NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Hank Williams Shaped Bob Dylan’s Natural Soul

Looking in on Bob Through His Memoir

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

It occurred to me last night that you and I haven’t gotten around to talking about the new Bob Dylan memoir, Chronicles, Volume One (Simon & Schuster). Well, I mean it’s fairly new; it came out in October. But I just reread it in one setting, and that makes me want to urge you to read it, even if you’ve never heard of Bob Dylan — if that’s possible.

Why? For one thing, this is the most revealing and enlightening window on and commentary on American popular culture and music of the last half of the 20th century you’re ever likely to read. Two, Bob Dylan has never written a memoir, and I was amazed that he has, since in the past he’s revealed very little about himself or his inner workings. Third, you need to read the story of the man who threw the brick through the show window of American popular culture in the 1960s (and, after he climbed through that shattered window, was followed by a predictable parade of fellow rebels, then followers and ultimately imposters and parasites). Fourth, it turns out that Dylan is a marvelous prose writer (a revelation to anyone who attempted to navigate through Tarantula, his dense tome published in 1971 and described at the time as a “fragmentary novel”). And, finally, Dylan is the most important figure in American popular music of the past four decades or so. Right next to Willie. And Ray. And Johnny.

But Bob Dylan is in his own universe, and it’s a pleasure to be invited in, if only for a short stay. His eye for detail is unerring and he seems to have total recall. I do know that the one time I interviewed him he knew things about me that surprised me.

He is also an incredibly smooth name-dropper — but, hey, he does know everybody, after all. Even I know personally several of the people mentioned in the book, and I was amazed to see the name of a once-great singer turned heroin junkie whom I had to once physically throw out of my Manhattan apartment.

In reading the early reviews of this book, especially the pre-publication leaks, I kept seeing over and over again assertions that the book wasn’t chronological, that it didn’t cover his entire life (the words Volume One should have been a clue there to reviewers) and that it wasn’t totally linear. In other words, it was like one of his songs. Great!

Chronicles makes perfect sense to me: It’s an odyssey of his path in becoming a songwriter, then developing into a performer and then dealing with celebrity hood. But it’s his journey to songwriting that is the most fascinating. He traces intricate paths from his first idol Woody Guthrie though Fred Neil and Dave Van Ronk and Robert Johnson and Bertolt Brecht and Thucydides to William Faulkner to Johnny Rivers to the artist Red Grooms to the wrestler Gorgeous George.

But it’s Hank Williams, as much or more than Woody Guthrie, who seems to have most shaped his musical beliefs. He first met Hank Williams’ music while listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio, and he came to later treasure Williams’ solemn songs and recitations as Luke the Drifter, of songs and tales of salvation and loss, of sin and redemption. “When I hear Hank sing,” Dylan writes, “all movement ceases. The slightest whisper seems sacrilege. In time, I became aware that in Hank’s recorded songs were the archetype rules of poetic songwriting. The architectural forms are like marble pillars, and they had to be there.”

Dylan is at his most eloquent in assessing other singers and how they affected him. I’m tempted to quote at length, but there a few gems I should share with you. Johnny Cash’s voice, he writes “was so big, it made the world grow small, unusually low-pitched — dark and booming and he had the right band [the Tennessee Two] to match him, the rippling rhythm and cadence of click-clack. Words that were the rule of law and backed by the power of God. When I first heard ‘I Walk the Line’ so many years earlier, it sounded like a voice calling out, ‘What are you doing there, boy?’ I was trying to keep my eyes wide opened, too.”

But Dylan was most awed by Roy Orbison’s voice. “He sounded like he was singing from an Olympian mountaintop and he meant business. … He was now singing his compositions in three or four octaves that made you want to drive your car over a cliff. He sang like a professional criminal.”

We may want to re-visit this text on another occasion.