Bob Dylan ‘Nashville Skyline’ CBS Records 1969
His Bobness returns this month for yet another Australasian tour. This prompts me to review one of his 38 studio albums, many of which haven’t strayed far from my turntable since the day I bought them.
The legend that is Bob Dylan needs no discussion groups or analysis. The winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature with a discography second to none and over 50 years of performing. Bob doesn’t have to answer for anything. And trust me he’s worth seeing just to see his guitarist Charlie Sexton in action.
Every Dylan fan will have their favorite album. Whether its Blood on the Tracks, Highway 61 or Blonde on Blonde, every serendipitous moment of his catalogue has become part of the soundtrack of our lives.
For me the young Bob tipping his fedora holding an acoustic guitar (Gibson J-200 Super Jumbo – Ed) on the cover of ‘Nashville Skyline’ is as good as it gets. It was his ninth studio album recorded over 4 days at Columbia Studio Nashville Tennessee and his first foray into pure country music.
Bob had to fight with CBS management to make this album. The Exec’s wanted a ‘rock’ sound but Bob wanted something different. He wanted to go to Nashville and he wanted to have some fun.
Having had the vault raided by record company execs the last couple of decades we’ve seen the release of an endless array of box sets, lost tapes and official bootlegs. For the faithful this might seem like a bastard act yet for many the selection of Bob product on the streets is nothing short of Dylan nirvana.
While visiting a record shop in southern California I asked the manager named ‘Wave’ what would the current Dylan release be like. His reply was succinct: “why would one of the greatest songwriters in the world record an album of somebody’s else’s songs?” Good question, but with Bob you never know what to expect next.
So it was the summer of ‘69 and I had been listening to John Wesley Harding courtesy of a cousin whose musical taste I hadn’t accounted for and along came ‘Nashville Skyline’. My little Krysler stereogram with the foldout turntable like a cocktail serving bar had never worked so hard.
This was Bob’s country album featuring a duet with no less than Johnny Cash on the opening. Mr Cash also offers some very endearing liner notes ending with an accolade to the 28 year old Dylan: “Here-in is a hell of a poet. And lots of other things”.
It’s ironic that Nashville Skyline has been released on the audiophile wet dream of 160 gram vinyl. Skyline clocks in at a mere 27 minutes. The run-out space on the vinyl is nearly as much as the playing surface, yet the music is so pure and simple it would sound great coming through a loud hailer - or the tinny speaker of a Krysler stereogram.
So, our ears and listening equipment have become more sophisticated but Nashville Skyline is still a pure joy to listen to. I know every nuance and quirky note in these 27 minutes of music.
Starting with ‘Girl From The North Country’ Bob almost sounding angelic alongside the gruff tones of The Man in Black. In unison Bob and Johnny will bring tears to your eyes. That chorus is timeless:
“Remember me to the one who lives there
for she once was a true love of mine”
The instrumental ‘Nashville Skyline Rag’ features Peter Drake on pedal steel guitar dueling along with guitar and piano. The session guys are a strong feature of this album throughout. Dylan knew the sound he wanted and deliberately sought out the ‘Nashville Cats’ Drake, Charlie McCoy, Kenny Buttrey, Charlie Daniels and Norman Blake.
One of the most famous intro’s in recorded music follows: “is it rolling Bob?” asks Dylan to producer Bob Johnston before the foot tapping ‘To Be Alone with You’ enhanced by Bob Wilson’s honky-tonk piano.
Track three, like all the songs on Nashville Skyline is another Dylan composition. ‘I Threw It All Away‘ is a love song of regret:
“One things for certain,
you will surely be a hurtin’,
If you throw it all away“
Its melodrama in stark contrast to side one’s closer ‘Peggy Day’. “Love to Spend the Night with Peggy Day” ending with a burlesque style crescendo. Here is Dylan singing nothing but a simple melodic tune, with no hidden meanings, no politics and no irony – music critics were shocked!
Side two opens with what must surely be one the smoothest seduction songs ever written. The subtle slide guitar with cowbell tapping heralds ‘Lay Lady Lay‘. Dylan croons the line
“Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed
Stay, lady, stay, stay with your man awhile
Until the break of day, let me see you make him smile”
His voice changed from its high nasal twang to a lower register croon. Dylan attributed his "new" voice to having quit smoking before recording the album.
The decade of the 60’s although coming to a close was renowned for its promiscuity. In a 3 minute song Bob had given the thumbs up to a bedroom dalliance.
‘One More Night‘ is another love song but this time Bob’s trying to sing his way back between the sheets, and even name-dropping himself:
“Just one more night is all that
Bobby's askin' for that
Special feeling from you
That you can only give back”
It’s pop meets country with ‘Tell me That it Isn’t True’.
You got to love the organ notes punctuating lines like:
“They say you been seeing some another man,
that he’s tall dark and handsome and your holding his hand”
Dylan seems to handle relationship loss with a laconic plea “Just tell me it isn’t true”
Another fast ditty ‘Country Pie’ again its jaunty pace livened up by a crack band. This is pure country hoe-down which sees the Nashville Cats run off the leash a little.
To close Bob seems to have resolved his jilted life in the positive with ‘Tonight I’ll be Staying Here With You’.
There you have it 27 minutes and a most enjoyable simple country album from the exalted Bob Dylan.