On Monday, Bob Dylan revived his Theme Time Radio Hour, a SiriusXM show that ran from 2006 to 2009. It was beloved by music nerds and favoured by critics for its curious content of thematically curated old tunes, offbeat musicology, folksy life lessons, celebrity call-ins and other playful diversions. As a host, Dylan was old-timey, melodious and highly informative – a well-practised raconteur.
Like many things having to do with the mercurial songster, the show’s resurrection is a limited engagement; the one-week-only pop-up channel is a promotion for his own brand of American whiskies, Heaven’s Door. When the seven days are over, the show will be back off the air, with the reclusive Dylan scurrying away like a goblin in the night.
“Hello friends, and welcome back to Theme Time Radio Hour,” Dylan begins the new whisky-song episode. His familiar voice is raspy and profoundly nasal, but there’s a twinkle to his delivery as he paraphrases something from The Count of Monte Cristo. “I’m so delighted to see you here. It makes me forget for the moment that all happiness is fleeting.”
On the old episodes, Dylan would program the playlists around an arbitrary subject: mothers, baseball, death, taxes, etc. The theme of the first-ever show was weather, with a playlist populated by such things as Muddy Waters’s Blow Wind Blow, Dean Martin’s I Don’t Care If The Sun Don’t Shine, Judy Garland’s Come Rain or Come Shine and Slim Harpo’s Raining in My Heart. “Slim wrote a bunch of his songs with his wife, Lavelle," Dylan commented. "Boy, wish I had a wife like that t' help me write songs.”
The original one-hour shows and the new two-hour episode run this week on SiriusXM’s channel 27. (The old shows are also archived at themetimeradio.com.) Purportedly they were all taped at “Studio B of the Abernathy Building.” But that’s fiction, for a vintage radio-theatre vibe.
Dylan wants to turn us on to his booze and to the music he loves for the same reason: He believes in its quality and wishes us to enjoy it. The Edsel-age music styles are unpredictable (in contrast to today’s terrestrial radio and its satellite counterpart, which stick to narrow genre and demographic algorithms). Dylan is not trying to blow our minds; he’s just trying to open them up a little.
On this week’s show, we learn about a 1930 song by banjoist Charlie Poole, If The River Was Whiskey. Its origins involve a 1928 book, a folk-blues number by Sleepy John Estes and an older song, Hesitation Blues. Old lyrics tended to travel from song to song. Dylan’s on the trail.
After spinning Billie Harbert’s lively barroom novelty number Ain’t That Whiskey Hot, Dylan provides instructions on how to make a hot toddy. Then comes a reggae version of One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer, “the hat trick of inebriants,” he says. (That recipe is self-explanatory.)
The show continues with a mystifying joke about a bartender and a termite. “Have another drink,” Dylan says after the punchline. “You’ll get that one later.”
After a cameo promo from singer-songwriter Jenny Lewis and an explanation of what constitutes rye whisky, a song by Harry Choates called Rye Whiskey is offered. Dylan proceeds to call up his “buddy,” the actor John C. Reilly, who sings the Robert Burns poem Coming Through the Rye.
Clearly, this isn’t Randy Bachman’s Vinyl Tap, CBC Radio’s eager-but-low-brow themed music program. The former Guess Who guitarist and BTO co-founder builds playlists around such inspired topics as songs with girls' names in them. Where Dylan doesn’t play his own songs, Bachman draws from his own discography without hesitation. He seems to specialize in tunes about business, and how to take care of it.
The blaring Vinyl Tap lacks the intimacy of not only Theme Time Radio Hour, but of CBC Radio music programs The Strombo Show with George Stroumboulopoulos and Playlist, hosted by musicians. Stroumboulopoulos’s eclectic extravaganza each Sunday is free of algorithms and full of camaraderie. And after a recent Playlist episode hosted by Donovan Woods, I felt like I’d known the singer-songwriter all my life.
We don’t know Dylan, but he’s an immovable object in pop culture and still relevant in 2020. The 79-year-old icon’s latest album, Rough And Rowdy Ways, is one of his finest. His radio-host voice and panache is welcome; his show was (and is again, for one episode, anyway) a delightful trip down the rabbit hole of mid-century Americana.
James Joyce wrote about the light music of whisky falling into a glass, describing it as an "agreeable interlude.” We can say the same for Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour.
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