NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Dylan Country a Good Place to Be

Country Artists Interpret the Country Side of the Songwriter

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Over the Fourth of July holiday while driving to a family reunion at the old farmplace in Kentucky, I was fishing around in my highly fuel-efficient, small SUV for some good music to play and happened upon the recent CD Dylan Country, and it proved to be a perfect choice.

Bob Dylan was greatly influenced by country music — by Hank Williams in particular — and he in turn so influenced country himself that his songs are a perfect soundtrack for actually driving into the country. From glimpsing the real Nashville skyline in my rearview mirror while listening to Earl Scruggs and Dylan picking on the latter’s “Nashville Skyline Rag” to cruising by the Corvette museum in Bowling Green to sailing past the rolling green hills and tobacco barns of Boone County, Dylan’s music is attuned to the country sensibility, and the songs and artist choices on this album generally bear that out well.

Dylan, of course, began his career by emulating the great populist songwriter Woody Guthrie, who will one day be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame once all the mossback Hall of Fame voters who hate Guthrie because they think he was a Communist die off. And, hey, there’s the off chance that people will start to consider Dylan for that Hall of Fame thing, too. Stranger things have happened. Anyway, I was saying that I sense that Dylan has always been the kind of songwriter that country songwriters at their best are: writers who graphically present the human drama set to song.

This album is not a tribute in the sense of the usual hosanna of current country artists rushing to cut something by the old fart in question who’s being honored, which usually doesn’t work. This is a collection of pre-existing album cuts and singles, making this undoubtedly a low-budget proposition for Shout! Factory, the new compilation label launched by some refugees from the well-regarded re-issue and compilation company, Rhino Records.

I’m no sound engineer, but I would venture a guess that there has been absolutely no remastering of the original recordings here. Some of the cuts — Waylon Jennings’ especially — sound as if they’re coming through a closed door. There’s enough mud on these tracks to sink a worthier vessel than this. Thankfully, these songs and performances are strong enough to shine through the murk

By and large, this is an interesting array of Dylan covers here. There are some obvious omissions: Emmylou Harris’ “Every Grain of Sand” from her Wrecking Ball album, Jerry Lee Lewis’ spirited take on “Rita Mae” (from his 1979 album Jerry Lee Lewis), the Seldom Scene’s “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” and both Glen Campbell’s and Jennings’ early recordings of “I Don’t Believe You.” And, of course, Flatt & Scruggs’ many Dylan covers. Campbell is well-represented here by a very credible delivery of “If Not for You.” And there’s one curious inclusion: Jennifer Warnes is not terribly country.

Jennings’ 1964 recording of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice” was a single release on A&M Records and later appeared on the A&M album Don’t Think Twice. Besides Dylan songs, Jennings was also cutting Beatles songs early on in his career.

Tim O’Brien recorded the fine 1996 album of Dylan songs Red on Blonde (Tim, you see, is redheaded and Dylan did Blonde on Blonde in Nashville) from which comes this superb interpretation of “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

Norman Blake duets with Peter Ostroushko here on “Restless Farewell.” Blake played on Dylan’s third Nashville album, Nashville Skyline. Cash dueted with Dylan on that album’s “Girl From the North Country,” and Cash also won a Grammy for his liner notes on the project. Cash is represented on Dylan Country with a brassy version of “It Ain’t Me Babe” with wife June Carter Cash accompanying him.

Harris has acknowledged Dylan as a major influence and sang backing vocals on his 1976 album Desire. Here, she runs through a very spirited, rocking bluegrassy version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece.”

You expect to see the Byrds (“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”), Nanci Griffith (“Boots of Spanish Leather”) and Earl Scruggs (“Nashville Skyline Rag” with Dylan), but Buck Owens is not someone you expect to pop up on a Dylan project. He turns in a likable, non-Buck version of “Love Minus Zero/No Limit.” Hank Williams Jr. provides a raucous and spirited take on “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.” He recorded it on his 1970 MGM album (recorded with the Mike Curb Congregation) All for the Love of Sunshine.

Kitty Wells is another artist you don’t automatically associate with Dylan. But I have always loved her rather wholesome version of “Forever Young.” She cut that in 1974 on an album of the same name with members of the Allman Brothers and Marshall Tucker, including Dickey Betts, Toy Caldwell and Chuck Leavell. In 1974, the Queen of Country Music had been more or less left behind by modern Nashville, so Wells demonstrated her well-known independent streak by not only recording with rock ’n’ roll musicians but by recording Dylan (and Otis Redding as well). That was pretty defiant for mainstream country at the time. Two years later she was finally voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Willie Nelson co-wrote “Heartland” for his 1993 album Across the Borderline, from which comes this duet with Dylan.

Dylan’s collaborations with Johnny Cash, including his appearance on Cash’s network TV show, did much to break down Nashville’s (and country music’s) hostility to and insulation from the outside world.

His Nashville recording sessions were important — apart from recording some great music — especially in that he more or less opened up Nashville as a recording center for rock ’n’ rollers of all stripes. Along the way, he demonstrated that the Nashville way of doing things musically was not so different from the rock ’n’ roll ideal. His first Nashville record, Blonde on Blonde, was recorded with Nashville’s top session players and remains a rock landmark album. Incidentally, Kris Kristofferson, an aspiring songwriter, was working as a janitor at the Columbia Records studio where Dylan recorded Blonde on Blonde. Dylan’s second Nashville album demonstrated Nashville’s influence on him. After a tour promoting Blonde on Blonde, he was gravely injured in a motorcycle wreck in 1966. After his recovery, he returned to Nashville to cut John Wesley Harding which reflected a return to his acoustic past and to more austere, realistic songwriting. Then with Nashville Skyline, he recorded an openly country album.

But it’s mostly as a songwriter that Dylan influenced country. His impact on songwriting in general is immeasurable. He was also a pied piper for young firebrands in Nashville, such as Kristofferson and Jennings, and his unconventional writing showed experimenters such as Nelson that it was possible to do things differently.

There have always been roughly two kinds of songwriters in Nashville: the poets and the carpenters. The poets write from inspiration and from life. The carpenters can turn up at a 9 a.m. Monday co-writing session to knock out a song about a teen-aged pregnancy or a pick-up truck or a dead dog. Dylan pointed out the difference to people in Nashville.

Dylan also accelerated the growth curve in radicalizing Nashville toward progressive music. Kristofferson would not have wrought his songwriting revolution without his influence and groundbreaking work. Dylan was also a factor in the dissolution of the great bluegrass band Flatt & Scruggs and the Foggy Mountain Boys. Flatt & Scruggs recorded 1969’s Nashville Airplane with four Dylan songs after 1968’s Changin’ Times which had five Dylan songs.

He really did cause Flatt & Scruggs’ breakup. Lester Flatt greatly resented Scruggs’ leaning toward modern, progressive songs, especially the Dylan material. Final Fling, released in 1970 after their 1969 breakup, contained no less than seven Dylan songs. The album’s cover drawing showed Lester rather sourly regarding Earl from behind him. Earl Scruggs: an unlikely revolutionary, radicalized by Bob Dylan.