Jason Wilber is Prine’s guy. At least some folks think of him that way.
Wilber stands on elevated stages—from Carnegie Hall to the London Palladium, in every American state and across Canada and Europe and the like—and sings and plays guitar for John Prine, one of the English speaking world’s most celebrated and revered songwriters. It’s kind of like playing for Walt Whitman. It’s the sort of gig that can define a musician, and most would be well-pleased with the definition: “A legend’s right hand man” has a ring to it, and the music Wilber makes with Prine in concert and on recordings is thrilling and sustaining and important.
It’s all that, and has been for nearly twenty years. It’s everything but enough.
Because, sure, Wilber is Prine’s guy. But he’s more than that. He’s an affable Indiana born badass who can play burn-it-down rock solos or offer up plaintive acoustic loveliness. Over the years he’s also lent his guitar talents to his friends Todd Snider, Iris Dement, and Greg Brown, among others. And he’s a deft songsmith in his own right, whose works have drawn comparisons to folk and Americana titans, even John Prine himself. In his spare time, he’s a radio host and interviewer whose syndicated radio show, In Search of a Song, finds him in peer-to-peer conversations with Josh Ritter, Mary Gauthier, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Steve Earle and other heavies.
What Wilber wasn’t, to hear him tell it anyway, was content with his singing. His voice was perfectly pleasant, and it sat in comfortable harmony above Prine’s. Perhaps it was above average in an Americana world well-populated by song-first types that wisecracking producer R.S. Field once called “Can’t-singer-songwriters.”
But since he was a kid, Wilber had always been on a quest to keep improving as a musician. And a few years ago it dawned on him that, while he had put in his “ten thousand hours” (in Gladwell terms) achieving mastery on the guitar, he hadn’t done the same with singing.
“I’d always operated on the unconscious assumption that my singing voice had been more or less set at birth and couldn’t be improved much.” says Wilber, “I’m not sure why I thought that, although in discussing it with other people since then it seems to be a fairly common assumption.”
Wilber decided to challenge that belief, and began applying to his singing the same kind of disciplined study and practice that made him a world class guitar player. It took several years before he started reaching his goals, but he says it was an amazing journey: “Becoming a better singer was much more difficult and time consuming than I expected, but much more rewarding too. Improving my singing abilities has further deepened for me the joy of making music.”
By Wilber’s own admission, his vocal improvement project was a holy hassle at first, but in time, a master musician found a voice to match. The result is something like when a dominant speedball pitcher finds a devastating sinker, except what’s bad for a batsman turns out to be good for a listener.
You can hear all this for yourself on Echoes, Wilber’s ninth solo album and his first to focus on material written by other songsmiths. The material here—and material is as lousy a word as can be conjured for such artful beauty—arrived in Wilber’s care seeming disparate and disjointed. It emerges here seamless and certain. Songs from Leon Russell, David Bowie, Joni Mitchell, John Prine, Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder, the Rolling Stones, Graffiti6, and others—are delivered here with gentle invention by Wilber and producer/engineer Paul Mahern, with aid from drummer Devon Ashley on “The Game” and “Annie You Save Me.”
And the vocals… it’s not like Wilber is singing in some new accent inflection, like Dylan did in his Nashville Skyline era. His fans won’t be confused as to who is singing for them. The difference isn’t character, it is range and resonance. And it’s notable. Sing along, or try to, with Wilber’s take on Wonder’s “Overjoyed,” and you’ll readily understand. You’ll understand something of the journey and the payoff. You’ll understand Jason Wilber’s deep empathy for the song, and his inspiration for the singing. You’ll understand why Wilber is Prine’s guy, and more than that.
For media resources see the Jason Wilber Media Kit.