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Highway 65 Revisited: Talking Bob Dylan In Nashville

An  otherwise  scholarly discussion about Bob Dylan’s Nashville recordings suddenly got lively at the Country Music Hall of Fame. British songwriter and panelist Robyn Hitchcock introduced the theory that if you turn the cover of John Wesley Harding upside down, underneath a bar of white in the tree you can see images of the Beatles.  Hitchcock then asked the audio visual tech to put it on the screen and voila, Hitchcock’s theory was on full display and streamed for the entire world to see.

Impromptu or not, Hitchcock’s theatrical surprise had the feeling as if new science was being presented at AmericanaFest. The discussion, Dylan Disc By Disc: The Nashville Recordings, occurred as the Country Music Hall of Fame brought together a panel around its exhibition Dylan, Cash and The Nashville Cats: A New Music City. The panel was moderated by journalist Jon Bream, who has written for the Minneapolis Star for over forty years and is author of the book Dylan: Disc By Disc.  Hitchcock admitted it was something he picked up in the British underground press "when there was one."

Earlier it seemed the baton had been passed to Hitchcock following a question Bream asked Washington Post writer and author Geoffrey Himes. Himes is one of the writers who is paired with Jason Isbell and was interviewed about Blonde on Blonde. The book features chapters on each of Dylan’s thirty-six studio albums. Himes is now writing a new book called “In-Laws and Outlaws” about Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, Emmylou Harris and others. Bream cited Dylan’s comment that Blonde on Blonde was the closest he ever got to “wild mercury soul,” the sound he once described being like “metallic bright gold.” Bream then asked Himes to interpret what Dylan meant.

When Himes struggled to find the words, he turned to Hitchcock, acknowledging his love of “Visons of Johanna.”  It provided an opening for the verbally effusive Hitchcock who was quotable for the afternoon. And just maybe Hitchcock was using the panel as a warm-up for the preamble he’d deliver later that night for Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch as they received an Americana Music Association lifetime achievement award.

“He was doing an interview about something he did twelve years ago so he had to say something,” Hitchcock surmised. Al Kooper once described Blonde on Blonde as “the sound of 3:00 in the morning.”

“If he had done the interview at lunch, he might have said it was ‘lemon green, a squiggly record with a lot of sponge,’” Hitchcock added to much laughter.

Bream moderated the panel which also featured singer and actor Marshall Chapman, author Holly George-Warren and pedal steel guitarist Pete Finney who co-curated the exhibition and produced its companion CD. It runs through the end of 2016.

Finney recounted how the recently deceased producer Bob Johnston introduced Dylan to Country Hall of Fame member Charlie McCoy at a New York session. Given he was already there, McCoy was invited him to play on a song. McCoy just didn’t know “Desolation Row,” would go on for more than ten minutes. Finney calls McCoy’s virtuoso guitar work a take on Grady Martin and “El Paso.”

When Bream asked the inevitable question “Why Nashville?”  Finney responded first, saying it was all about the great musicians. There was also the allure of a place where there were “no clocks on the wall,” something not literally but metaphorically. Dylan had also been frustrated that he only had one song out of the studio sessions with his touring band the Hawks. When he got to Nashville, he met other musicians his own age who were versed in r &b and played Jimmy Reed songs at clubs for fun. There was what Finney calls a “common language.”

Finney wanted to dispel the misconception that developed over the years that Robbie Robertson felt a “coldness” playing in Nashville. He said that Robertson, who had previously come to Nashville in 1960 with Hawks founder Ronnie Hawkins, talked to him during the research for the exhibit and Robertson acknowledged that Nashville had a system that worked.

“They might have been doing a Porter Wagoner session in the morning," Finney said about the session men. "All of a sudden all bets were off and they could just go with what felt right. It was not so much a challenge as freedom and opportunity. Whatever perceptions there were like north vs south, or hippies and establishment, disappeared with the first take or two.”  

By the time Dylan came back to Nashville to record John Wesley Harding, Himes’ favorite of all, he came to the city with a fully-formed album, different than what he’d done earlier in his “return to roots” during The Basement Tapes. Holly George-Warren, who is paired with Marshall Chapman on Bream’s chapter about Nashville Skyline, recently published a biography of Alex Chilton and is working on one about Janis Joplin. She talked about the cover shots featuring two brothers that Dylan’s manager met in India and were living on manager Albert Grossman’s estate in Woodstock. The other person with Dylan is a local stonemason and carpenter named Charlie Joy who did work on Grossman’s property. Grossman hosted John and June Carter Cash among others and what was described as the “epicenter of cool.”

The last two songs on the album, “Down Along The Cover” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” featured pedal steel guitarist Pete Drake and were a harbinger of what was to come over a year later on Nashville Skyline. The cover, which was described during the panel discussion as the happiest picture ever shot of Dylan, was taken in Woodstock. Dylan chose a reworking of “Girl From The North Country” from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan to open the album as a duet with Johnny Cash.

Marshall Chapman, who declared Nashville Skyline to be “the first Americana album," said: “Imagine if you went to your record company and said ‘We’re going to do a duet on the opening track and it will be followed by an instrumental.’ That’s why he gets to do it and we don’t.” It was said that then Columbia Records president Clive Davis didn’t want Dylan to include the word “Nashville” in the title. The panel agreed that Dylan made a statement, rejecting both his own iconic status and the counterculture at a time when society was getting more polarized.

Himes summed it up by saying: “He was saying ‘I don’t care if country is uncool. These are the songs I love.’ I’m going to play these songs with these musicians because it’s great music and I don’t care if it’s hip or not.’”

For Finney, while tempting to see Nashville Skyline as a country album, he feels it’s more reflective of a return to the pre-rock and roll, rockabilly and crooning influences he first heard in childhood.

Building on Chapman's comment that Nashville Skyline is the first Americana album. Himes added that Dylan’s coming to Nashville made Americana possible.

Someone mentioned that “I Threw It All Away” was written on a notepad at the Ramada Inn. It brought up how the former hotel (since leveled for a parking lot) was the unofficial headquarters of the Johnny Cash Show. Chapman recalled memories of being in a “Forrest Gump Gidget  moment” being at the Ramada, sitting on the edge of Kris Kristofferson’s bed listening to a new song he was writing. “He kept sing ‘la de dah dah de da da’ and I’m thinking ‘It’s really dumb that he couldn’t think of any words to that song.’”

Perhaps time was running over but the panel seemed disinclined to talk about “Self-Portrait,” some of which was recorded in Nashville.  Following on Finney’s comments about Dylan’s crooning influences, it was mentioned there was an outtake of “Blue Moon.” Dylan attempts an over the top stab at crooning and starts to laugh, saying “I don’t know if I can do this.’”

Hitchcock, now living in the once mystical place he first learned about on Blonde on Blonde, notes that the differentiation of Dylan’s voice on each album marks the progression of time in the Sixties. Hitchcock says he will forevermore meander in those years from 1965-1970.

If Dylan, more than anything else you can point to, helped Nashville open up as a musical destination over the next five years, Nashville left its mark on Dylan. Citing his recent album of Frank Sinatra standards which has pedal steel accents, Finney concluded: “He never returned to Nashville but he rarely travels without a pedal steel guitar player."