing on his music (par­tic­u­lar­ly on the epiphany that result­ed in the release of  Oh Mer­cy.). Plus Scorsese’s bril­liant doc­u­men­tary, Bring­ing It All Back Home. And amongst all of which, some­what improb­a­bly, he embarked upon a new career path as a 21st. cen­tu­ry DJ.

The idea behind Theme Time Radio Hour is sim­ple enough. For one hour every week, Dylan takes a theme, say “Mar­riage”, or “Cig­a­rettes”, and spins discs asso­ci­at­ed with the cho­sen theme. He plays lit­tle or noth­ing from the mid 70s onwards, stick­ing for the most part to the 50s, 60s, and ear­ly 70s, though there are also a healthy hand­ful from the 40s and even 30s. There are three series so far, com­pris­ing some 100 hours. And each and every sin­gle track, on every sin­gle one of them, is an absolute gem. Not only that, but his sly but enthu­si­as­tic intros are every bit as enjoy­able as the for­got­ten finds he’s con­tin­u­al­ly unearthing and cor­rect­ly celebrating.

It is, by a con­sid­er­able dis­tance, the finest hour of lis­ten­ing to be found any­where in the ether. Fur­ther­more, it’s made for the “Shuf­fle” mode. As it’s almost as enjoy­able hav­ing what­ev­er it is that you’re lis­ten­ing to incon­gru­ous­ly inter­rupt­ed by one of Dylan’s droll intros before return­ing to your own playlist, as it is hear­ing the actu­al track that his intro was refer­ring to.

TTRH is an edu­ca­tion and a con­stant source of joy. And once again, that man from Min­neso­ta has pro­duced yet anoth­er rab­bit from that appar­ent­ly bot­tom­less hat of his.

Caitlin Rose – “Own Side Now” + Laura Cantrell “Kitty Wells Dresses”

Caitlin Rose "Own Side Now".

Caitlin Rose “Own Side Now”.

Just as all who are con­sumed by dra­ma will one day grav­i­tate to Shake­speare, so too any­one who’s seri­ous about the craft of song writ­ing will even­tu­al­ly home in on coun­try music.

It was to Nashville that Dylan trav­elled when he put aside his child­ish things to record the mon­u­men­tal Blonde on Blonde. And when he went back east, it was not to the Vil­lage but to Wood­stock so that he and the Band could re-imag­ined their musi­cal heritage.

That lega­cy is evi­dent today every­where. From Emmy­lou Har­ris, T Bone Bur­nett and Daniel Lanois to the new roots Amer­i­cana of Fleet Fox­es, Bon Iver and Iron and Wine.

Bob Dylan "Nashville Skyline".

Bob Dylan “Nashville Skyline”.

What’s so refresh­ing about the 24 year old Caitlin Rose is that she some­how man­ages to side­step all of that, with­out in any way ignor­ing it. Like Gillian Welsh, she man­ages to sound both time­less and contemporary.

But her debut album Own Side Now harks back not so much to the 70s as it does to the 50s. So that whilst Welsh is drawn to exis­ten­tial intro­spec­tion, Rose is felled by that Nashville peren­ni­al, a bro­ken heart. What they both share is a flaw­less capac­i­ty to fuse lyrics of sear­ing hon­esty with painful­ly beau­ti­ful melodies.

In For The Rab­bits for instance, Rose entreats her depart­ed man to,

Fall back into my absent arms, Fall back into rou­tine dis­as­ter, Habit’s the only place that you call home.

Fall back into my des­per­ate arms, Fall back into this old dis­as­ter, ‘Cos it’s bet­ter than spend­ing all your nights alone.”

It’s as much an accu­sa­tion as it is a plea, and is aimed equal­ly at her­self as it is at him. But the des­per­a­tion evoked is lift­ed and sent sky­ward by the Heav­en­ly vocals, and the com­bi­na­tion of pain and plea­sure that results is intoxicating.

It’s a stun­ning piece of work, and is one of the best albums in the last decade. At least. And, whilst she’s not part of any actu­al move­ment, there clear­ly does seem to be some­thing afoot, as it’s ter­rain that’s tra­versed sim­i­lar­ly by Lau­ra Cantrell in the states and, in a very Eng­lish way, by Lau­ra Mar­ling in the UK.

Laura Cantrell "Kitty Welles' Dresses".

Lau­ra Cantrell “Kit­ty Welles’ Dresses”.

Cantrell emerged in 2000 when her just­ly laud­ed debut Not The Trem­blin Kind was described by none oth­er than John Peel as pos­si­bly his favourite album ever. Her lat­est, Kit­ty Wells Dress­es makes that 50s con­nec­tion explic­it. The title track that the album opens with is Cantrell’s, but the oth­er nine are cov­ers of songs record­ed by the now 93 year old Kit­ty Wells, as she blazed a trail for Tam­my Wynette, Loret­ta Lynn and Dol­ly Parton.

But even when cov­er­ing songs orig­i­nal­ly penned in the 50s, there’s some­thing in the way that Cantrell deliv­ers them that ren­ders them simul­ta­ne­ous­ly time­less and yet some­how un-mis­tak­en­ly contemporary.

It’s this fusion of tra­di­tion and of the mod­ern that make Caitlin Rose and Lau­ra Cantrell so musi­cal­ly rel­e­vant, and it’s their vis­cer­al hon­esty that make their songs so emo­tion­al­ly engaging.