The untimely death of Tom Petty last week once again brought up a question that I get asked from time to time: Who would be in a modern version of the Traveling Wilburys?
For the uninitiated: The Traveling Wilburys were a supergroup formed in 1988 by George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison, Tom Petty, and Jeff Lynne. The group’s first album, Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, went triple-platinum and spawned two classic singles, “Handle With Care” and “End Of The Line.” The rest of the album isn’t as good, but it’s a fun and loose listen, blessedly free of the pretension and ego that normally distinguishes these sorts of superstar larks. (A second, less heralded LP, the incongruously titled Traveling Wilburys Vol. 3, came out in 1990.)
Listening to these records now is a melancholy exercise, given that 60 percent of the band is no longer with us. (Roy Orbison died in 1988, and George Harrison passed in 2001.) While the Traveling Wilburys might not have been a great band, it was an unprecedented assemblage of great classic-rock talent. But in a world in which classic rock seems to be rapidly disappearing, what would a contemporary version of this band look like?
The typical approach to this question is to put together a group of notable rock or Americana stars — your Eddie Vedders, your Jack Whites, your Jeff Tweedys. But the Traveling Wilburys weren’t just a generic supergroup — it had a distinct chemistry based on a unique combination of personalities. In order to truly get to the bottom of this issue, we must thoughtfully examine what each original Wilbury contributed, and find the best person to perform those duties today. If we approach the question in this fashion, I think the band would look like this.
1. Original Wilbury: George Harrison
Role in the band: This Wilbury was formerly a member of a generation-defining band that broke up at its peak almost 20 years prior — though not the most famous member of that particular band.
New Wilbury: Dave Grohl
If a new version of the Traveling Wilburys was actually assembled, it would be against the law to not include Dave Grohl. Just try to do it and see what happens — within five minutes of the first band rehearsal, Navy SEALs would burst through the door with Dave locked and loaded and ready to jam. But even if his participation weren’t a requirement, Grohl would slot comfortably in the Harrison role, given that Nirvana’s dissolution is even deeper in the past now than the Beatles’ breakup was in 1988. (Harrison was 45 at the time, while Grohl is about three months shy of his 49th birthday.) By the way, since this is my scenario, Dave is going to play drums.
2. Original Wilbury: Roy Orbison
Role in the band: The oldest Wilbury, and an idol of the younger Wilburys.
New Wilbury: Neil Young
Orbison died of a heart attack less than two months after the release of Traveling Wilburys Vol. 1, whereas Neil Young is immortal and will live forever. But other than that, Young fits the part beautifully. Orbison was one of Young’s primary musical influences, as discussed in one of Neil’s better songs of the 21st century, and they both sing with a heart-rending, high-lonesome vocal quiver. Including Neil Young in the new Traveling Wilburys also rectifies the weird oversight of not including him in the original Traveling Wilburys, although you could argue that the original Traveling Wilburys is actually Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.
3. Original Wilbury: Bob Dylan
Role in the band: The irascible, reclusive genius who seems a little out of place among these relatively happy-go-lucky people.
New Wilbury: Fiona Apple
Bob Dylan was famous by the time he was 22, and then made a lot of people angry, and then disappeared for a while, and then came back several years later with some of the best songs of his career. This is also the career arc for Fiona Apple. (For the purposes of this comparison, the “This world is bullsh*t” speech at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards will be counted as Fiona’s “goes electric at Newport” moment.) Both Dylan and Apple were polarizing iconoclasts in their respective eras whose “serious” personas often kept them from indulging the silly sides of their personalities. Part of what made the original Wilburys endearing is that the band seemed to relax Dylan, inspiring him to goof off and even crack an occasional smile. How great would it be if Fiona Apple felt comfortable enough to write her own “Tweeter And The Monkey Man”?
4. Original Wilbury: Jeff Lynne
Role in the band: The least famous one, but arguably the most important in terms of how the band sounds.
New Wilbury: Josh Homme
When people talk about the Traveling Wilburys, it’s common slander to not even mention Jeff Lynne. (I noticed this many times last week during the wave of Tom Petty tributes.) In a band with so many legends, Jeff Lynne inevitably gets overlooked because he was merely the mastermind behind Electric Light Orchestra, one of the best bands of the ’70s, which only seems unimpressive next to giants like Dylan, Orbison, Petty, and an ex-Beatle. But Lynne’s hand as a producer is obvious with the Wilburys — the band sounds like a rootsier ELO, which is also the sound of George Harrison’s Cloud Nine and, most famously, Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever. (Lynne also co-wrote “Free Fallin’, “I Won’t Back Down,” “Runnin’ Down A Dream,” and “Learning To Fly,” in case you need more reasons to love Jeff Lynne.)
A great songwriter and producer who tends to put his sonic fingerprint on any project he participates in — this also describes Josh Homme, whose band Queens Of The Stone Age is to Nirvana what ELO was to the Beatles. Also: I think it would be cool if the new Traveling Wilburys sounded like Iggy Pop’s Post Pop Depression.
5. Original Wilbury: Tom Petty
Role in the band: The youngest and most lovable member
New Wilbury: Courtney Barnett
Tom Petty had just turned 38 when the first Traveling Wilburys record was released, though he seemed much younger. Like his frequent collaborator Jeff Lynne, Petty was a fan hanging out with his heroes and biggest musical influences. which made him a proxy in the Wilburys for the common listener. In the new Wilburys, the “upstart kid” slot belongs to Courtney Barnett, perhaps the best young rock singer-songwriter to emerge in the ’10s. Like Petty, Barnett exudes slacker charisma, a laidback “who gives a sh*t” vibe that belies the craft of her songs. You want to hang out with Courtney Barnett, just like you wanted to hang out with Tom Petty.