Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline at 50
Enjoy this underappreciated and masterful country album before it’s too late, as the new Bootleg Series release is here.
It might just be Dylan’s greatest album cover. Not his most iconic – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan would probably get that nod – but it’s arguably the most compelling photograph of the artist himself on an album cover. A stubble-bearded Dylan smiles with knowing contentment in Elliot Landy’s low-angle shot, holding his Gibson in one hand and tipping his hat with the other, blue sky and Woodstock flora framing the earth-toned subject. The album, which included a duet and an instrumental, elicited no small amount of surprise when it was released fifty years ago, as one of music’s most recognizable singers had apparently adopted an entirely new vocal style. Yet beyond even Dylan’s new, softer croon was another, more confounding question: had the voice of a generation made a country album?
Dylan didn’t just make a country album – he made an elegant and beguiling country masterpiece that stands the test of time, even if the material often gets lost in discussions of Dylan’s best albums or of his greatest songs. Nashville Skyline is worth another listen now, and an appreciation in its own terms before its singular richness gets changed forever with the release of Travelin’ Thru, 1967-1969:The Bootleg Series Vol. 15. To suggest that our understanding of Nashville Skyline will be changed for good may sound like an overstatement – and also like I’m lamenting the latest installment of The Bootleg Series (which I’m not!) – but let me explain. As with all the releases in this indispensable series, Travelin’ Thru is doubtless an embarrassment of riches for devotees and casual fans alike. In addition to the standard fare of alternate versions of album cuts and in this case a song that didn’t make it onto Nashville Skyline, the attraction of Travelin’ Thru for many will be the official release of The Dylan-Cash Sessions, a ragged and stunning two February days in Columbia Studio A in Nashville when two icons of American music played through some favorite tunes while tape rolled. Even if these sessions have been available in unauthorized bootleg form through the years, this is still epic stuff and not to be missed.
Naturally, however – and here’s the rub – The Dylan-Cash Sessions will come, I fear, to overshadow the ten-song, 27-minute country album that was the official product of Dylan’s time in Nashville in February, 1969. At the very least, the joint sessions, along with the outtakes and other material, will become a permanent appendage to the album’s legacy. Once Travelin’ Thru is out, you will hear it every time you listen to Nashville Skyline. Such reframing is the very nature of The Bootleg Series and the genre of archival releases to which it belongs. Other installments of series have had this effect. I can’t, for example, listen to Blood on The Tracks without hearing the haunting alternate versions released last year on More Blood, More Tracks: The Bootleg Series Vol. 14, and nor can I hear tunes like “She Belongs to Me” and “Like A Rolling Stone” without immediately calling to mind the chills-inducing opening and closing tracks respectively of Live 1966, the fourth volume in The Bootleg Series, released over twenty years ago. Under the imprimatur of Columbia Records and of Bob Dylan himself, the Bootleg Series versions become effectively coequal. I do not lament this. Rather, I just want to suggest we appreciate Nashville Skyline for what it is, before we can’t anymore – or before it’s harder, at least.
Nashville Skyline was not the first album Dylan recorded in Nashville, and it wasn’t the second, either. It was the third of an extraordinary three-record run for him on Music Row, following Blonde on Blonde in 1966 and John Wesley Harding in 1967. What’s remarkable about this run are the sharp turns Dylan takes from album to album in terms of sound and style, all the while never really missing a beat. Blonde on Blonde is widely and rightly considered one of the greatest rock albums ever made, achieving what Dylan himself termed “that wild mercury sound” with a mix of New York (Al Kooper, Robbie Robertson) and Nashville session musicians feeding Dylan’s propulsive vocals. The poetry of the songs, charged with electric guitar and harmonica that pierce, is incomparable. But when he returned to the studio in Nashville the following year, Dylan brought in only drummer Kenny Buttrey and bassist Charlie McCoy, both of whom played on Blonde on Blonde. The resulting spare arrangements on John Wesley Harding – just acoustic guitar or piano, harmonica, bass, and drums (with pedal steel on two tracks) – frame perfectly Dylan’s taut poetry, which is here often highly figurative (“wicked messengers,” “drifters,” and “landlords”) and at times about visions of 4th-century Catholic saints. Yet while Nashville Skyline is Dylan’s third trip to the well of Nashville session guys, it sounds nothing like its predecessors: with the exception of the anomalous opening song, the arrangements are warm and full. Understated pedal steel, lead guitar, dobro, and keyboards illumine from the edges Dylan’s new croon. The album swings. It’s not hard to see how this studio sound, on the heels of Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding, caught Dylan fans (and rock critics) off-guard, as there is little doubt that it reads anything other than country.
What did country music sound like in 1969? We can go back the charts to find out – specifically Billboard’s Hot Country Songs. When Dylan arrived in Nashville in February to make his record, Johnny Cash’s recording of the Carl-Perkins-penned “Daddy Sang Bass” was in its sixth and final week atop the charts. This was the only single from Cash’s religious concept album The Holy Land, which comprised original country-gospel studio cuts and spoken narrative reflections by Cash and his wife June recorded on-site as they toured Israel. Cash’s month-and-a-half run at number one was supplanted by Jack Green’s “Until My Dreams Come True” for the final two weeks of February, when Dylan was finishing Nashville Skyline and Cash had gone off to San Quentin to record a live album in front an audience of inmates for the second time in his career. And the month of Nashville Skyline’s release? Bona fide country legends topped the charts: Buck Owens with “Who’s Gonna Mow Your Grass,” Loretta Lynn with “Woman of the World (Leave My World Alone),” and then Glen Campbell with “Galveston.” This is the crowded space Dylan entered with Nashville Skyline. But he had an angle.
Nashville Skyline opens with a duet version of Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country,” a cut from the unrehearsed Dylan-Cash Sessions. Dylan recorded the song for his Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan in 1963; Cash loved Freewheelin’ so much that he wrote to Dylan, thus inaugurating their friendship. On Nashville Skyline, however, the chords are new, simplified. Bob and Johnny strum together and trade verses before attempting to harmonize a bit, which they sometimes do and sometimes do not. The outro is where the spontaneity and beauty of this cut gets you: they alternate parts of the refrain as the chords cycle, the song both new and old at the same time.
I have long wondered about Dylan’s choice to lead off with this one. Why a new, “country” version of one of his own well-known and beloved songs? Why a duet? Yet rather than merely standing out from the rest of the songs on Nashville Skyline – and beyond the novelty (and commercial attraction) of these two important artists in the room together – the opening track functions as a bridge. By rerecording one of his own songs, Dylan begins by drawing a line from his previous work, in this case the supposed “folk” and “protest” songs of Freewheelin’, to the apparent “country” project of Nashville Skyline. This is Dylan at his best, his most chameleonic, upending our expectations and challenging us to try to keep up with him. It also foreshadows the seemingly endless and often stunning reimaginings of his songbook these days on the Never-Ending Tour. Is “Girl from the North Country” a finger-picked folk song or a country duet? That it can be both – that it works as both – means it’s neither exclusively. Knowing we might not immediately see it, Dylan builds this bridge for us from Freewheelin’ to Nashville Skyline, from folk to country. As we try to catch up to him, we realize that his conception of his music is one wherein categories such as “folk” and “country,” or labels such as “protest,” certainly exist but ultimately collapse under the pressure of a larger and more inclusive artistic vision.
The other important link forged by the opening track of Nashville Skyline is the more obvious one: between Dylan and Cash as artists. Travelin’ Thru will feature prominently this musical friendship: on the cover it reads “Featuring Johnny Cash.” The choice to ally with Cash, and to send Nashville Skyline out into the world cosigned by him (literally cosigned in a poem about Dylan Cash wrote for the liner notes), in 1969 is not as straightforward a move as it might seem from the perspective of 2019. When Dylan and Cash got together in Nashville in February, 1969, Cash was on top of the country charts with “Daddy Sang Bass” from The Holy Land. Neither the first nor the last of Cash’s forays into the concept album space, The Holy Land came on the heels of the groundbreaking At Folsom Prison in 1968. Within a week of hosting Dylan during the Nashville Skyline sessions, Cash was reprising his prison-concert success with the blistering At San Quentin. Cash played “Wanted Man” at San Quentin, the song he and Dylan had just co-written in Nashville a few days earlier. Introducing the song on stage, Cash calls Dylan “the greatest writer of our time.” One must conclude that Dylan admired and respected Cash for these moves – and the “country music” he alludes to with the opening track on Nashville Skyline is the “country music” embodied by Johnny Cash’s edginess as an artist: on stage at a penitentiary, and pushing boundaries with concept albums that diverge from the standard country fare of the moment.
The surprises keep coming on Nashville Skyline. The second number, “Nashville Skyline Rag,” is an instrumental Dylan composed that here shows off the chops of the stellar session musicians he and producer Bob Johnston had assembled. It’s a delightful cut: the solos are precise and thoughtful, elegant and playful at the same time. But this is another cagey move by Dylan. By 1969 his songwriting, specifically his heralded lyrics, had become the subject of intense literary, cultural, and at-times political analysis that it remains today. Yet here is Dylan giving us a song without words, a song utterly resistant to the types of analyses his work had become subject to – and that he had always made a show of rejecting because they miss the point. See “Ballad of a Thin Man,” for example. Given that you can’t easily interpret the poetry of an instrumental, what do we have? Dylan is calling our attention to the crack band he has in the studio with him, yes. But he is also foregrounding style – don’t forget that this song’s title contains within it the album title – with flatpicking, pedal steel, and dobro up front. This is not countrypolitan – and it’s not Bakersfield country, nor is it the honky tonk of Dylan’s country heroes from previous generations. Rather, it’s Dylan’s own singular and sublime take on what country music is.
“Is it rolling, Bob?” Dylan famously asks producer Bob Johnston as an open E chord is strummed on the third track of Nashville Skyline, “To Be Alone With You,” heavy on the backbeat. You can hear the piano; it’s ready. Tape is indeed rolling. The band kicks in with gusto; Dylan’s vocals get flanked by tasty chicken-picked licks. The tune is the first of the songs about love that define the rest of the album thematically. There are songs of longing – along with “To Be Alone With You,” we get “Peggy Day, “Lay, Lady, Lay,” and the closing number, “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You.” There are songs of heartache, too: the haunting “I Threw It All Away,” “One More Night,” and “Tell Me That It Isn’t True.” And there are the intriguing oddballs, “Girl from the North Country” and “Nashville Skyline Rag” among them, that always seem to tell us something about what Dylan is up to. “Country Pie” can be added to this list. The song isn’t about love or loss. On the surface it’s about, well, pie – actually, it’s a about all the pies (he doesn’t care; he’ll be there for dinner anyway).
Yet “Country Pie” is also a 95-second-long wink – a rollicking, joyful wink that reminds us that Dylan always knows exactly what he’s doing, which to me is the kind of thing that makes Nashville Skyline always worth a listen. Start with the title. “Country” is the only lyrical reference on the album to the musical genre Dylan is working in (“Nashville” the album title and title of the second song are allusions with a similar effect). If you think it’s a stretch to see Dylan using country pie as a humorous but slick analogue of country music, note that this song also contains two verses about characters who are musicians. We meet Saxophone Joe at the outset; he’s drinking. Then we hear about the Fiddler who plays all night long. In Dylan’s phrasing, country pie is both what Joe and the Fiddler love as well as what they play. There is an enticing parallel here: on Nashville Skyline, country music is what Dylan loves and what he is plays.
By all means inhale Travelin’ Thru now that it’s here – I know I will – but first take a moment with Nashville Skyline on its own terms.
Welcome to Borushko Variorum, a collection of occasional writings (on music, books, sports) and reflections. Coming soon: more on Nashville Skyline as Dylan now plays the tunes; on The Band’s The Band at 50; notes on listening to Travelin’ Thru; on Session Americana’s Northeast; and more. You can subscribe to the newsletter version (it’s free):
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