Mixing business savvy and boldness, Sampas recruited indie musicians who've reinvented Bob Dylan for the era of iPods and digital downloads.
As a producer, Jim Sampas channels classic albums by iconic musicians through fresh voices who interpret them in exciting ways.
Over the last several years, the Holliston, Mass., resident has produced tribute albums to Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska" and the Beatles' "Rubber Soul."
Now he's taken a classic album by the most enigmatic musician of them all and resurrected it for old fans and new listeners.
On Oct. 12, Sampas released "Subterranean Homesick Blues: A Tribute to Bob Dylan's 'Bringing It All Back Home."'
Sampas said, "This was the album I wanted because Dylan was ushering in a new kind of music" that opened the floodgates for Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles and the Doors, who created their own soundtrack for the '60s.
He called Dylan's 1965 album "the starting point for a whole different way of writing songs" and described its opening tune, "Subterranean Homesick Blues," as "the first rap song."
"When Dylan released it, he was breaking away from the folk community that pigeonholed him as a protest singer. Whether it was rebelliousness or self-preservation, he was rejecting that 'spokesman of a generation' label to write introspective songs that delved into his psyche and experiences," Sampas said.
Produced by Sampas' company, ReImagine Music, the Dylan tribute covers all 11 songs from the original but in different formats and includes five bonus tracks from outtakes that have been rarely recorded. It's now available as a download on Amazon and iTunes and similar sites.
On Amazon.com, the 18-track version of originals and outtakes sells for $5.99, while iTunes is selling a 19-track version with three exclusive songs for $7.99. The RollingStone.com (Rolling Stone magazine) is streaming the album at the time this article was written.
A limited edition of 800 vinyl records will be released in November or December and will be sold for $20.
Mixing business savvy and boldness, Sampas recruited indie musicians who've reinvented Dylan for the era of iPods and digital downloads. Performers like Sholi, Asobi Seksu and The Morning Benders will likely be unfamiliar to fans who watched Dylan evolve from a frizzy-haired folkie into an electric guitar-twanging rocker to finally reinvent himself as a musical chameleon.
Sampas said he invited musicians who all came from "a substantial group of indie rockers who play on big indie labels and on college stations, like Emerson College's WERS (in Boston), that reach a whole new generation of listeners."
Singer-guitarist Peter Moren, who began as part of a Stockholm-based trio, sings "Subterranean Homesick Blues" with an industrial beat and a wise guy snarl. Formerly of the Black Cat Orchestra, Mirah turns "Love Minus Zero" into a lament for the mysterious woman who's "true, like ice, like fire."
And Portland, Oregon-based duo Helio Sequence sings the album's signature hit "Mr. Tambourine Man," with a heartfelt intimacy that Dylan rarely achieved.
Sampas said he selected five female musicians "to channel a whole different sound" into the album. "Dylan had a sarcastic, stand-offish persona. With women singers, their approach will make listeners hear these songs in a whole new light," he said.
Sampas hopes his tribute album satisfies longtime fans by giving old favorites a new twist, and he hopes that it draws younger listeners to a one-of-a-kind musician who made the music that they enjoy today possible.
"It's for people of all ages. If you're not familiar with indie music, it's a great album to experience the best of the best. I hope it shows a younger audience Dylan's incredible lyrics and probing psychology," Sampas said.
Once the songs were submitted, Sampas hired Ivo Matos, guitarist for the Boston-based band Joshua Tree, to master them (sometimes tweaking an arrangement or bringing out vocals buried in a mix of instrument).
Devoted fans who've memorized lyrics to the 7 1/2-minute "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands" will discover indie singers have mostly breathed new life into Dylan's songs. With voices very different from Dylan's nasal twang, they deliver nuanced treatments that add new dimensions to songs ingrained in fans' memories.
Tackling legends is nothing new for Sampas.
Born in Lowell, Mass., he's the nephew by marriage of Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac. Also a Lowell native, several years before his death, Kerouac married Stella Sampas, the sister of Jim Sampas' father.
Formerly a singer-songwriter who performed throughout the area and released a CD, Sampas got his start producing albums in 1997 with "Joy, Kicks, Darkness," a spoken word tribute to Kerouac in which musicians like Michael Stipe, Patti Smith and Eddie Vedder read, recited and sang passages from his writings.
Last year he produced "One Fast Move or I'm Gone: Kerouac's Big Sur," a critically acclaimed documentary about the author's struggles with unwanted celebrity and alcoholism. He's also produced, with musicians Jay Farrar of Volt and Benjamin Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, an album of songs based on passages from Kerouac's novel "Big Sur."
Dylan has fascinated Sampas since 1975 when, as a 10-year-old, he accompanied his father and poet Allan Ginsberg to a concert in Lowell, which kicked off his Rolling Thunder Revue.
For now, Sampas is pleased to have finished a longtime dream.
"Years ago, an earlier Dylan project fell through. I went on to other stuff but it kept nagging at me," he said. "I really dug in and finally got it finished."
Sampas is sticking with icons for his next project.
He's rounding up "alt country" musicians to interpret memorable Rolling Stones songs from all their albums.
"I've produced 11 records since I began, and I've gotten to know all the different aspects of the job," Sampas said. "For me, it's all about creating an atmosphere that makes the contributing artists feel comfortable."
To learn more about Jim Sampas' new tribute album, visit www.Reimaginemusic.com.
To hear "A Tribute to Bob Dylan" streaming on RollingStone.com, visit http://www1.rollingstone.com/hearitnow/player.php?xmlData=dylan_tribute/dylan_stream.xml.