Music Masters: A Conversation with Bob Neuwirth

May 7, 2016
Ford Theater

At the outset of “Music Masters: A Conversation with Bob Neuwirth,” museum staffer and host Michael McCall introduced his guest as a "lightning-rod presence," highlighting his role as an instigator associated with seminal artists including Joan Baez, T Bone Burnett, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Kris Kristofferson, and Patti Smith.

"His albums have all been about gathering artists he respected and seeing what came out of that moment," McCall said. "Uniformly, what came out of those gatherings was music made not for the charts, but for the ages. T Bone Burnett, in fact, called Bob 'the best pure songwriter of any of us.'"

The strength of Neuwirth’s writing is underscored by the talents with whom he has written. He penned “Mercedes Benz” with Joplin, and “Rock & Roll Time” with Kristofferson and Roger McGuinn.

Neuwirth opened the museum program with two songs, accompanied by deft multi-instrumentalist David Mansfield, whom Neuwirth recruited for Bob Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975. Mansfield played fiddle on "Private Eye," then switched to mandolin for "Beautiful Day to Go to Heaven," which Neuwirth dedicated to his friend Steve Young, the singer-songwriter who penned "Seven Bridges Road," "Lonesome On'ry and Mean" and other gems. Young died March 17, at age 73.

"Steve Young wrote a lot of classic songs," Neuwirth said. "It just broke my heart when this cat took a cab."

Neuwirth's respect for Young's life and work was evident, as was his appreciation for other titans of American song. He spoke movingly of Willie Nelson, whom he met at Tootsie's on a boozy evening in the late 1960s, and of Kristofferson, whom he met in Greenwich Village in 1970.

The Tootsie's visit came on Neuwirth's first evening in Nashville. He flew into town, was met at the airport by musicians Billy Swan, Vince Matthews, and Eddie Rabbitt, and was taken immediately to the Ryman Auditorium, where he hung out backstage at the Grand Ole Opry.
"I thought the Opry was the promised land, and here I was," he said. "There was Bill Monroe standing there, man. There was Jim & Jesse. Roy Acuff was standing there with his yo-yo. Next thing I know, I'm in Tootsie's. Ten minutes after that, I met Willie Nelson and Hank Cochran. Five minutes after that, I was wearing Hank Cochran's belt. I'm not sure why, but I've still got it."

He called Nelson "a genius songwriter," and had similar praise for Kristofferson. Prior to meeting Kristofferson, he'd heard his song "Me and Bobby McGee." Upon hearing it, he taught it to Janis Joplin, who famously recorded it. Soon after that, Neuwirth was in the Gaslight, a New York folk club, when Ramblin' Jack Elliott introduced him to Kristofferson.

"He said, 'You're the guy that taught Janis my song,'" Neuwirth recalled. "I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'Have a drink,' and he takes a hip flask of tequila out of his boot. I thought, 'This is my new best friend.'"

Neuwirth has spent a lifetime collecting new best friends. He has an easy, affable manner, and a penchant for engagement. In the early 1970s, he was in New York's Chelsea Hotel and saw a serious-looking stranger.

"I said, 'You look like a poet,'" he said. "She said, 'I am.' I said, 'You should write songs. Write a song.' And she did. She wrote a song, and we've been friends ever since."

The stranger-turned-friend was Patti Smith, whose 1975 album, Horses, is now considered a rock & roll classic.

Neuwirth met Dylan in similarly casual fashion. Neuwirth and best friend Sandy Bull were at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, and Neuwirth was playing banjo and harmonica, with a brace around his neck to hold the harmonica. He noticed a young man playing guitar with a similar harmonica contraption, and Neuwirth introduced himself to Bob Dylan. The two embarked on a partnership that would span decades and include the memorable Rolling Thunder Revue and many talked-about scenes in the 1967 documentary Don't Look Back.

Neuwirth didn't unlock any of Dylan's myriad mysteries, saying, "Nobody ever understood Dylan anyway," but he peppered Rolling Thunder stories with chuckling remembrances of multiple guest stars, seven guitars onstage at a time, and intellectual roadies.

"The baggage handlers were a bunch of beatnik poets,” he said. “It kept it poetically sane. We'd pull off the road and go visit Jack Kerouac's grave.”

With Dylan, Neuwirth met Johnny Cash at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964.

“He was about 135 pounds, about as big around as this microphone stand, and he was wired and great,” Neuwirth said. In October of 1970, Neuwirth was in Nashville hanging around during a taping of Cash’s ABC television show, when someone asked if Neuwirth had a car. He did, which allowed him the unpaid job of driving country music’s first guitar hero, Mother Maybelle Carter, and jazz legend Louis Armstrong—in town to appear on Cash’s show—back to a hotel.

“I’m driving to the hotel, and I’ve got the rear view mirror there, and they’re in the back seat, and I’m trying to stay on the road and watch them,” Neuwirth said. “He had Mother Maybelle cracking up, giggling like a teenybopper. All the way to the hotel… it’s one of my great memories of Nashville. To meet those two and have them in my car at the same time, it was like an acid trip.”
During the program, Neuwirth made several spontaneous decisions to break into song, with Mansfield’s guitar, fiddle, and mandolin providing sorghum atop Neuwirth’s sandpaper vocals.

The songs he chose were as revealing as his stories.

“I come to in Akron one whiskey-cold morning,” he sang in “Down the Line. “Smoke from the factory stung a young man’s eye/ I could find no future in the tires that they were building there/ So I followed the music on down the line.”

Neuwirth’s path has been less a line than a hodgepodge of glorious zig-zags, all existing within a giant circle of song. He has made numerous solo albums, yet doesn’t consider himself a singer, a performer, or a true recording artist. At heart, he is a creative enabler, and a joyful one at that.

“All the seeds that we sowed, all the hell we raised,” he sang in “The Call.” “In spite of it all, all the music we made.”

Whether in spite of or because of the hijinks, hokum, and hell, Neuwirth’s music stands as testament to a marvelous, rollicking life.

—PETER COOPER
Museum Editor