Bob's Big Box

Bob's Big Box
As a music lover who just turned 40, I thought it was about time I explored the back catalogue of Bob Dylan, an artist I'd largely ignored previously. Right then...

Monday, 13 April 2015

9. Nashville Skyline (1969)

If John Wesley Harding represented a step away from the crackling, poetic excesses of B.O.B., then 1969's Nashville Skyline is a gigantic leap.  By this time, Mr and Mrs Dylan had three children of their own, plus Sara's daughter from her previous marriage, and another baby would be born by the end of the year.  It's clear that this comfortable, even blissful, Woodstock domesticity was having an effect on Bob's songwriting, as this album is plainly the work of a very happy man.  Just look at the cover photo.

Whereas the earlier Nashville-recorded albums had used crack session musicians to lend a country twang to some very definitely 'Dylan' songs, here Bob uses many of the same guys to produce some very un-Dylan music indeed - much to my delight he goes Completely Country.

It opens with king of country, friend and label-mate Johnny Cash duetting with Dylan on a version of Girl From The North Country, originally from 1963's Freewheelin' album. Accompanied by Cash's band the Tennessee Three, the pair recorded a substantial amount of material together, but this is the only song from these sessions to appear.  The first thing to hit me was Dylan's VOICE!  Gone is the rough, nasal whine, to be replaced by what can only be described as an actual croon; a deep, rich, honeyed tone that completely threw me to begin with - "Is he going to keep this up for the whole album?", I asked myself.  Well, yes, he does.  For the first couple of listens this odd, unfamiliar voice sounds rather mannered (and it probably is; I don't believe for one minute that it's purely an effect of giving up the cigs), but once I got used to it, it seemed a lot more natural.

After this slightly stilted start, we're treated to a fine old spit and sawdust instrumental with Nashville Skyline Rag before the album proper begins.  To Be Alone With You opens with Dylan asking producer Bob Johnston "Is it rolling, Bob?", before launching into a funky little number where "arms" are rhymed with "charms", and "whole night through" to "with you" in the simplest lyrics he'd ever written.

Wait a minute - simple lyrics?  Country music?  Crooning?  Excuse me while I have a quick lie down.  Actually, this shouldn't be that much of a surprise.  So far in his career Dylan has done exactly what he's wanted, when he's wanted to.  He's already been more than happy to piss off the rather serious-minded folkies by playing drug-fuelled rock music, so there's no reason for him to fear pissing off a few longhairs by making some 'square' country, if that's what's currently floating his boat.  It might even be a deliberate attempt to keep the more intense contingent of his fanbase at arm's length.  But he's a words man, isn't he?  True, but for now it seems he's content to write about love lost and found with much simpler, more direct language that bypasses the brain and goes straight to the heart.

Thankfully there are some strong melodies, such as the ace One More Night where Bob is lonesome having done lost his woman, and the beautiful regret of I Threw It All Away.  The musicianship is a real pleasure too; although the band includes members of the "Nashville A-Team" in Buttrey, Drake and McCoy, the sound owes more to down-home Bakersfield than it does to the syrupy Nashville Sound.  The crowning glory is of course Lay Lady Lay, a hit single originally written for the film Midnight Cowboy, but not submitted in time.  I love the echoing vocals and Pete Drake's seductive pedal steel.

All of the songs here are short but sweet; Peggy Day is a trifling tidbit that ends with the question "What more can I say?", the answer to which is "Clearly not much".  The slightest song of all is Country Pie, not just for its 1.39 length but for its almost nursery rhyme words; "Raspberry, strawberry, lemon and lime, what do I care?" (though an ode to country music, my grubby little mind has since ruined it by furnishing it with pervy overtones).  On an album of ditties, this is the dittiest.  More substantial are my current favourites Tell Me That It Isn't True, with its gloopy organ and heard-it-through-the-grapevine lyrics, and final song Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You, in which Dylan throws his train ticket out of the window to remain with the love of his life.   As he sings about throwing his troubles out after it because "I don't need them any more", I'm inclined to believe him.

If you couldn't tell, I really enjoyed Nashville Skyline.  What about you?  I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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1 comment:

  1. Most days of the week this is my favourite Dylan album.