With New Albums, Bob Dylan, Neil Young And Willie Nelson Are As Relevant As Ever

13 hours ago
Originally published on June 30, 2020 5:39 pm

This week, Bob Dylan's first album of new music in eight years, Rough and Rowdy Ways, rose to No. 2 on the Billboard albums chart, making him the first ever artist to have a Top 40 album in every decade since the 1960s. But Bob Dylan is not alone in making vital new music well into what some might call his "retirement" years. This past month has also seen releases by Neil Young (Homegrown), Willie Nelson (First Rose of Spring) and the late John Prine ("I Remember Everything").

"Their artistic trajectory mirrors the Baby Boomer generation they inspired," says NPR Music critic and correspondent Ann Powers. "They thought they'd peak at 30, but as culture changed and what we think of as 'old age' became a much more active and engaged phase of life, they're doing the same thing as many of their listeners."

Mary Louise Kelly spoke to Ann Powers about the way that none of these artists rest on their laurels, instead creating poignant and powerful work late into their careers. Listen in the audio player above, and read on for highlights of their conversation.


Interview Highlights

On Bob Dylan creating an album that carves space out of the modern landscape of hip-hop and pop music

Dylan has managed to make an album that seems to reference his whole career while feeling like something new. What I've noticed about Rough and Rowdy Ways is that it gives us so many of the Bob Dylans that we've known and loved over the years: the Dylan who free associates long strings of poetic phrasings; the Dylan who can write a really pure and direct love song; or the Dylan who likes to play the mythical adventurer; or even the crooner who's covered Sinatra. It's like he's curating his own life, and showing why these themes and approaches can still be relevant.

Bob Dylan is also a lot like a rapper — he interpolates, he samples, yet there he is at the heart of it and he's still projecting his own personality.

On Neil Young presenting archival material to prove the vibrancy of his legacy

Neil Young is also always making new music but this "new" release, Homegrown, is actually an album from 1975 that he's finally releasing in its original form. It's a really great move, not only in terms of helping his fans understand the whole arc of his career, but in reminding listeners why Neil Young's sound is still so relevant. You can hear so much of what current rock bands or even country or Americana bands are doing now — it all stems from this sound that Neil Young and Crazy Horse made back in the '70s.


On how Willie Nelson and John Prine remain relevant through the seeds they planted in a new generation

Willie Nelson is like a music industry unto himself. He works with his sons Lukas and Micah, and producer Buddy Cannon. They made this album in quarantine — very contemporary — swapping files back and forth over the Internet. The album is mostly covers, but the songs he wrote with Buddy Cannon are beautiful meditations on life in the twilight years.

[He's] crafting this ongoing conversation about being an elder, about facing mortality, and also kind of about the history of popular music. Both Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, they are not afraid of showing the age in their voices, but the power is also still there. And that, for me, is what makes this music the most relevant.

John Prine remained relevant until his last day of his life because he, too, always kept growing, mentoring younger artists, writing songs. It's just a perfect final statement from John, it's got that humor and humility and joy in life that he carried to his last days.

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Now to Iraq, where a coronavirus spike is rattling the country. Some hospitals are overwhelmed. Family members have commandeered oxygen tanks for loved ones. Official figures show around 1,800 COVID-19 deaths, but that figure may be low. And last week, new infections jumped 40%. Some fear the country's health system can't handle it. NPR's Jane Arraf reports from neighboring Jordan.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: At the Al-Hussein Teaching Hospital in the southern city of Nasiriyah, volunteers are delivering canisters of oxygen. Relatives of patients stormed this hospital last week, scuffling with staff to grab oxygen canisters as the supply ran out. Hospitals in Iraq are overwhelmed with COVID patients. And the country is grappling with a health care system suffering from years of corruption and neglect.


NAJI SADIQ: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: Naji Sadiq, the head of intensive care at the Nasiriyah hospital, appealed in this video for the provincial governor to send oxygen and other supplies.


SADIQ: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: "We are seeing our families die in front of us because of mercenaries and people profiting from poor people's lives," he says. The spokesman for Iraq's health ministry, Said al-Badr, blamed the situation on the families and the hospital for letting them in.

SAIF AL-BADR: (Through interpreter) The families started taking oxygen canisters. Of course this will lead to severe shortages and chaos. It's supposed to be distributed by the hospital staff.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: In another southern province, Dhi Qar, protesters stormed a government factory supplying oxygen canisters that had shut down. The protesters and government officials in Baghdad say it closed to import gas cylinders from Iran instead.

This is a war against the coronavirus, and we've lost the war, a government official tells me. He doesn't want his name used because he's not authorized to speak publicly. It's so difficult getting accurate statistics in Iraq that almost no one believes the official ones. And although on paper there are more than enough intensive care beds in Iraqi hospitals, that's not the reality. Dr. Aizen Marrogi is a former senior medical officer for the U.S. Army and at the U.S. embassy in Iraq.

AIZEN MARROGI: Corruption is No. 1. All the medications get - first, second, third day after they arrive, they disappear. The government pays for a lot of employees that don't exist. They're ghost employees.

ARRAF: He says the health care system lacks proper managers, nursing staff and technical expertise. The crisis is a major test for the country's new prime minister. Mustafa al-Kadhimi took power in May after anti-government protests forced out his predecessor. He's promised to fight corruption and rein in Iran-backed militias. But now he's also grappling with a drop in oil prices and a deepening crisis over the virus.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, Amman, Jordan.

(SOUNDBITE OF CALEXICO'S "SPINBALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.