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Boston’s Folk and Americana Roots Hall of Fame is inducting its first class this weekend — and it’s huge Print-ready version

Board member Don Was talks Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Willie Nelson, Grateful Dead and more ahead of the big event.

by Lauren Daley
Boston.com
April 20, 2024

Johnny Cash, Bonnie Raitt, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Joni Mitchell, and Joan Baez are all members of the inaugural class for Boston’s Folk and Americana Hall of Fame. AP Photo/Mark Duncan, File; Peter Fisher/The New York Times; Daniel Kramer; AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File; Central Press/Getty Images; Steve Giovanis/Globe Staff

What do Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Mavis Staples, John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Johnny Cash and Bonnie Raitt have in common? If you answered: Members of the inaugural class of Boston's Folk and Americana Roots Hall of Fame, you'd be correct.

Also acceptable: Don Was.

Dude's resume reads like a dream: Jamming with the Rolling Stones. Producing Bob Dylan. Driving with Willie Nelson to play Frank Sinatra's final concert. Connecting John Mayer to Grateful Dead's Bob Weir, which led to Dead & Co. Playing bass in Weir's Wolf Bros.

Was has left his fingerprints on a staggering amount of 20th and 21st-century music, having produced or jammed with Ringo Starr, Mick Jagger, Carly Simon, Wayne Shorter, Stevie Nicks, Lucinda Williams ... Actually, put it this way: "Albums Produced by Don Was" has its own Wikipedia page with a warning that basically says: There's probably more. (Was doesn't even know a number. I asked.)

Was, a former visiting teacher at Berklee ("Lived in the dorm rooms; had a beautiful time") also sits on the artist advisory board member of the Boston-based FARHOF, which inducts their incoming class of honorees Saturday.

Legacy inductees are John Prine, Johnny Cash, Lead Belly, Odetta, Pete Seeger, Richie Havens, Woody Guthrie, Josh White, Gordon Lightfoot, and Jean Ritchie.

Living artists inducted include Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Willie Nelson, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, James Taylor, Mavis Staples, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, and Taj Mahal.

Also the groups Peter, Paul & Mary, The Band, The Byrds, and The Weavers will be inducted, alongside non-performers Albert Grossman, Betsy Siggins, George Wein, and Frank Hamilton.

Many family members will be present for the honor, FARHOF says, and honorees in attendance include Joan Baez as well as Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey, the last two surviving members of Peter, Paul & Mary.

Was, 71, will induct Yarrow and Stookey, part of the trio that inspired him to start his first band in elementary school.

Was is the perfect person to talk to about this induction, as he's directly worked with so many inductees - and has another big reason to be in Boston: Was is president of iconic jazz label Blue Note Records, and his brainchild, an exhibit of the jazz label's artwork. "The All Seeing Eye," opens at the Boch Center Wang Theatre May 1.

When I tell him he's like the Forrest Gump of music, he laughs.

"I can't believe any of this stuff. I should be back playing the piano bar at the Holiday Inn in Clawson, Michigan. Everything has exceeded my wildest dreams," the Michigan native says with a laugh in a phone interview from his LA home.

In conversation, Was is laid back, soft-spoken, and laughs easily. I called him for a wide-ranging interview, from FARHOF inductee-connections and his upcoming Boston exhibit, to Dylan's wild book recommendations, Bob Weir's dream visions, and the unexpected origin of his stage name.

So how did you get involved with FARHOF?

From playing there. The Wang is probably my favorite theater in the world to play. I got to know Joe Spaulding [President and CEO of the Boch Center]. He showed me what they were doing with FARHOF. I thought it was a great idea.

This incoming class of inductees is stacked. You've worked with so many, either in bands or as producer. Dylan, Bonnie Raitt ...

Willie Nelson. Johnny Cash. Mavis Staples - I'm actually playing with her this week, for her 85th birthday tribute - John Prine, Joan Baez, Jack Elliott, Emmylou. Toured with Taj. Lived next door to Joni Mitchell for 11 years. [laughs]

But if you want to know who I'm most excited about, it's meeting Peter Yarrow and Paul Stookey. Because for people my age - I was 10 or 11 when they came out - that's what made me start playing guitar. Peter, Paul & Mary were like cool, alt-rock back in those days. [laughs] All the kids want to be like Peter, Paul & Mary. Then the Beatles came along and that changed things. But I learned to play the guitar because of them. I've never met these two guys [Travers died in 2009]. So I'm very excited about that. I'm actually giving them their award.

I had a trio - a folk trio in our elementary school - and we did their whole first album.

[laughs] That's great.

In fact, the first gig I ever played was an elementary school hootenanny in Oak Park, Michigan. The opener was a local folk singer; the second was from Toronto, billed as "Chuck Mitchell and wife." Chuck Mitchell was married to Joni Mitchell.

Oh my God.

My first gig was opening for teenage Joni Mitchell. Who didn't even get proper billing. [laughs]

That's unbelievable.

[laughs] Yeah.

Have you made a connection with her since? I know you said you lived next door.

You know something, I literally lived next door to her, like, to walk over and borrow sugar [laughs] but I was so intimidated, I never went over there in the 11 years I lived there. But I met her a couple of years ago through Wayne Shorter.

How old were you when you opened for her?

11. I can tell you exactly: This hootenanny was about three weeks before The Beatles were on Ed Sullivan in 1964. Once they were on, we changed our folk group around. [laughs]

[laughs] It's funny, for your generation, almost every big musician I've interviewed, especially guys, can pinpoint that exact moment as the moment everything changed for them.

Exactly. There are an inordinate number of musicians born in 1952. My theory is that if you saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan - they looked like they were having fun, they were great, and girls were screaming.

[laughs] Right.

If you're 12 years old, you'd say, "I want that job!" If you were 16, you might say, "Well, I'd better hedge my bets and go to law school." And if you were 8 years old, it wouldn't have registered. But a 12-year-old is just dumb enough to see if they could do it - and a whole bunch of us did it. [laughs]

[laughs] That's a great theory, actually. So how did you get to bass from there?

A matter of practicality. As I got older, there were three better guitar players in my class, two better keyboard players, and no bass player. And it just seemed to suit me once I figured it out.

How did you get into production?

I just seemed to be aware of production techniques. I was fascinated by the sounds. I got to go to some studios as a teenager, and it just seemed like the coolest place to be, like a fun place to spend your life - and it is, as it turns out. [laughs]

[laughs] Wow. So going back to the Boston inductees: I'm a huge Dylan nerd. What was it like working with him?

It was great, man. He's always been very nice to me. He's quite personable, very funny. And he's brilliant. No one has come close to writing songs of that caliber. And to be that consistently great - even his last album.

True. You worked on "Under a Red Sky" - I love that album.

Really? I don't hear that very often.

It's underrated. There's something about that title track that gets me. And "Born in Time." I dismissed it when he first played it. He just sprang it on us. I listened to lyrics, and thought "Born in Time" - in time for what? It took a couple of years, actually. I realized, "Oh, born into the world of time, because time isn't the same everywhere in the universe."

When it hit me, I called him up: "I'm sorry, I missed it at the time, but I think I have some understanding about the song." He recommended a bunch of books to read along those lines, that were kind of life-changing.

Classic. [He also had book suggestions for Peter Wolf.] Do you remember what they were?

One was called "The Gods of Eden" [by William Bramley]. It's an interesting book. It starts - [laughs] if you say it, it sounds goofy - but it traces the history of things like Freemasonry and ends up with extraterrestrials. [laughs] He wasn't necessarily saying "This is how it works." He was saying "This will open your mind up."

[laughs] I love that. You also mixed his "MTV Unplugged" album.

And I've done a lot of little one-offs for him people maybe don't know. The song "She's Funny That Way" - it's a real old song, a standard. Someone was making an album for gay weddings, where you change the pronouns. Bob sang "He's Funny That Way."

OK, this is so weird you just said that - I just heard that song for the first time a few weeks ago and had to stop walking and look it up. I had no idea what it was from.

Yeah, we cut that with a 20-piece orchestra, Frank Sinatra-style. He was standing there with the orchestra, no overdubs. I thought he sang the living daylights out of that song.

Moving down the Boston inductee list: Willie Nelson.

My favorite album I've ever worked on is "Across the Borderline," a Willie album from '93. That's one play for my own enjoyment, which is rare.

Do you not listen to the albums you worked on?

Not often because you hear all the things you did wrong. But I listen to that one. That one makes me feel good.

You also played at the White House with Willie.

Yeah, but the wildest gig I ever did with him, I was playing bass on a session in the '90s. He said, "I have to leave early today. I'm going to play a gig in Palm Springs. It's Frank Sinatra's last show, and everybody knows it but Sinatra." We all begged him: "You gotta let us play with you." We jumped in the car and we went to the ballroom of some Marriott in Palm Springs. And we played the opening set. Frank Sinatra Jr. let [drummer] Kenny Aronoff and I sit right on the stage. We watched Sinatra's last show from about five feet away.

That's unbelievable.

His voice was gone; he wasn't 100 percent present. But he was still so charismatic. He was incredible right to the end.

I could ask a million questions about all these people, but moving down the list: Bonnie Raitt, who went to Radcliffe and started out here - you won a Grammy for producing her "Nick of Time."

Yeah, did four albums with Bonnie. I'm super proud of those records. I don't know anyone who can touch her as far as getting to the emotional core of a song.

Joan Baez used to live in Belmont.

I played with her not too long ago. She's friendly with Bob Weir.

Speaking of Weir, you're in his band Wolf Bros, and you're good friends with Dead & Co.'s John Mayer, who's from New England. He's a Berklee guy, too.

Yeah. I got a radio show on his Sirius station that runs 24-hours a day, "Life with John Mayer." He programs it based on what people are doing that time of day. He asked me to host a Saturday night show. He said "Do two hours of what you'd play at a dinner party." [laughs] It's called "Dinner Party with Don."

That's awesome. What do you play?

It goes from African to jazz to R&B. Last week it was Luther Vandross and Miles Davis. Stream of consciousness.

When I interviewed Mayer, he told me Dead & Co. basically came together in your office.

Yeah. Every time I'd get in his car, he had a Grateful Dead channel on - and I wouldn't have drawn that connection. He was the kind of fan who could hear a live show and say, "No, that's not 1977, it's 1978 because Jerry's playing a certain [way]." [laughs]

[laughs] One of those fans, yeah.

So Bobby and Mickey [Hart] came to see me at Blue Note. I knew John was working downstairs, so I called him: "Come up here; you won't believe who's in the office." That's when they met. They hatched a plan for John to jam with them. And I drove up with him. It was amazing. He seemed like the most unlikely person to fulfill that role.

Exactly. But it just works.

From the first note. So this was fall. John was making an album. They made a plan to get together in January. John stopped his album, went home just practiced playing Grateful Dead songs. If you try to do a karaoke version of Jerry, it's terrible. What you want to do is, understand where he was coming from, and then find your own way to do it. He put the work in.

Did you want to play bass in Dead & Co.?

I did. But you know, he practiced, and I didn't. And I learned from that. I made it sound like a bar band covering Grateful Dead songs. [laughs] A couple years later, when Weir called me to start the Wolf Bros, I did what John did: locked myself in a room at the Bowery Hotel with a bass, stayed there for a couple of weeks, and did nothing but practice. [laughs]

Didn't the band come to Bob in a dream?

Yeah. He'd played with an incredible bass player, Rob Wasserman. Rob actually introduced me to Bob. After Rob passed away, Bob called me up: "I dreamt that Rob came to me and said, 'The reason I introduced you to Don was because you're supposed to work with him when I'm gone.' So do you want to start a trio?" And he had the name from the dream: Wolf Brothers.

That's amazing.

One of the best things that ever happened to me.

You're also the president of Blue Note Records. The exhibit of Blue Note art opens in Boston soon. I'd been a fan since 1966. I loved the music, and was equally compelled by the album jackets. They're iconic photos, taken by a guy, Francis Wolff. He shot every session from the 1940s to the '70s.

There's something about his eye - he created the visual counterpart to the music. I used to look at those photos, on the album jackets with black walls, cigarette smoke, cool clothes. As a 14-year-old, I just wanted to be in that room. It never occurred to me I'd end up as president of the company 50 years later. [laughs]

We bought the photos back, rescanned the negatives, and now, Boston is really the first time these new scans are being used - the prints just look incredible. We've never had a show like this before.

How did this come together? Why Boston?

I was at a FARHOF board meeting and they were trying to figure out what to do next. I told them about the photos, and they perked up. We put the exhibit together. I can't wait to see it.

How did you end up as Blue Note president?

Serendipity. [laughs] I went to hear a jazz artist Gregory Porter - one of the best shows I've ever seen in my life. As fate would have it, the next morning, I was having breakfast with an old buddy of mine, Dan McCarroll, who'd become the president of Capitol Records, which owned Blue Note. I said, "Man, you should sign this guy to Blue Note, he's incredible." He said, "No, you should sign him." And he offered me the job right there.

Turns out, Bruce Lundvall, was ill, and couldn't keep going. They were looking for someone who understood the legacy, but had a vision for moving forward. I just walked in on the right day. [laughs] I was 58 at the time, and my goal in life had been never to have a job. But this was irresistible.

You were born Don Fagenson. How did you come up with "Don Was" and the band Was (Not Was) with David Weiss [who went by David Was].

Well, we named the band first. We did a one-off single, and had to name it so we thought, "Let's come up with something that people won't forget." This is like 1980. My oldest kid was like 3, he had just discovered what would later be identified as Piaget's Theory of Reversibility, which is that you become aware of opposites. He was fascinated by opposites. He would point to red curtains and go "Blue." He knew it was red and waited for a reaction. When you reacted, he'd go: "Not blue!"

That's fascinating.

So we just adapted it from him, and took those last names. It never occurred to me that 40 years later, I'd have trouble getting on an airplane because I bought a ticket for "Don Was."

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