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“If you had Bruce playing with you,” Dylan wrote in his 2004 autobiography Chronicles, “that’s all you would need to do just about anything.”
Folksinger Tom Rush once came to this author’s college and played in the dorm lobby on a small stage. Sitting behind him was a swarthy man with a Zapata mustache playing along on a Martin acoustic with a DeArmond magnetic soundhole pickup that was plugged into a Fender Twin Reverb. I was a big Tom Rush fan, but by the end of the show it was Bruce Langhorne I wanted to be. He made me want to play those cool fills around the vocals that lifted the music to a plane unachievable by a self-accompanied solo artist. Sometimes dreams come true: In the ’80s I was on tour, playing the riffs around the vocals for Eric Andersen—an artist Langhorne had accompanied on record in 1970. “I remember recording with Bruce once,” recalls Andersen. “He did an extraordinary guitar solo and some tambourine parts for my song ‘Foolish Like the Flowers.’”
And, of course, Joan Baez, who was in the thick of the action at the time, also recalls Langhorne. “Bruce worked with me on one of my favorite albums, Farewell, Angelina,” says the ’60s folk goddess. “My fondness for that album is largely due to Bruce’s distinctive guitar playing. He was also a pal, a laughing mate, and a general all-around gem.”
I’m not the only guitarist whose concept of the instrument was affected by Langhorne. Bill Frisell recalls hearing the session ace around the time he first took up guitar. “I didn’t realize how big an influence he was until many years later,” says Frisell. “It was almost subliminal, but that is too soft a word. He had this gigantic effect on the way I play music—it was a revelation. I used to listen to early Bob Dylan records he was on when I was a kid, lying on the floor with the speakers next to my head, playing them over and over. I just heard him as part of the total sound. Years later I realized his playing was this line between accompanying and having a conversation, being spontaneous and completely integrated into the music from the inside out, playing a part but not a part, unpredictable. When I heard all that later, I realized that was the way I have been trying to play my whole life. It doesn’t matter what kind of music I am playing, whether a jazz instrumental thing or with a singer, it is more the attitude he had. There are people who can teach you so much in a split second. They open the door to let you know it is okay to go on with the way you have been thinking. I realized he was on other records I used to listen to, part of the fabric of the sound that was around when I first got interested in playing.”
In a 2007 interview director Jonathan Demme stated: “Just occasionally you come across these geniuses. Bruce Langhorne was one. These people all tend to work in the same way: They respond instinctively to the visual image. I still remember the insane thrill of being with Bruce in his apartment, with his guitar and other instruments, and looking at scenes from Melvin and Howard. He was playing things and I was just saying, ‘Oh my God, that’s amazing.’ Bruce Langhorne has done some of the most beautiful scoring that I have ever been involved with, or ever known.” —Michael Ross
To hear Bruce Langhorne’s never-released song, “Old Dog,” visit brucelanghorne.com/old-dog/.