How Bob Dylan Went Country and Changed American Music

A Curmudgeon Column

Music Features Bob Dylan
Share Tweet Submit Pin
How Bob Dylan Went Country and Changed American Music

Few dates loom larger in the mythology of American music than July 25, 1965, the day Bob Dylan “went electric” at the Newport Folk Festival. But equally momentous in many ways was Oct. 17, 1967, the day Dylan “went country.”

That was the date he began work on his John Wesley Harding album in a Nashville studio with two veteran country musicians: drummer Kenny Buttrey and bassist Charlie McCoy. One can trace both the country-rock and Americana movements to that moment, when Dylan adopted the sound of Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Three for songs such as “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” and, three weeks later, “All Along the Watchtower.”

The event is currently being celebrated in a major exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame: Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City, which continues through 2017. Taking up much of the Nashville museum’s second floor, the display documents not only the four albums Dylan made in the city but also the parade of other folk singers and rockers—everyone from Leonard Cohen and Joan Baez to the Byrds and three different Beatles—who came to Nashville through the door that Dylan had opened.

Dylan’s first album in Nashville, 1966’s Blonde on Blonde, wasn’t a country album, but a rock ‘n’ roll album made with country musicians. That combination gave the recording its dramatic tension as Dylan’s pyrotechnic lyrics and untrained blues singing pushed against the restrained minimalism and cool professionalism of the musicians who usually spent their days backing up George Jones and Tom T. Hall. In the exhibit, you can see McCoy’s datebook, where a Dylan session is slotted in with no special emphasis among all the others.

But when Dylan sings in “Visions of Johanna,” “Lights flicker from the opposite loft / In this room the heat pipes just cough / The country music station plays soft,” he is describing the quality of the music behind him: the post-midnight spookiness of sleepless yearning. Dylan himself later said, “The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind was the Blonde on Blonde album. It’s that thin, wild mercury sound. It’s metallic and bright gold, with whatever that conjures up.” Conjuring up the sound were Buttrey, McCoy, Jerry Kennedy, Wayne Moss, Joe South, Hargus “Pig” Robbins and more.

Bob Johnston, who had replaced Tom Wilson as Dylan’s producer for 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited album, had been plotting to get his new client to Nashville. It was Johnston who brought in McCoy for Highway 61 Revisited, and when Dylan was impressed, the producer said there were lots of musicians like him in Nashville.

First, Dylan wanted to try his new songs with the Hawks, the musicians who soon became The Band. But at that point, they were still a live band, a bar band, and they didn’t have the control to capture that “thin, wild mercury sound.” So Dylan agreed to go to Nashville, bringing along only Robbie Robertson and Al Kooper from his New York crowd.

In my small contribution to the book Dylan: Disc by Disc, I describe the Blonde on Blonde sessions: “Throughout these long songs [Dylan] often refuses to resolve the chord progression—the changes keep approaching a climax and never quite find it…. The real hero of the sessions was Kenny Buttrey…. Kenny, with those little punch rolls and things he did, kept the tension in the songs when they could have gone out of control.”

And there, in the Country Music Hall of Fame, is the red-shell snare drum that Buttrey used in the late ‘60s. Though there are Dylan artifacts in the exhibit—his Hohner Marine Band harmonica, the hand-corrected lyrics for two songs from Blonde on Blonde, and an autographed photo dedicated to Johnny Cash and June Carter—the musicians who played behind him, the “Nashville Cats,” get equal treatment. There’s the Fender Telecaster that Charlie Daniels played on Nashville Skyline, for example, and the pedal-steel guitar that Lloyd Green played on the ByrdsSweetheart of the Rodeo.

After recuperating from his 1966 motorcycle accident in Woodstock, N.Y., and recording the legendary Basement Tapes with the Hawks, Dylan returned to Nashville to make John Wesley Harding, which adopted Cash’s penchant for transforming folk songs into twitchy country numbers. But instead of using old songs, Dylan wrote a dozen new ones that sounded as ancient and mysterious as those on any field recording.

Cash was flattered and agreed not only to sing a duet on Dylan’s next album, Nashville Skyline, but to write the liner notes and to invite Dylan as a guest on the first episode of ABC-TV’s The Johnny Cash Show. Clips from that broadcast are part of the Hall of Fame exhibit and reveal the frank admiration the two men had developed for each other since meeting at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival.

If Blonde on Blonde was not really a country album at all and if John Wesley Harding was a minimalist retro-country album, 1969’s Nashville Skyline was a contemporary country album, full of smooth, romantic crooning and pedal steel guitar. “Lay, Lady, Lay” became a No. 7 hit, and “I Threw It All Away,” has become a country-music classic.

But Dylan’s songwriting muse began to dry up after one of the greatest seven-year runs in American music, and his last Nashville album, 1970’s Self-Portrait, was an inconsistent collection of cover songs and overblown production (though it sounded a lot better when a stripped-down version, Another Self Portrait, was released in 2013).

As important as these four albums were, just as important was Dylan’s example in making it OK for rock ‘n’ rollers to come to Nashville and try their hand at country. It’s easy to forget how uncool country music seemed in the mid ‘60s in the midst of protests and psychedelia. But when “the voice of a generation,” as Dylan was sometimes labeled, put his stamp of approval on Nashville and country, it was suddenly acceptable for every rock musician with a secret love of hillbilly music to come out of the closet. And they flocked to Nashville in droves.

The evidence is at the Country Music Hall of Fame. There’s Neil Young’s fringed leather jacket from the Harvest sessions. There’s a handwritten thank-you note from George Harrison to Buttrey. Another case holds the acoustic guitar Fred Carter Jr. used on Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer.” Gram Parsons’s acoustic guitar, and Roy Huskey Jr.’s acoustic bass from the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo session are on display.

Supplementing the exhibit is a 112-page catalogue assembled by the Hall of Fame staff and featuring striking art work from Jon Langford, the lead singer of the Mekons and the Waco Brothers. Also available is a two-CD, 36-track album, Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats, from Legacy Records. Included are four Dylan songs (including a previously unreleased version of “If Not for You”) as well as tracks from Harrison, Paul McCartney, Leonard Cohen and the Byrds. Cash sings Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and joins Derek & the Dominos and Carl Perkins on “Matchbox.” McCoy is heard with his R&B bar band the Escorts and with his country instrumental group, Area Code 615.

These rock acts weren’t coming to Nashville for the weather or the food; they were coming for the brilliance of the anonymous musicians who worked in the studios. And this exhibit rightfully gives those “Nashville Cats” as much credit as it gives Dylan and Cash for the fateful collision of rock and country that changed American music. Scattered throughout the exhibit are narrow sound booths, each devoted to a different studio musician. As you stand there and tap the buttons for their most memorable songs, you can’t help but marvel that it took this long to give them the credit they deserve.

Recently in Music
More from Bob Dylan