DYLAN GOSPEL PROJECT HAS WILLIAMSTOWN ROOTS

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BY SETH ROGOVOY

(WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass., March 18, 2002) -- Twenty-two years ago, Jeffrey Gaskill attended his first Bob Dylan concert in Worcester. It wasn’t a typical Dylan show, as it took place during the legend’s controversial “born again” period, and as such consisted almost entirely of songs from his Slow Train Coming and Saved albums, forsaking the political anthems and searing personal ballads that made Dylan a hero to several generations of fans. 

A college freshman at the time, Gaskill, a native of Williamstown, says the concert had a “deep impact” on him at the time. 

“I recognized he was taking a stand and doing something highly unusual for someone in his position and I was amazed by that, I was drawn into that,” said Gaskill in a recent phone interview from the Brooklyn apartment where he now lives. 

Gaskill could have had no idea just how deep and long-lasting that impact was at the time. Even today, he is hard-pressed to connect the dots between what happened then and what happened just a few weeks ago in a recording studio in Los Angeles, where Gaskill met Dylan after the folk-rock singer-songwriter recorded a rewritten version of “Gonna Change My Way of Thinking” for a new album of Dylan’s gospel music that Gaskill is producing. 

For the better part of the past half-decade, Gaskill has been working tirelessly to fulfill his very personal vision: to record and release an album of new versions of Dylan’s gospel songs performed by stars of today’s gospel scene, to showcase Dylan’s gospel music by putting it into an authentic gospel context. 

The project is nearly complete. Eleven new tracks are in the can, including versions of Dylan songs like “Gotta Serve Somebody,” “Solid Rock,” “Saved” and “Are You Ready?” recorded by the likes of Aaron Neville, Shirley Caesar, the Fairfield Four and Mighty Clouds of Joy. The track featuring Dylan himself, recorded with legendary singer Mavis Staples, was the icing on the cake for a project that has been supported almost entirely by a small group of friends from Gaskill’s hometown. 

The album also includes performances by Sounds of Blackness, Lee Williams, Dottie Peoples, Helen Baylor and the Chicago Mass Choir. The recording sessions were produced by Grammy Award-winning producer Joel Moss, best known for his work with gospel singer Cissy Houston. 

Once Gaskill got commitments from recording artists, he needed financing for his project. But rather than going to a bank or a faceless venture capitalist, Gaskill
went home to Williamstown and talked up the project to longtime friends and family. 

“Anybody who has worked as hard and long on a project as Jeff has on this -- you know they’re going to succeed,” said Jerry Smith, who helped assemble the team of local shareholders in the project. “It sounds kind of cornball, but you get caught up in it. Plus, he put together an excellent business plan.” 

Scott Hoover, a landscape artist and friend of Smith’s, is a key member of the team that has invested in Gaskill’s project. “The arts are very important to me,” said Hoover, “and this project had the artistic component. It’s a fickle business, but Dylan is so solid and gospel music continues to increase in popularity.” 

What finally tipped the balance for Hoover was the hometown nature of the project. “It became a big Williamstown thing,” said Hoover, whose sisters, Susan and Jane Hoover, and his friend Jackie Abbott, also invested in the deal. “It has to do with people. It’s not just all money. We all went to Mt. Greylock [Regional High School], we’re all from Williamstown -- it’s a hometown, homespun idea that I think we can all hopefully sit down and feel good about when it’s all over.” 

Others involved in the project with Williamstown connections are Mahboud Zabetian, an Iranian exile who lived with the Gaskill family in Williamstown after the fall of the Shah, and Todd Solomon, a former co-owner of Bette’s Life and Times restaurant. Tim McCreery of San Francisco and Dianne Haas of Lenox have also supported the project. 

It didn’t take much convincing for Smith to get involved with the project. “Jeff early on had an incredible ear for music,” said Smith, “and if you look at historically the concerts he put on, you’d recognize many of the people he brought to the Mahaiwe are extremely popular artists today.” 

Gaskill promoted concerts in the Berkshires and the greater region in the 1980s, when his Burning Rose Concert Series brought the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Nanci Griffith, John Prine and Chick Corea to the Mahaiwe Theatre in Great Barrington, Allison Krauss to the Mohawk Theatre in North Adams, and John Gorka to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. Gaskill also co-promoted shows in upstate New York and Vermont, including concerts by 10,000 Maniacs, the Bangles and Bruce Cockburn at Albany’s Palace Theatre and elsewhere. 

Eventually, Gaskill moved to New York, where he worked as managing director of Central Park SummerStage, helping to produce an outdoor music festival of American and world music, dance, opera and spoken word, including groundbreaking shows by Patti Smith, Sarah McLachlan, Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Thomas Mapfumo. 

From there, Gaskill went on the road with a variety of artists, including Elton John, Tina Turner and the Rolling Stones. Among his many responsibilities as tour marketing director was managing “meet and greets” – before- and after-concert hospitality sessions between the artists and invited guests, including high-level executives, VIPs and contest winners. 

Going on tour with bands like the Rolling Stones was like “going to rock and roll college,” said Gaskill. “I got to deal with artist management at a very high level, and I was surrounded by those musicians and bands.” 

Gaskill also gained the valuable experience of interacting with international stars on a professional basis. “They’re just like regular people, like anybody else, so you do your best to try and treat them that way,” he said. 

“Pressing On: The Gospel Songs of Bob Dylan” is the working title to what could within a year become a fixture in the record collections of Dylan fans all over the world, as well as opening new doors to Dylan for gospel fans previously unaware of this aspect of the artist’s work. The album reunites Dylan’s touring band from the “born again” period, including bassist Tim Drummond, guitarist Fred Tackett, pianist Terry Young, organist Spooner Oldham and drummer Jim Keltner, and also includes a lead vocal by Regina McCrary, one of the backup singers from Dylan’s gospel albums and concert tours. Keyboardist Billy Preston also plays on the album. 

Gaskill never thought Dylan himself would play a part on the album. As a matter of protocol, he had contacted Dylan’s manager, Jeff Rosen, who Gaskill says was instrumental in turning his dream into reality. 

Over time, it became clear that not only was Dylan enthusiastic about the project – he also was willing to take part in it. In the end, he wound up giving Gaskill a newly recorded version of “Gonna Change of My Way of Thinking” with Mavis Staples and his touring band. Dylan has heard the entire album, and reportedly feels it is a great representation of his gospel period and a work that stands on its own. 

When Dylan first turned to gospel music in the late-1970s, he met with criticism from longtime fans and critics. Some felt his move represented a betrayal of his Jewish roots (Dylan was raised in an observant Jewish household, was a bar mitzvah at age 13, and has visited Israel several times); others felt that identifying himself with “born-again” Christianity was a betrayal of political values. 

Gaskill thinks the time is right for a new album of Dylan’s gospel songs. “People are much more spiritually in tune and into exploring their higher power these days,” said Gaskill. “And gospel music or inspirational music, its popularity is at an all-time high. And so is a renewed interest in roots music. Not to mention Bob Dylan himself. So you have a convergence of an interest in spirituality, roots music, and a renewed appreciation for Bob Dylan and his art. 

“Each artist and each song were handpicked. Gospel music is raw emotion. Every song matches the vocalist because the song expresses how they feel as a person. There’s no show going on here; no one’s pretending to be something they’re not.” 

As for the subject matter of Dylan’s gospel songs, “It’s the most important subject you can discuss -- it gets down to the root of things, of who we are as people. 

“If you’re interested in inspirational music, you might as well hear inspirational songs written by the greatest songwriter of our time.” 

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 22, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.] 

Jeffrey Gaskill