Thanks to Bob Cohen for referring me to Dierks Bentley and his bluegrassy version of Bob Dylan’s song “Senor.” I hadn’t heard it; it’s very fine, and Bentley seems to be an estimable musician in general. “Senor” is featured on his album Up on the Ridge.
Dierks Bentley singing “Senor”
Checking Dierks Bentley out on Amazon, I see that they classify him under “Today’s Country” and also under “Neotraditional Country.” Neotraditional. Sounds like an epithet someone like Keith Olbermann might sling at someone like Sarah Palin. I realize the practical utility of musical categories, especially in the computer age, but I always see the downside of them first, which is the way they can build walls and limit freedom of perception. After the revolution, everything will strictly alphabetical.
If you didn’t know the song “Senor” was by Bob Dylan, you probably wouldn’t guess it from Bentley’s version. It sounds like, well, a really kick-ass and intense bluegrass ballad. It is a strong song which has been covered by others and resurrected frequently by Dylan himself in concert. It got me thinking about the album that it originated on—Bob Dylan’s Street Legal from 1978— and the way it is often maligned relative to his other work of the 1970s. For some of the prominent old-school critics, this was where Bob Dylan dropped out of the upper echelon where they had placed him, and he wasn’t to re-emerge until 1997’s Time Out of Mind.
YouTube performer singing “Is Your Love in Vain?”
Yet, I’ve always loved Street Legal. It was mixed muddily (I think it benefited more than most of Dylan’s other albums from latter-day remixing and remastering) but it has a bunch of great songs and the performances drive along with nice energy and spontaneity. “Baby Stop Crying,” which many seem to dislike, is to me nothing less than a great and very raw pop song. “New Pony” is an amazingly-bawdy concoction, not like anything else Dylan has done, and sounds just dynamite turned up loud. “No Time to Think” is profoundly humorous (not as easy as it sounds) and not a little prophetic regarding our over-stimulated era. “Where Are You Tonight?” burns with urgency and magic. There’s a thrilling kind of romantic sweep to a number of the other tracks, most obvious in “Changing of the Guards” but also powerful in “Is Your Love in Vain?” The song “True Love Tends to Forget” is wonderful, and really deserving of being covered by some big ballad singer, if you ask me. “We Better Talk This Over” is the lightest thing on the album, but there’s nothing so terrible about it. There’s a relatively guileless charm to it and a number of the other tracks, by Dylan’s standards. He sounds open, and sounds like he’s enjoying himself.
So, I wonder why Street Legal was so commonly dismissed at the time? It’s not hard to comprehend why his soon-to-arrive Christian music was rejected, but why Street Legal? Some people may have quite legitimate reasons which they could express themselves for not liking it, but I think the timing of the album’s release had something to do with the response it received. It was now the late 1970s, and people were starting to get weary of the old rock & roll dinosaurs that just wouldn’t go away. Bob Dylan had attained the terrible lizard-like age of 37. The punk movement was happening, starting to burst to the surface, and maybe some of the critics (getting pretty ancient themselves) wanted to get on the right side of history and street-credibility and start knocking old fogies like Bob. It was just time. Of-course his tour with the big band and the startling and flashy rearrangements of his old songs provided a narrative for the critics to latch onto: Dylan has gone Vegas. When you listen to the At Budokan album or some of the bootlegs of that time, some of the arrangements are pretty amusing, but in a good way, surely. (Don’t wanna amuse nobody, don’t wanna be amused.)
Well, this is hardly a thorough and complete case for Street Legal, but it occurred to me and I don’t think I’ve written much about it before, so I thought I’d get at least that much off my chest.