AUSTIN, TEXAS - As a small crew of Columbia Records staffers and artists converged in a cafe courtyard during last month's South by Southwest Music Conference, everyone's attention -- including that of fellow rock stars James Mercer and Brian (Danger Mouse) Burton of Broken Bells -- appeared to be centered on one guy, who sat in the corner holding court.
He long ago came out from under his father's shadow, but Jakob Dylan still has Bob Dylan's aura.
Wearing aviator sunglasses and a brown suede hat, the 40-year-old Dylan looked understatedly cool. He sounded that way, too, once he broke away to discuss the origins of his new album, "Women + Country," a twangy collection featuring alt-country bellower Neko Case on harmonies and the red-hot-again T Bone Burnett as producer.
"I worked with T Bone back in '95, and we had a little success together," he started off.
Performing Tuesday at St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theater with Case and her band behind him, Dylan was being coy about his first "little" Burnett collaboration.
It was his breakthrough album with the Wallflowers, "Bringing Down the Horse," which sold more than 5 million U.S. copies, won two Grammys and produced four hit singles, including "One Headlight" and "6th Avenue Heartache."
But that was 15 years ago. The Wallflowers maintained a devoted following but never came close to matching that success, and since 2005 the group has been largely inactive.
Making a modest debut at No. 12 on the Billboard chart two weeks ago, "Women + Country" hardly comes off as an attempt to rekindle that success, but it is quite an ambitious artistic achievement. Some of Dylan's best lyrical and vocal work to date, songs such as "Nothing But the Whole Wide World" and "Everybody's Hurting" are laden with references to wars and wounds -- products of the record's two title words.
"The album title pretty clearly states what the record is thematically," he said. "The 'Country' isn't necessarily this country, but just the qualities that those two different subjects bring out in all of us, ranging from wonderful to completely disastrous. They seem to bring out the best and worst in us."
Burnett certainly seems to know how to bring out the best in Dylan. If anything, "Women + Country" might be cast as a repeat of another hot Burnett product, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' "Raising Sand." It features a lot of the same session musicians, plus there's a country-ish female singer harmonizing with a male rocker.
"People liked that record a lot, and it's an understandable comparison, so I'll accept that," Dylan said. "And I'll take half as many Grammys as it got."
The case for Neko
In truth, the only album that "Women + Country" is a reaction to, Dylan said, was his first solo album, 2008's largely acoustic "Seeing Things."
"The nature of that one was just to write the songs and explore the songwriting but not really expound on it in the studio," he said. "After doing that record and touring with it, I wanted something quite the opposite -- a big, full, lush record."
That's when he looked up Burnett again. More important than the commercial success of "Bringing Down the Horse," he said, "was the fact that we did something we really liked and thought was valuable. So we always talked about doing something together again, but he's been very busy."
After the Plant/Krauss record, Burnett co-helmed the soundtrack for the Oscar-winning "Crazy Heart" and produced Willie Nelson's latest album (and greatest in more than a decade), "Country Music." As planned, he and Dylan knocked out the bulk of "Women + Country" in about a week with some of Burnett's go-to musicians, including guitarist Marc Ribot, pedal-steel wiz Greg Leisz and drummer Jay Bellerose.
"T Bone has been making his records for quite some time with a cast of people he's put together," Dylan said. "He built that sound. It's the sound I could hear myself singing in.
"It's tricky. It's not just about picking up a mandolin or a pedal steel or fiddle. He has figured out something that's very unique and special."
Case was brought aboard after those initial sessions, along with her singing partner, Kelly Hogan, who tours in her band.
"We made the record knowing we were going to have space for someone to harmonize all over it," Dylan recounted. "In the past, I'd go back and do the harmonies, but I didn't want to hear myself again in this case. The nature of the material was it had to be a woman. T Bone's the one who thought of Neko and Kelly."
Dylan had actually never met Case but was confident she was right for the job.
"We ran in similar circles, knew a lot of the same people," he said. "The chemistry was great. We're cut from a similar cloth. I think we've listened to a lot of the same people. The shorthand was already in place."
Dylan was happily surprised that Case was available and willing to hit the road with him, since she tours with the New Pornographers (coming June 11 to First Avenue) in addition to her solo outings.
"I'm going to have to assume she really likes these songs," he said with a smirk.
North Country memories
While tight-lipped about his personal life (he and his wife have four children), Dylan did say he's "always happy to get back" to Minnesota, and he does so "pretty regularly."
After Bob and Sara Dylan divorced, Jakob and his four siblings spent several summers at his dad's and uncle's riverside farmland in western Hennepin County. Locals there even recall Jakob playing Little League. Minnesota was also a bit like rock 'n' roll camp, especially in the early '80s when his dad quietly co-owned the Orpheum Theatre.
"We had a couple great summers up there when we saw a lot of great shows," he said. "I saw Elvis Costello up there as a kid, and I saw X there -- some of the biggest shows of my life."
As for his own performances here, he said, "I remember playing the Orpheum early on with the Wallflowers , and that was a high point at the time. I still remember that fondly."
The Wallflowers, by the way, are still an active band. "We just haven't reconnected a lot recently," he said. "We toured some last summer, and now we're talking some more and sort of restrategizing, and if we come up with something that everybody feels good about doing together, we certainly will."
Like a certain other Dylan, though, Jakob seems content to mix things up from here on out in his career, with "Women + Country" leading the way.
"This feels pretty adventurous in the end," he said, "and it feels great."
Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658