Bob Dylan - Nashville Skyline (1968)
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In Nashville on February 17th 1969, coincidence found two old friends coming together for the first time in several years. Bob Dylan had just started work on his follow-up to the highly successful John Wesley Harding (1967) and Johnny Cash was next door, likely about to begin recording Hello, I’m Johnny Cash (1970), his first studio album since Everybody Love’s a Nut (1966).
Perhaps to break away from their own recording schedules and to catch up on old times and old tunes, Cash and Dylan decided to put aside some time to work on material together. Over the course of two days the pair recorded enough music to fill an entire duets record. Though the album was never fully released (it has been thoroughly bootlegged), Dylan was extremely pleased with one of the tracks from these sessions and chose it to be the first thing audiences would hear when they played his new record Nashville Skyline.
The track is “Girl from the North Country”, a reworked version of an old Dylan track from his 1963 masterpiece The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. While the original bounces with jaunty and complex fingerpicking, the Nashville Skyline version is a slow and lazy three-chord ballad, revolving in circles around Dylan and Cash’s crooning vocals. This “Girl from the North Country” is far less urgent than the original and is riddled with wonderful imperfections. During the fourth verse, Cash mistakenly harmonises “please say hello” over Dylan’s “remember me”. The track gives the impression of two old friends sitting together on a porch surrounded by empty beer bottles, strumming out a tune for old times’ sake.
The entire Nashville Skyline sounds like Dylan is singing for old times’ sake, though Dylan had never sounded like this on record before. In the years leading up to its release, Dylan had turned his back on rock and roll and found himself again wandering the lonely roads of country and roots. John Wesley Harding barely featured any electric guitar (an instrument which squealed all over his releases between 1965 and 1966) and contained far less of the stream-of-consciousness and surrealist lyrics he had favoured since (at least) Bringing it all Back Home (1965). Though most were shocked by John Wesley Harding’s drastic change of sound, the album feels more like Dylan’s segue into the full country immersion of Nashville Skyline.
Dylan had fully grasped the straightforward country sound of Nashville Skyline prior to settling down to begin recording the album on February 12th. Two tracks are known to have definitely be completed beforehand (“Lay Lady Lay” and “I Threw it All Away”) and it seems from the simplistic nature of the lyrics and melodies of these tracks Dylan was already resigned to recording an album far more mellow than the thematically rich John Wesley Harding. Throughout Nashville Skyline, Dylan sounds the most relaxed and comfortable on record since at least the first time Dylan sung “Girl From a North Country” in a New York studio way back in April 1963.
Throughout Nashville Skyline, Dylan’s complete comfort in his own skin is reflected in the sounds produced by his equally relaxed studio band. Following the gloriously comfortable album-opening duet with Johnny Cash, Dylan and his band of Nashville session musician mainstays move into another of the albums most exciting tracks, “Nashville Skyline Rag”. The track is the first instrumental to appear on a Bob Dylan studio record and features some extremely lively duelling solo’s from a majority of the studio’s musicians. The soloing here contains a certain clarity and unity which Dylan could never quite capture when he was recording with the egocentric The Hawks (later known as The Band). There is no denying that Dylan’s decision to record with session musicians allowed him more control over the material and the results certainly attest to that.
Nashville Skyline’s third track “To Be Alone with You” offers Dylan’s now infamous Nashville Skyline crooner voice to the listener fully for the first time. Though loathed by many, his country-imitative vocals are warmer and kinder on the ears than his abrasive poet’s voice of the years prior. Like the rest of the sounds on the record, his vocals further engulf the listener in the artist’s apparent joy and relaxation at the time of recording. When Dylan sings “It’s shameful and it’s sad/I’ve lost the only pal I had” on the remarkable Side B track “One More Night”, it almost sounds like he is resigned to the sorrows of which he sings.
Sorrow cripples at least half the tracks on Nashville Skyline, though Dylan seems to be okay with that. “I Threw it All Away” could easily be one of the saddest love songs Dylan had written since 1962’s “Tomorrow is Such a Long Time” and 1963’s “Boots of Spanish Leather”. The imagery on “I Threw It All Away” is effortlessly majestic: “Once I had mountains in the palm of my hand/And rivers that ran through ev’ry day/I must have been mad/I never knew what I had/Until I threw it all away.” The melancholy of lost love is matched by delicate organ, soft nylon string guitar and a four-four beat which plods along at a devastatingly slow pace. “I Threw It All Away” is Nashville Skyline's most gorgeous ballad and hints at the lyrical melancholy of “Tell Me That it isn’t True” and “One More Night”.
Thankfully Nashville Skyline isn’t all sorrow and sadness. At the close of Side A Dylan returns to the playful upbeat country of “Nashville Skyline Rag” with another joyous bouncer cleverly titled “Peggy Day”. Orbiting the play on words “I’d love to spend a night with Peggy Day” and “I’d love to spend a day with Peggy Night”, Dylan successfully exudes a playful flipside to the sorrow of “I Threw It All Away”. Furthermore, “Peggy Day’s” wonderful Elvis Presley-influenced conclusion never fails to leave a smile upon the face. Despite the tracks undeniable charms, “Peggy Day” remains one of the most hated songs on Nashville Skyline, second only to its Side B sister track “Country Pie.”
Bob Dylan biographer and discographer Clifton Heylin gives these two tracks less than a sentence each in his otherwise extensive compendium of Dylan’s music “Revolution in the Air: The Songs of Bob Dylan Vol.1: 1957-73”. Heylin claims that the songs were thrown together with little or no thought, labelling them as “frankly, embarrassing", going on to state that "one can’t help but wonder what the Nashville cats thought about such un-Dylanesque drivel”. Although Dylan certainly did write and record these songs quite quickly and carelessly, it can be argued that that is Nashville Skyline’s entire charm. That carelessness is exactly the point.
Hated though these tracks may be, there is no denying the immense popularity of Nashville Skyline’s lead single and centrepiece “Lay Lady Lay.” Kenny Buttrey’s playful bongos and cowbell dance around Pete Drake’s unforgettable pedal steel guitar swirl while Bob Wilson’s smooth organ lies beneath the entire palate. Dylan’s bizarre chord progression of A, C#m, G and D holds his unusually hook-laden melody and its earworm refrain comfortably. Not only did “Lay Lady Lay” manage to successfully propel Dylan’s country persona onto the world, the song’s simplicity introduced Bob Dylan to those who found his earlier work impenetrable and the song remains the third highest charting Bob Dylan single behind “Like A Rolling Stone” and “Rainy Day Women #12 & #35”.
The success of Nashville Skyline continued when Dylan shyly performed for 10 minutes on the season premiere of The Johnny Cash Show. Dylan performed “I Threw It All Away” and the non-album track “Living the Blues” fittingly backed by a black screen before joining Johnny Cash for an exceptionally loose version of “Girl From the North Country.” The entire episode (which also features The Carter Family, Joni Mitchell and The Statler Brothers) is wholly unforgettable and certainly worth viewing.
Despite the undeniable commercial success of Nashville Skyline, the album still remains one of the least praised records of Dylan’s entire 1960s output. Though it is easy to dissociate Nashville Skyline from his history-changing “peak” releases (The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Bringing it all Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited (1965) and Blonde on Blonde (1966)) one can’t help but regard this haphazard country gem with almost equal importance.
Just as The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan helped popularise folk music, Nashville Skyline helped shine the light back on country and roots. Alongside The Band’s Music for the Big Pink (1968) and The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968), Nashville Skyline would prove crucial in the burgeoning country-rock movement which dominated the charts throughout the early 1970s. As psychedelic rock climaxed at Woodstock in 1969, artists turned from the drug-riddled sounds which had dominated the charts since 1965 and sought influence from laid-back country, blues and roots music. Artists like Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Eagles, James Taylor, Linda Rondstadt and Neil Young would find great success with this sound during the years following the depletion of psychedelic rock.
With this in mind it is impossible not to regard Nashville Skyline (and John Wesley Harding) as having a crucial effect on bucking the trends of popular music and popular culture. Though neither of these Dylan releases would prove to be as important or bold as Music From the Big Pink or Sweetheart of the Rodeo (both of which are drenched in Dylan’s influence anyway), there is no denying Nashville Skyline is one of the highest creative peaks in the career of a man who would arguably have more highs than any other artist. Just don’t ask about what Dylan would do next.