When Bob Dylan’s piercing classic “Blood on the Tracks” came out in January 1975, not only were the six Minneapolis musicians who famously rerecorded half of its songs not credited, they were dismissed as anonymous Midwestern amateurs by the big-name critics of the day, even by those who otherwise admired this exhilarating, beautiful album. It is these twin injustices that Paul Metsa and Rick Shefchik succeed in rectifying with their compact, illuminating and moving book “Blood in the Tracks: The Minnesota Musicians Behind Dylan’s Masterpiece.”
The book springs from interviews with the players who experienced two secret sessions with the elusive Minnesota bard near the end of December 1974 at downtown Sound 80 Studios. Dubbed the Minnesota Six, these were Kevin Odegard (guitar), Chris Weber (guitar), Billy Peterson (bass), Bill Berg (drums), Gregg Inhofer (keyboards) and Peter Ostroushko (mandolin). It’s a lively oral history in tone, shuttling between the stories of each man’s life and times before, during and after the fateful dates. These strands are interwoven and borne along by Metsa and Shefchik’s dense yet streamlined narrative.
A bit younger than Dylan, these musicians trod in his footsteps several years after he’d already left Minneapolis, in 1961, for New York City and world fame. By the late sixties, they could be found playing in Dinkytown, the neighborhood around the University of Minnesota on the East Bank of the Mississippi, and in the psychedelic ballrooms on the West Bank. Meanwhile, Herb Pilhofer co-founded the state-of-the-art Sound 80 in 1971.
The core of the book is the two chapters that put you in the room for the magical sessions, which took place on December 27 and 30. At least four of the six, though young, were already deeply accomplished pros by this time; all were gifted. These guys were friends who’d played together in multiple permutations for years. They were friends with Dylan’s brother, David Zimmerman, the organizer of the project—he was even acting as Odegard’s manager. There was virtually nothing they couldn’t play.
Because they were homeboys (the theory goes), Dylan was open to their creativity in a way he hadn’t been with the musicians at the New York sessions in September. In turn, they fired his imagination and sense of spontaneity. Of cutting “Tangled Up in Blue” in one take, Odegard summed up: “Those six minutes… [were] the defining moment of my life.”
“Blood in the Tracks” wasn’t just a comeback for Dylan: it was an artistic breakthrough. Yet the record went out into the world without the recognition (and, no doubt, much of the money) that might have accrued to the six—the jackets had already been printed prior to their contributions. Still, these guys have more good stories to tell, of high times and heartbreaks and reunions (for years they performed annual Dylan tribute shows as the Blood on the Tracks Live band). As the years pass, they find meaning in love and helping others as much as in making music. If there are occasional thoughts of might-have-been, still, as Inhofer likes to say, “All roads lead to now.”
Metsa and Shefchik definitively establish that this band was no group of palookas. I always thought they sounded great—exquisitely attuned to the drama and humor of, say, “Idiot Wind,” spurring Dylan to heights of triumph and despair, ecstasy and rage. Further evidence arrived in 2018 with the box set “More Blood, More Tracks,” which featured enhanced versions of the five songs on which they’d played—and which, after forty-three years, finally gave official props to the Minnesota Six.
Anyone who loves “Blood on the Tracks” will be surprised by how much one’s appreciation of the record is enhanced by reading these chronicles of the lifelong reinventions of the Twin Cities musicians behind each instrument. This book deepened my feelings for a record I thought I knew by heart. I now understand how this heartbreaking masterpiece’s roots stem from an Iron Range state with an unexpectedly rich musical culture and history—just like the memorable Six, no longer unsung, who once backed the Bard.
“Blood in the Tracks: The Minnesota Musicians Behind Dylan’s Masterpiece”
By Paul Metsa and Rick Shefchik
University of Minnesota Press, 216 pages