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There's a well-known musical gap in the story of Bob Dylan. It comes after his 1966 album Blonde On Blonde, a work filled with raucous, rocking, stream-of-conscious imagery. About 18 months later, Dylan returned to his earlier style of acoustic music on John Wesley Harding. What accounted for that gap, and what transpired during it, are still a subject of speculation among those who care about such things. In any case, around the time of a motorcyle accident, Dylan retreated from public view.
Out of that time came a collection of songs referred to as The Basement Tapes. Those songs would be released in 1975 — but the story of the gap goes deeper.
Last fall, producer and musician T Bone Burnett received a phone call from Bob Dylan's publisher. It had uncovered a box of lyrics from 1967, songs that had Dylan had never put to music, and wanted to know whether Burnett was interested in doing something with them.
"There was such a depth to the material. It was nothing I wanted to attempt myself," Burnett says in a conversation with NPR's Robert Siegel. "At the time, Bob was collaborating with one of the most extraordinary groups of musicians in history, the group that came to be known as The Band. I thought, in keeping with that spirit of collaboration that Bob was engendering at that time, let's do the same thing. Let's find a group of bandleaders who know how to collaborate, and could come in and conjure something up out of these lyrics."
That star-studded group Burnett assembled includes Elvis Costello, contemporary folk notables Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons and Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes, vocalist Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, and My Morning Jacket's Jim James. The group's debut album together is titled Lost on the River: The New Basement Tapes.
Burnett says the task of putting music to Dylan's words was daunting, and yet compelling: Here was a chance to get into the songwriter's mind at a time when he was arguably too productive.
"It's irresistible to get to collaborate with a 27-year-old Bob Dylan," Burnett says. "We felt maybe we could catch up with him at this point."