Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats Celebrates Pickers Who Changed History

Studio Musicians Spotlighted in Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s New Exhibit

Stevie Wonder knows music, and he apparently knows Nashville’s history pretty well, too, so it was fitting when he sang a snippet of “Nashville Cats” during his Tuesday night (April 7) concert at the Bridgestone Arena.

According to The Tennessean newspaper, he also recalled a prior visit when Johnny and June Carter Cash gave him a personal tour of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Johnny Cash may always remain the coolest guy to ever reside in Nashville — sorry, Jack White — but he was just one of many cool musicians in the ‘60s and ‘70s who helped change the world’s attitude about what the city was all about.

Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City, a new exhibit at museum, delves deeply into the rich history of the era and those who helped put Nashville on the map as an international recording center.

“Nashville Cats,” a hit for the Lovin’ Spoonful in 1966, called attention to the musicians who lived and worked in Nashville. That’s the same year Bob Dylan released Blonde on Blonde, an album still regarded as one of the finest moments.

A few years ago, the Del McCoury Band recorded a new version of “Nashville Cats,” but if you’ve never heard the song, here’s the first verse:

“Well, there’s thirteen hundred and fifty-two
Guitar pickers in Nashville
And they can pick more notes than the number of ants
On a Tennessee anthill”

While the Lovin’ Spoonful’s song called attention to the city’s musicians, Dylan’s decision to come to Nashville to record the bulk of Blonde on Blonde literally changed Nashville and the lives of the players who lived here. In some ways, you could almost call it “Nashville A.D. (After Dylan).”

Suddenly, Nashville wasn’t just about country music. Of course, this had never really been the case, but that was the general perception even among musicians in New York and California who should have known better.

Dylan returned to Nashville to record John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline and portions of Self Portrait, but he wasn’t the only outsider visiting Tennessee’s capital city to record with the world-class studio musicians on Music Row. In the years to come, other classic albums were recorded here, including the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Neil Young‘s Harvest and J.J. Cale‘s Naturally.

Paul and Linda McCartney were visitors, too, writing and recording “Junior’s Farm” in honor of songwriter Curly Putman, who allowed them to stay on his Nashville-area farm in 1974. McCartney also recorded “Sally G,” with luscious steel guitar work by Lloyd Green, after being inspired by Printers Alley, an area filled with bars and music clubs in downtown Nashville.

Ringo Starr also recorded an album in Nashville. And while I wouldn’t categorize Beaucoups of Blues as a classic, those who played on his country project were a who’s who of Nashville session musicians. (And I still think the guitar work on “$15 Draw” is one of the best solos Jerry Reed ever recorded.)

Reed is just one of the musicians featured in 16 listening booths at the museum’s exhibit to give visitors ample evidence of the virtuosity and versatility of Nashville’s session players. Others featured include David Briggs, Kenny Buttrey, Fred Carter Jr., Charlie Daniels, Pete Drake, Mac Gayden, Lloyd Green, Ben Keith, Grady Martin, Charlie McCoy, Wayne Moss, Weldon Myrick, Norbert Putnam, Pig Robbins and Buddy Spicher.

Some of the other highlights of the exhibit include:

  • A manuscript, in Dylan and Cash’s handwriting, for “Wanted Man,” a song that Dylan wrote for Cash in Nashville. It was featured on the 1969 album Johnny Cash at San Quentin.

  • Instruments used by McCoy and Carter on Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer.”

  • Daniels’ Fender Telecaster guitar used on “Country Pie” and other tracks on Dylan’s Nashville Skyline.

  • Putnam’s Fender Precision bass used on recordings by Linda Ronstadt (“Long, Long Time”) Tony Joe White (“Polk Salad Annie”), Joan Baez, Kris Kristofferson and Elvis Presley.

    I hope somebody has personally invited John Sebastian to visit Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City. He was the frontman of the Lovin’ Spoonful when he wrote “Nashville Cats,” “Do You Believe in Magic,” “Summer in the City” and other hits for his band.

    Born and raised in New York City, he was mixing rock, folk, country and jug band music several decades before anybody thought of calling it Americana. (Come to think of it, the Americana Music Association could do a lot worse than to consider him for a lifetime achievement award.)

    Maybe Sebastian wasn’t a major player in the Nashville music scene, but with “Nashville Cats,” he may be the first person to publicly celebrate its musicians.

    Calvin Gilbert has served as CMT.com’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.