New book offers intimate insights on the making of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks

Ed Newman

It’s a classic conundrum. If a tree falls in the woods but there’s no one to hear, does it make a sound? Technically yes, in the sense that there were sound waves generated. Subjectively, if no one hears, then it’s as if it never happened at all.  

This is what the Minnesota musicians who recorded half the songs on Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks were up against.  

It was his 15th studio album, recorded in New York in the fall of 1974 under the guidance of engineer Phil Ramone, backed by a handful of Big Apple session pros. The feedback from peers was purportedly stellar, though Dylan himself was privately niggled by doubts.

By late December he took the decisive step of re-recording five tracks while back home in Minnesota, his brother David Zimmerman assembling a team of top notch Twin Cities musicians for a pair of sessions.   Because the album’s cover sleeve had been pre-printed, the six Minnesotans went uncredited. It was as if their contributions to one of Dylan’s most highly acclaimed albums never happened.  

Blood in the Tracks, by Paul Metsa and Rick Shefchik, tells the story of these Minneapolis instrumentalists and the making of Blood on the Tracks. What prompted Dylan to re-visit an album that was already in the can? The New York studio hands had delivered what Bob was looking for. Or so they believed.    

This isn’t the first book to take readers on a deep dive into the making of one of Dylan’s classic albums. Daryl Sanders’ That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound offers readers a fly-on-the-wall view of the making of Blonde On Blonde, the first of several albums Dylan recorded in Nashville.

Nor is it the first book addressing the omission of our Minnesota musicians. A Simple Twist of Fate by Andy Gill and Kevin Odegard was devoted to shedding light on that chapter of Dylan’s career. Odegard (K.O.) was one of the young men who contributed toward lifting this album to a higher caliber.  

Though Gill and Odegard’s A Simple Twist of Fate was published in 2004, the full public vindication for Minnesota’s musicians took place in 2018 with the Columbia Records release of Dylan’s Bootleg 14: More Blood, More Tracks.  

The significance of that moment was not lost on Minnesota Dylan and music fans. To celebrate the occasion, Paul Metsa devoted three episodes of his Wall of Power television show to this release. All six Minnesota musicians were either present or Skyped in to be part of it. Their names were Peter Ostroushko, Bill Berg, Billy Peterson, Gregg Inhofer, Chris Weber and Kevin Odegard. Tears were shed as they celebrated with tales from their experiences at Sound 80 Studios in late 1974.    

“The biggest kick for me in writing the book was not only capturing the Blood on the Tracks Minneapolis sessions themselves but also telling the stories of the six musicians both before and after the sessions. I am a big fan of ‘lifer musicians’ as I know personally how goddamn hard it is to make a living in the skull orchards and blood buckets of the music business,” Metsa said.  

“I’ve been privileged to get to know all of them over the years, and have played with most of them. Their stories collectively are one of commitment to their art, resilience, talent, and being open to flashes of brilliance when working with the genius of one of America's greatest songwriters who happens to be a fellow Minnesotan.”  

Authors Metsa and Shefchik succeeded in producing a valuable addition to the Dylan saga. They’ve known the story for decades and have long rubbed shoulders with the men who made it happen.  

Both authors are familiar names in the Twin Cites music and arts scene. Duluth born-and-bred, Rick Shefchik is a veteran journalist with near 30 years as a critic, reporter and columnist, primarily with the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Like Jon Bream of the Minneapolis Star, he’s been intimately acquainted with the Twin Cities music scene. Shefchik is also an author of several other books including Everybody’s Heard about the Bird: The True Story of 1960’s Rock ‘n’ Roll in Minnesota, a book that demonstrates his passion for research and meticulous attention to detail.  

Iron Ranger Paul Metsa (Virginia) likewise spent most of his career in the Twin Cities music world. A singer/songwriter with a dozen albums of original recordings, he’s performed over 5,000 professional gigs including Farm Aid V in Dallas (1992) among others. He’s received seven Minnesota Music Awards. His books include Blue Guitar Highway and Alphabet Jazz.  

Metsa and Shefchik’s new book, published through University of Minnesota Press, not only details the making of Dylan’s album, it also sheds light on both the vitality of the Minneapolis music scene and the intuitive dynamics at play in the mind of the Nobel Prize-winning singer/songwriter.  

Regarding the book: If you’re a long-time follower of Bob Dylan’s career, you’ll know there are different kinds of fans. Some just enjoy collecting and listening to the music. Others are superfans who take advantage of every opportunity to drink in his live performances as he continues his decades-long Never Ending Tour. Still others enjoy reading the fanzines and the books that illuminate all facets of the Dylan oeuvre.   Enough books on Dylan have been produced to cause the average bookshelf to buckle under their weight. Because so many books have been written, each author carries an obligation to bring something new to the table. Blood in the Tracks fulfills this mandate. Gill and Odegard’s A Simple Twist of Fate devoted more space to the historical context of the album and the recording that took place in the New York sessions than Metsa and Shefchik. Blood in the Tracks zeroes in on the Minneapolis events and the players whose lives intersected with Dylan’s for that brief space of time.  

The chapter headings are an interesting feature of the book. Each uses lyrics extracted from the various songs on the album. Long time Dylan fans will recognize the origins of phrases like “Heading Out for the East Coast” and “When Something’s Not Right, It’s Wrong.”  

As it turns out, both Shefchik and Metsa used this device in previous books—Metsa in his Blue Guitar Highway and Shefchik in Everybody’s Heard About the Bird. “It would have been journalistic malpractice not to include some of Dylan's great lines from the songs on that record,” Metsa explained. Shefchik was given liberty to make the actual selections   It might make a good trivia quiz to match the chapter titles to the tunes they were lifted from.  

Blood In The Tracks Book Launch at Zenith Bookstore Paul Metsa and Rick Shefchik will be at Zenith Bookstore for the Duluth launch of their new book Thursday September 14th, 2023 @ 7:00PM - 8:30 PM.   # # # #