Musical supergroups are often fraught with astronomical expectations, inflated egos and conflicting viewpoints. By its very nature, a collection of renowned musicians is apt to be filled with people used to getting their way and not being questioned. But with the Traveling Wilburys, the massive band composed of Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, George Harrison and Jeff Lynne, the resulting music is wonderfully understated, less concerned with ambition and more focused on craftsmanship and the sound of a really great song.
To further shed the histories of their individual successes, they took on different names within the band. Petty was Charlie T. Wilbury Jr., Dylan was Lucky Wilbury, Orbison was Lefty Wilbury, Harrison was Nelson Wilbury and Lynne was Otis Wilbury. This allowed them a bit of leeway in approaching their collective influences—it was less of a situation where they were worried about what Dylan or Petty would do and more of a band-oriented outlook on how each song developed. They each brought their specific talents, of course, but their work felt free of self-indulgence and a certain self-awareness. They were just another band trying to make it big, and their hard work was rewarded by a critical and commercial success that felt earned rather than assumed.
The roots of the Traveling Wilburys can be traced back to Harrison and the recording of his 1987 record, “Cloud Nine.” During a radio interview in February 1988, Harrison mentioned that he’d love “to do an album with me and some of my mates.” That was the first time the name “Traveling Wilburys” was used, and it stemmed from a slang term for recording errors that came up during the studio sessions for “Cloud Nine.” He was working with Jeff Lynne one day and came across some problems with faulty equipment and brushed them off, saying, “We’ll bury them in the mix.” Harrison initially suggested Trembling Wilburys, but Lynne thought that Traveling Wilburys sounded better, and everyone else agreed.
Before that, though, Harrison asked Orbison and Lynne to record a B side to his recent single “This Is Love.” Everyone eventually convened at Dylan’s house to record the song, but Harrison had left his guitar at Petty’s house. When he went to get it, he invited Petty to join them on the song, and their first session together produced “Handle With Care.” Harrison, however, thought that the song deserved to be more than just “single filler” and encouraged the band to continue their supergroup sessions.
Recorded over a 10-day period in May 1988 at Dave Stewart’s (of Eurythmics) studio, “Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1” was born from a rush of inspiration and musical camaraderie. Drummer Jim Keltner (dubbed Buster Sidebury) lent his considerable skills to the record alongside a handful of other musicians—including Jim Horn, Ray Cooper and Ian Wallace—who added a distinct flair to each track. The music didn’t stray too far from any of the artists’ wheelhouses, and the effortless way each song was revealed gave the whole collection an air of infectious joy and humor. Even when the lyrics touched on darker themes and ideas, the songs never evinced a self-serious attitude.
With such storied and successful careers, it would have been fair to imagine that there could have been contention over the direction of the band. But in an article with Rolling Stone, Lynne described the recording atmosphere as anything but volatile:
We would arrive about 12 or 1 and have some coffee. Somebody would say, “What about this?” and start on a riff. Then we’d all join in, and it’d turn into something. We’d finish around midnight and just sit for a bit while Roy would tell us fabulous stories about Sun Records or hanging out with Elvis.
This relaxed environment allowed them all to center their collective impulses on the formation of concise and pure folk-rock narratives, the kind that sticks with you long after the music has faded away. This is particularly evident on the opening track, “Handle With Care,” the song that started it all and a gorgeous introduction to their shared musical inspirations. Anchored by Orbison’s operatic vocals and Harrison’s memorable verses, the song was the band’s most successful single and is truly collaborative, with all five artists sharing writing credits.
Other songs such as “Congratulations,” which captures the bittersweet consequences of lost love, and “End of the Line,” which finds the band making peace with their experiences and looking forward to what comes next, are prime examples of how affecting and perfectly woven their music could be and how it can still hit with the impact of a sledgehammer. This wasn’t some slumming corporate scheme to bilk long-term fans out of their money—the Traveling Wilburys were the result of an earnest and honest realization that musicians (regardless of their previous successes) could create something new and refreshing by simply abandoning their egos and adopting an attitude of informal creativity.
They weren’t looking to remake their individual sounds or legacies; they just wanted to make music with each other and have a good time doing it. These songs don’t depart dramatically from the styles that fans had come to expect from them, but they feel revitalizing, as if each musician were spurred on by the joy and melodic abandon in which their fellow Wilburys were so obviously reveling. The record seems to capture folk lightning in a bottle, a blur of acoustic tones and immaculate harmonies that speak to both their respective and communal strengths. With three of the Wilburys having now passed on, it’s unlikely that we’ll ever hear another album like it. But we have this one, and that’s enough.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.