The old adage of the male species not being able to multi-task most certainly does not apply to Jason Wilber. A career spanning over two decades to date has included twenty years as guitarist in the studio and on tour with John Prine, the release of eight studio albums, producer, session player, radio show host and guitar instructor. Possibly best known for his association with John Prine and also widely considered as one of the finest guitar players of his time, I’m intrigued as to how he actually manages to write so much material and actually record it given the mileage he clocks up on the road.
‘’Sometimes I will write a song while traveling, but most of the time I write at home’’ Jason Wilber tells Lonesome Highway while in the process of packing suitcases for another tour as part of John Prine’s legendary backing band alongside David Jacques, Pat Mc Laughlin and latest recruit drummer Kenneth Blevins. The tour takes in shows in Ireland, UK and The States fairly well filling in his diary until the end of 2017.
His latest album Reaction Time is Wilbur’s eight studio recording since the release of his debut album Lost In Your Hometown in 1998. It’s also one of his strongest with songs such as Something Somewhere, Heaven and the title track particularly hitting the spot. It was recorded only twelve months after Echoes, a covers album that featured material written by a variety of artists from The Rolling Stones to David Bowie and Leon Russell. Rather than self-produce Wilber engaged the services of Paul Mahern on both Echoes and Reaction Time. Mahern's musical career kicked off as a teenager with hardcore punk band The Zero Boys and he subsequently worked with household names such as Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Afghan Whigs, Magnolia Electric Co. and Iggy Pop. I wondered what drew Wilbur to him rather than take hold of the reins himself. ‘Paul is a fantastic engineer and producer. We have a good collaborative working relationship and I can count on him to be honest about whether he thinks something is good or not. He thinks of musical things that I don't think of and vice versa. Our musical backgrounds have some commonality but also a lot of differences, and I think that enriches the results we get’ explains Wilber. The album also reunites Wilber with Iris DeMent who adds backing vocals to Heaven, the closing track on the album. ‘I love Iris like a sister. I've had the pleasure of working with her for many years now. She has an amazing and unique voice and I couldn't think of any voice I'd rather hear first in the hereafter’.
With a career balance that involves so many different strands I wondered which of the roles brought the most satisfaction. ‘I enjoy accompanying other artists. It’s fun to be part of the team and to help paint the picture the artist is creating. On the other hand, it's nice to be the one primarily creating the picture too. So, it's kind of a tossup between performing my own songs and accompanying other artists on their songs. If I were forced to choose one though, I'd choose playing my own songs’
A self-confessed guitar fanatic from an early age his career did not follow any premeditated path, simply flowing from one stage to another as if predetermined. ‘Records by Johnny Cash, Tom T. Hall, Marty Robbins, and other artists were what set me off in that direction. Once I started playing guitar and doing gigs with bands, I realized it kind of came easy to me. Or maybe it was because I enjoyed it so much, all the hours of practicing didn't feel like work to me. Right away I was making more money playing in bands on the weekends than any of my friends who had part time jobs. I just progressed from there and at some point I started concentrating more on writing my own songs’
Without doubt the turning point in his career was his association with John Prine who Wilber actually performed with unofficially long before teaming up with him. ‘I first met John when I was in high school. He sat in with a band some friends of mine had and I sat in on guitar. We played a whole set of John's songs at a little bar in the little college town where I still live. But we didn't stay in touch after that. About 10 years later, some friends of mine were playing in John's band and they recommended me when he needed a guitar player. I auditioned and got the job’
Remarkably that association has now lasted for twenty years without any hiccups. ‘As far as sticking together, first of all John is pretty easy going and fun to work with. He doesn't get too stressed about anything and he doesn't put a lot of rules or constraints on his musicians. Secondly, the songs are fantastic works of art. So, it's a pleasure to perform John's music with him. Thirdly, John's fans are wonderful. The people who like John's music are very loyal and keep coming back to see us play year after year. That can't be overlooked when you think about what allows you to go out and tour continually for so many years. You have to have an audience or there are no shows. Sounds obvious, but sometimes that part gets overlooked. I'd say those are three of the keys to us all being able to do it for so long’
Prine’s shows in Ireland have been and continue to be exceptional, I’d go as far as saying they have even improved in the past decade if that’s possible! There is a notable chemistry on stage between Wilber, Pat Mc Loughlin and Dave Jacques that appears effortless and manages to maintain that enthusiasm and passion show after show which Wilber casually dismisses. ‘We all enjoy playing together and just hanging out. So combine that with great songs and enthusiastic audiences, and it's pretty easy to stay engaged’
Accompanying Prine on duet recordings over the years gave him the opportunity to work with the cream of the industry’s female vocalists. I probed if there was any one artist that particularly impressed you above the rest. ‘Well pretty much all of John's duet partners have been incredible artists in their own rite, so they were all impressive in that respect. I can think of a few things that standout in my mind. One is Iris's voice, which is just so gigantic and unique. It's one thing to hear her on a record, but when you're standing in the same room with her, it's quite striking. Another would be Miranda Lambert, who pretty much sang everything perfectly, every time. Tone, pitch, phrasing, just spot on every time. That's pretty rare. One last one that comes to mind is Lee Ann Womack's voice. She has such a pure and beautiful voice and her southern accent is really ideal for country music.’
The lack of industry support that many artists are exposed to these days often results in meagre pickings making survival as a professional artist more perilous than ever. Wilber’s laid back and relaxed persona is in contradiction to an artist that appears to have nailed down the survival formula better than most. ‘Ha-ha. I guess it depends on your definition of “survive”. I think you just have to find your own way to solve that puzzle. There are lots of different ways to do it, and plenty of artists out there are making a living. So clearly it can be done. It's not easy, but if it was easy everyone would be doing it’
The standard of artists currently residing and recording in Nashville is staggering. Many of these artists have been onstage with Wilber while on tour with John Prine. Margo Price, Sturgill Simpson, John Mooreland, Dan Auerbach, Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell particularly come to mind. Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and Margo Price have made somewhat unlikely industry breakthroughs in recent years despite the mounting hurdles. Has the door finally been opened for Americana type artists to reach much wider audiences I enquired. ‘Maybe, that would be nice. I started listening to Joe Ely back in the early '80's and he'd been making records since the '70's. There were lots of other artists I started listening to back in the '80's like Los Lobos, Lone Justice, The Plimsoles, to name a few. This is before Americana was a genre, it was called roots rock back then, or some artists were called cow punk. I couldn't understand why those artists weren't as popular as the Top 40 acts on the radio. Fast forward 30 years and it hasn't changed a whole bunch. It's better now, in the sense that there are alternative outlets for Americana artists to be heard. And you can find almost anything on the internet. But the main stream music is still something else. So to use your analogy; there is a door open, but it's not front door’
Wilber will be playing a full programme of dates on the upcoming tour of Ireland, some with John Prine and also solo gigs at venues from one end of the country to the other. From spraying note perfect guitar licks in sold out theatres as a band member to performing solo with a smaller audience unassisted. I could not resist questioning which of the two roles is more demanding. ‘Ha-ha. That's kind of a loaded question. In this case, neither one is pressurized. Pressure mainly is a result of being unprepared for the situation, and/or working with people who are difficult. Fortunately, I am well prepared and working with fun people, so all the gigs should be a blast. I'm looking forward to it!’
Interview by Declan Culliton