Musicheads Essential Album: Bob Dylan, 'Slow Train Coming'

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Bob Dylan 'Slow Train Coming' album cover.
Album art: Bob Dylan's 'Slow Train Coming.' (Columbia)

The first and finest studio statement of Bob Dylan's gospel years, Slow Train Coming brings Muscle Shoals sheen to a set of songs that glow with power and purpose. It's a Musicheads Essential Album.

In spring 1979, Mark Knopfler took a break from a Muscle Shoals recording session with Bob Dylan and called his manager with a surprised observation. "All these songs," said the Dire Straits frontman, "are about God."

Indeed they were. Knopfler had unknowingly signed on as lead guitarist for an album that would officially mark one of the most unexpected turns in a career full of them: after experiencing a vision of Jesus Christ in a Tucson hotel room, Bob Dylan was born again and would spend the next three years preaching the Word of God.

The album released with the title Slow Train Coming on August 20, 1979, would be the first of three LPs now known collectively as Dylan's "gospel trilogy." Slow Train Coming was by far the best-received of the three, and not only does it hold up to this day, it's become a contemporary classic among music of praise.

Produced by R&B vet Jerry Wexler, Slow Train Coming benefits from a deliberate and professional approach that Dylan abandoned for his subsequent gospel releases. The sterling side A opens with statement of purpose "Gotta Serve Somebody," then moves on to the glowing "Precious Angel," the poignant ballad "I Believe in You," and ominous title track "Slow Train."

While there were many fans who didn't care to walk along those apocalyptic tracks, those who did found Dylan striking sparks with Biblical fire. In the years since, songs from Slow Train Coming have been covered by greats like Mavis Stapes, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, and Bettye LaVette.

Slow Train Coming stands as a fascinating document of a brief but important interval in Bob Dylan's career. As Dylan himself pointed out with a typical lack of false modesty, "Jesus himself only preached for three years."

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