Jason Wilber’s new record, Reaction Time, plays like a solitary tour bus rolling steadfastly through the countryside under mysterious skies. It’s the sound of long, hushed hours spent scribbling in notebooks, dreaming up gorgeously mournful melodies and cascading harmonies set against jangling guitars, the searching songs underpinned by a persistent longing. Which all makes perfect sense. Jason Wilber has spent the better part of the last 20 years gazing out at the world through the windows of planes, busses, cars and trains while on tour with country/folk icon John Prine.
“I was 26 when I started playing in John’s band, and I’m 47 now—it’s been my entire adult life,” Wilber says. “At this point, John and his family, and the guys in the band, they’re like family to me. I love them all, and I love working with them. When I look at what happens between John and an audience, I can’t deconstruct it for you and explain exactly why it’s so brilliant. But I can tell you that something amazing is happening. There’s something about his music that touches people deeply. It’s a special thing, and it’s been a pleasure and a joy to get to be a part of it for so long.”
In Wilber’s multi-decade journey with Prine, the Grammy-winning singer, songwriter, guitarist and producer has graced stages from the Grand Ole Opry to Austin City Limits, Seth Myers & Conan to Letterman & Colbert. And he’s been a key player in high-profile collaborations with a host of legends including Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, Todd Snider, Tom Russell, Miranda Lambert, Susan Tedeschi, Josh Ritter, Kacey Musgraves & more.
“Making records, for me, is a process of discovery,” Wilber says. “Often, the song you thought was gonna be great turns out to be ok, and the one you thought was just ok turns into something amazing. And that’s because of all the collaboration—with the producer, with all the other musicians—and also the unknown, the mystery of what’s gonna unfold when you start working on a song. You can never predict what’s gonna happen. So as you go through the process, you have to keep your ears open for the things that are magic.”
That’s just how the sessions for Wilber’s latest solo LP, Reaction Time, went down. For the second album in a row (the first being 2016’ Echoes), Wilber worked with long-time friend, producer and Bloomington, Ind., music-scene compatriot Paul Mahern. The latter made his bones fronting seminal punk band Zero Boys before embarking on a brilliant career producing and engineering records by the likes of Iggy Pop, Neil Young and Willie Nelson, as well as more recent luminaries such as Magnolia Electric Co. and Okkervil River. Wilber has known Mahern for more than 25 years, and the camaraderie is palpable when you listen to Reaction Time.
“Paul and I have a great work rhythm,” Wilber says. “Making music is of course very spiritual and emotional; it’s a creative, artistic activity, but it’s also the kind of thing where you’ve got to show up every day and get things done. You have to put in the hours and get everything down on tape. Paul and I are very efficient in that way. He has great ideas and insights when it comes to arranging and recording. And I always trust him to be honest in his opinions.”
Glide is premiering the title track off Reaction Time (below), showcasing Wilber’s knack at laying the foundations of folk into a more expansive and rockin’ presentation of song and rhythm. Like his mentor Prine and alt-country stalwarts The Jayhawks, Wilber offers achingly reflective vocals atop a musical backdrop that creates an imaginative sense of belonging for the listener.