CD Review: Bill Wilson – Ever Changing Minstrel (Columbia/Tompkins Square, 1973/2012)
A label as big as Columbia in the early ‘70s was bound to miss a few opportunities, even ones they’d signed, recorded and released. Such was the case for this 1973 rarity, the product of an Indiana singer-songwriter, the famous producer he engaged and the all-star studio band wrangled for the occasion. The singer-songwriter is the otherwise unknown Bill Wilson, the producer, who’d already helmed key albums for Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen, was Bob Johnston, and the band was a collection of Nashville legends that featured Charlie McCoy, Pete Drake and Jerry Reed. Wilson had made Johnston’s acquaintance by knocking on his door and naively asking to make a record; Johnston agreed to listen to one song, and by that evening, was in the studio with his unknown artist and hastily assembled band.
The record features a dozen original songs, and though released by Columbia, it was quickly lost in the wake of Clive Davis’ departure from the label (and reportedly a pot bust). The few copies that circulated disappeared before the album could even make an impression as a sought-after, long-lost treasure. It just vanished. It wasn’t until former Sony staffer Josh Rosenthal found a copy in a record store bargain bin that the title dug its way out of obscurity to this reissue. Johnston and Wilson never saw one another after their recording session, but Johnston was able to sketch out the album’s background. Wilson had landed in Austin after a stint in the Air Force, and found that Johnston had set up base there after leaving his position as a staff producer at Columbia. Wilson had some prior musical experience, singing and playing dobro in local bands, but it was as a singer-songwriter with a Southern edge, that he was compelled to make music.
Wilson’s touchstones included Dylan (and perhaps Bobby Darin’s late-60s activist sides), but also Austin songwriter Townes van Zandt, singer-guitarist Tony Joe White, and the open road sound of the Allman Brothers. The quality of the songs and performances would be impressive as a peak moment among an artist’s catalog, but as a one-off it’s truly extraordinary. Wilson is confident and earthy, while the band handles his material as if they’d been playing it on tour for years. The songs, in shades of folk, blues and rock, touch on traditional singer-songwriter themes, and the religiously-themed numbers have a strong hippie vibe. The label lists this as remastered from tape, but there seem to be a few vinyl artifacts that are more patina than distraction. The album’s rediscovery is an incredible feat of crate digging, and its return to circulation is most welcome.