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With New Albums, Bob Dylan, Neil Young And Willie Nelson Are As Relevant As Ever

Neil Young's newly released album, <em>Homegrown</em>, arrives at the same moment as two other veteran songwriters, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, put out projects of their own.
Henry Diltz
Courtesy of the artist
Neil Young's newly released album, Homegrown, arrives at the same moment as two other veteran songwriters, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, put out projects of their own.

This week, Bob Dylan's first album of new music in eight years, Rough and Rowdy Ways, rose to No. 2 on the Billboard albums chart, making him the first ever artist to have a Top 40 album in every decade since the 1960s. But Bob Dylan is not alone in making vital new music well into what some might call his "retirement" years. This past month has also seen releases by Neil Young ( Homegrown), Willie Nelson ( First Rose of Spring) and the late John Prine ("I Remember Everything").

"Their artistic trajectory mirrors the Baby Boomer generation they inspired," says NPR Music critic and correspondent Ann Powers. "They thought they'd peak at 30, but as culture changed and what we think of as 'old age' became a much more active and engaged phase of life, they're doing the same thing as many of their listeners."

Mary Louise Kelly spoke to Ann Powers about the way that none of these artists rest on their laurels, instead creating poignant and powerful work late into their careers. Listen in the audio player above, and read on for highlights of their conversation.

Interview Highlights

On Bob Dylan creating an album that carves space out of the modern landscape of hip-hop and pop music

Dylan has managed to make an album that seems to reference his whole career while feeling like something new. What I've noticed about Rough and Rowdy Ways is that it gives us so many of the Bob Dylans that we've known and loved over the years: the Dylan who free associates long strings of poetic phrasings; the Dylan who can write a really pure and direct love song; or the Dylan who likes to play the mythical adventurer; or even the crooner who's covered Sinatra. It's like he's curating his own life, and showing why these themes and approaches can still be relevant.

Bob Dylan is also a lot like a rapper — he interpolates, he samples, yet there he is at the heart of it and he's still projecting his own personality.

On Neil Young presenting archival material to prove the vibrancy of his legacy

Neil Young is also always making new music but this "new" release, Homegrown, is actually an album from 1975 that he's finally releasing in its original form. It's a really great move, not only in terms of helping his fans understand the whole arc of his career, but in reminding listeners why Neil Young's sound is still so relevant. You can hear so much of what current rock bands or even country or Americana bands are doing now — it all stems from this sound that Neil Young and Crazy Horse made back in the '70s.

On how Willie Nelson and John Prine remain relevant through the seeds they planted in a new generation

Willie Nelson is like a music industry unto himself. He works with his sons Lukas and Micah, and producer Buddy Cannon. They made this album in quarantine — very contemporary — swapping files back and forth over the Internet. The album is mostly covers, but the songs he wrote with Buddy Cannon are beautiful meditations on life in the twilight years.

[He's] crafting this ongoing conversation about being an elder, about facing mortality, and also kind of about the history of popular music. Both Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, they are not afraid of showing the age in their voices, but the power is also still there. And that, for me, is what makes this music the most relevant.

John Prine remained relevant until his last day of his life because he, too, always kept growing, mentoring younger artists, writing songs. It's just a perfect final statement from John, it's got that humor and humility and joy in life that he carried to his last days.

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Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.