When George Harrison died last Nov. 29, radio airwaves were so jammed by stations playing ”While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” there was nary a moment’s remembrance for another low-key notable the music world lost: Nelson Wilbury. Harrison and his whimsical alter ego were the formative catalyst for the Traveling Wilburys, the easy-strummin’ supergroup that included Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and Electric Light Orchestra’s Jeff Lynne (a.k.a. Wilbury sibs Lucky, Charlie T. Jr., Lefty, and Otis, respectively).
Released on Oct. 25, 1988, Traveling Wilburys Volume One was an unlikely offshoot of Harrison’s ’87 comeback album, Cloud Nine (which featured the hit ”Got My Mind Set on You”). Lynne had produced the ex-Beatle’s LP, and the pair needed to come up with a B side for a European single. Lynne was also working with Orbison, and the three decided to collaborate. Harrison swung by Petty’s to retrieve a guitar he’d left, and, as Petty later recalled, ”I wasn’t doing anything, so I joined.” Dylan’s involvement, meanwhile, apparently had less to do with the fact that Petty had just toured with him than simple logistics: Dylan had a home studio in Malibu that was free.
Within weeks, the group cut a full-fledged album. The singles ”Handle With Care” and ”End of the Line” didn’t crack Billboard’s Top 40, but Volume One did ring up multiplatinum sales, rising to No. 3 on the charts — all gravy, in Lynne’s view at the time. ”It’s a relief to everybody to be able to do something a bit off-the-wall,” Lynne said. This spirit was evident throughout the album, from the group’s name — ”wilbury” was a Harrison-and-Lynne-ism for studio recording glitches — to the liner notes, penned by Monty Python alum Michael Palin.
Following Orbison’s fatal heart attack just weeks after the album’s release, the group forged ahead with a follow-up, 1990’s playfully titled Volume 3. But talk of a third album never amounted to anything; ditto for the group’s flirtations with touring, which threatened to make this ”fun” gig a little too much like real work. ”I kept getting down on my knees in front of George, saying, ‘Please! It’s so much money,”’ Petty said. ”[But] like George says, I can’t see waking up in a hotel in Philadelphia and having to do a Wilburys sound check.”
Lynne coproduced Harrison’s posthumous collection Brainwashed (due Nov. 19), so the Wilbury connection does, in a sense, live on. But the band’s current out-of-print status on CD hardly helps. It seems the Wilbury boys have a ways left to travel.