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.