Recording Blonde on Blonde wasn’t easy starting out for Bob Dylan.
The first recording date attached to the album took place in New York on Oct. 5, 1965. “Like a Rolling Stone” had hit No. 2 on Billboard over the summer and Highway 61 Revisited was just released the month prior. As remembered in Sean Wilentz’s Bob Dylan In America, Dylan had at the time become used to honing his songs and then working quickly in the studio.
Whole albums like Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home were being made in less than a week. But after three studio dates and more than eighteen hours of recording for the Blonde on Blonde project, Dylan had little in the way of an album.
That changed in 1966 when they moved production to Nashville’s Columbia Recording Studios to record with a-list session players like harmonica player Charlie McCoy, guitarist Kenny Buttrey, pianist Hargus Pig Robbins and Joe South. Recording for some of the songs, including “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” and “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” started at 4 a.m. and came together fast.
It was New York hip and Nashville virtuosity coming together to create a significant piece of music history — an oddly configured double album and the first of its kind in contemporary popular music.
In May 2016, fifty years later, Old Crow Medicine Show attempted to do that history justice in 90 minutes of live music over two nights at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s CMA Theater. Music from the Nashville event was recorded for the Grammy-winning band’s latest live album, 50 Years of Blonde on Blonde. They signed with Sony Music Nashville’s Columbia Records to release the new music, marking a return to the label name that released Dylan’s original in 1966.
The band celebrated the release of the live album on Thursday (April 17) at the CMA Theater with a short set and discussion with the Hall of Fame’s Peter Cooper.
“Critter and I grew up thinking Bob Dylan was the biggest thing on Earth,” Old Crow’s Ketch Secor said Thursday (April 27). “So much of the project felt really destined to be in that way I think you would say a lot of things have been for Old Crow. And there’s a metaphor for this — it seemed sort of predestined that we would be able to pull off Blonde on Blonde, rewrite it, redo it and own it because we love Bob.”
Secor said the initial question to answer going into the project was, “Are we going to play it like Bob or not?” And since Old Crow have been an acoustic band for all their 20 years together, the going electric sounded tempting to some of members.
“I haven’t played through an amp onstage in 25 years,” Critter Fuqua joked onstage.
Then Secor came up with the idea of rearranging the songs into a set list for an Old Crow show. From there, the band took themselves to Blonde on Blonde school at Fuqua’s place to rearrange Dylan’s album into charts for a new Old Crow concert. They kept their notes in secondhand Trapper Keepers Secor bought for $.25 apiece from an East Nashville Goodwill.
“We really had to change a lot of the blues rock songs on Blonde on Blonde and either make them hillbilly, or in this case, ’One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later),’ we ended up making it a ballad,” Secor said.
They also shared the reasons why they deconstructed “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” into a scorching string number.
“We had done a blues version of it initially that was really loud and raucous and I said, if this tune had been written by the Mississippi Sheiks, or by the Memphis Jug Band, it would make a whole lot of sense.”
Dylan’s music has been a staple in Old Crow Medicine Show’s performances since Secor completed an unfinished Dylan song from the 1973 Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid soundtrack. The track became the band’s signature hit “Wagon Wheel.” Darius Rucker’s version won the 2013 Grammy for best country solo performance.
Old Crow Medicine Show will tour to support the new live album starting May 4 in Santa Barbara, California. Four shows overseas in the U.K. and the Netherlands begin June 24 in Manchester, England.