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Robbie Robertson, Guitarist and Songwriter With the Band, Dies at 80


Robbie Robertson, the chief composer and lead guitarist for the Band, whose work offered a rustic vision of America that seemed at once mythic and authentic, in the process helping to inspire the genre that came to be known as Americana, died on Wednesday in Los Angeles. He was 80.

His manager, Jared Levine, said he died after a long illness.

The songs Mr. Robertson wrote for the Band used enigmatic lyrics to evoke a hard and colorful America of yore. With uncommon conviction, they conjured a wild place, often centered in the South, peopled by rough-hewed characters, from the defeated Confederate soldier in “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” to the tough union worker of “King Harvest Has Surely Come” to the shady creatures in “Life Is a Carnival.”

The music he matched to his passionate yarns mined the roots of every essential American genre, including folk, country, blues and gospel. Yet when his history-minded compositions first appeared on albums by the Band in the late 1960s, they felt vital as well as vintage.

“I wanted to write music that felt like it could’ve been written 50 years ago, tomorrow, yesterday — that had this lost-in-time quality,” Mr. Robertson said in a 1995 interview for the public television series “Shakespeare in the Alley.”

Speaking of the Band in the 2020 documentary “Once Were Brothers,” Bruce Springsteen said, “It’s like you’d never heard them before and like they’d always been there.”

In its day, the Band’s music also stood out by inverting the increasing volume and mania of psychedelic rock, and also by sidestepping its accent on youthful rebellion. “We just went completely left when everyone else went right,” Mr. Robertson said.

The ripple effect of that sound and image — first unveiled on the Band’s first album, “Music From Big Pink,” released in 1969 — went wide on impact, landing the group on the cover of Time magazine in 1970 and inspiring a host of major artists to create their own homespun amalgams, from the Grateful Dead’s 1971 album, “American Beauty,” to Elton John’s “Tumbleweed Connection,” released that same year. The Band’s music so affected Mr. Robertson’s fellow guitarist Eric Clapton that he lobbied for entry into their ranks. (The offer was politely declined.) A quarter-century later, the Band’s music provided a key template for the acts first labeled Americana, including Son Volt, Wilco and Lucinda Williams, as well as for their sonic heirs.

A complete obituary will appear shortly.


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