Bruce Springsteen once said that Bob Dylan “freed the mind the way Elvis freed the body.” Dylan’s words and music have left a remarkable imprint on the entire landscape of modern music, laying the groundwork for greater artistic freedom.
It’s not just in his witty, nuanced storytelling delivery, or his biting commentary on the state of the country that galvanized an entire generation of Americans and influenced an entire other legion of devotees in the subsequent five decades. Dylan also took unimaginable risks with his music, even at the cost of ostracizing fervent devotees (see: his electric full band performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965). To this end, he’s inspired scores of musicians; his songs have been covered by artists on every possible end of the spectrum, including Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Cash, Nick Cave, Nina Simone, The White Stripes, Michael Bolton and Rage Against the Machine.
In honor of Bob Dylan’s 75th birthday, we asked local musicians about how he’s influenced them.
Andrew Ashby (The String & Return): I've always been somewhat dismayed by the slagging off on Dylan by many of my peers and partners in the local music community and the discounting of his musical legacy and its profound cultural impact in general. It always seems to be coming from the same folks who regard artists like David Bowie and the Velvet Underground as indispensable, which is the metaphorical equivalent of putting the cart before the horse. All of them have been affected by the genre fusions of pop and folk and R&B and rock and country music, not to mention poetry and the possibilities of artistic transformation as pioneered by Bob Dylan, whether they're aware of it or not.
Colby Bales (Instant Karma): I think Dylan has influenced every songwriter out there, whether they know it or not. The first Dylan record I listened to was “Blood on the Tracks,” and it's still my favorite. Back when I heard it, it was the ultimate breakup record, but now that I listen to it, I think it's amazing that he can write so honestly about something so personal to him, like his divorce, without being too sappy or sentimental and still make it so meaningful to so many different people. That was always Dylan's magic to me, is to be able to speak to so many people just by writing what was on his mind. We should all hope to be half the songwriter he was. And this may be an unpopular opinion, but I think he is an amazing singer.
Kian Byrne (The Elders, The New Riddim): There are many ways to go about writing a song. Songs about love and war, or the loss of someone. Then there is Dylan's approach. I find it hard to imagine someone ever reaching his power of speech, let alone the way he put it to music. His songs have made me, as a musician, reach for the truest form of what I try and create.
Noah Davis: Bob Dylan's prophetic, soul-crafted music seared into me a spiritual consciousness at a young age and a belief that I could change the world around me.
Scott Hrabko: Bob Dylan gives us permission to pull the rug out from under the crowd's expectations.
Will Mackey (The Atomic 50’s): For me, as a musician, the influences of Bob Dylan probably are not that evident, for the most part. Can’t really pinpoint from the guitar or rhythm or style necessarily, but I was on a big kick with his work for years, so it probably seeped in somehow. But the one thing about Dylan is how he could say so much in one lyrical line. He could write something that sounded like a compliment and a sting at the same time. I try to do that in my writings, probably not as masterfully, but it definitely has influenced how I think about lyrics. The phrasing, the crypticness, the wit.
Meredith McGrade (Emmaline Twist): I love the romance of Bob Dylan's music. Even when he's not singing about love specifically, his songs have this sadness, this vast emotional space to them that breaks your heart. He's one of the main reasons I learned to play.
Teri Quinn (Claire and the Crowded Stage): When I was in high school, I was introduced to the beat poets of the ’60s. From reading their works, I was introduced to Bob Dylan. This was around the time I first picked up the guitar. I was enamored with his persona. This free-spirited poetic folk musician who you couldn't pin down. He went through so many musical style changes but never lost his poetic flare. When I started learning his tunes on guitar, I knew that I wanted to channel his energy in my own music. His gravely hollerin' voice was also an inspiration for my own voice. I don't have the voice of a songbird. It hollers and howls just like Dylan's. I'm proud of that.
David Regnier (Dead Voices, Ruddy Swain): Dylan was and still is a big influence for me, for better or worse. It was a kind of before and after for me. Writing songs before, I was a copycat. After Dylan, I felt a deep need to write my “own” kind of song. Who knows though, surely I'm borrowing from somebody before me, as we all do. Dylan borrowed the most probably.
Chico Sierra: Dylan is present in all of my work, whether it's my artwork, my writing or my music. I learned through him that expression can transcend marketability. It's what gave me the freedom to cross artistic boundaries.
Nicholas St. James: Bob Dylan consistently writes songs with substance and beautiful melodies. However, what's most intimidating is his mastery of maintaining ambiguity while still painting a complete picture for his listener — creating mosaics with a pedestrian vocabulary.
Jason Vivone (The Billy Bats): Dylan songs don't feel written. They feel discovered. Like a natural event, like a stone formation that falls into place. Like Mount Rushmore must look to Cher.
Adam Watson (Amanda Fish Band, Stone Cutters Union): As the product of parents who met at a Dylan concert, I was destined to be a Dylanite, despite my adolescent resistance to the man. Once I got past the need to dig on the most recent fad in music, I went back and studied all sorts of genres, including those who influenced my father, with whom I share the gift of music and who is also a veritable Dylan songbook. And I fell hard for Bob Dylan. The story songs, such as "Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll," "Hurricane" and the rest of the "Desire" album, are my personal favorites because they combine storytelling of all types with rich melodies and unique chord structures to convey fantastical tales. Dylan will make you laugh, cry, fall in and out of love and start a revolution all on the same album. You don't have to like him or his music, but you are hard-pressed to not respect and appreciate his ability to produce quality music and poetry and remain relevant and influential in the greater social spectrum for 50-plus years. Happy birthday, Bob!
Sterling Witt: I started paying close attention to Bob Dylan when I wanted to become a better songwriter. If it weren’t for Dylan, I probably wouldn't have ever written songs like “Broken Heart,” “Perfect Girl,” “Labor” or “Just War.” Dylan is unique, clever and timeless — all the qualities I look for in music.
Tune in to The Bridge on Tuesday, May 24 — Bob Dylan’s 75th birthday. We’ll be playing 12 hours of his music, sharing memories and having conversations about his legacy with local fans. Submit your memories or thoughts on Dylan here.
— Michelle Bacon is a musician and writer dedicated to the Kansas City music community. She advocates for and helps spotlight music in the area, writes web content for 90.9 The Bridge and plays with The Philistines and Chris Meck & the Guilty Birds. Her grandma is 102 years old and by far the coolest person she knows.