Clinton Heylin, in his book Recording Sessions, writes that Nashville Skyline could have been an attempt to make John Wesley Harding II. Like Harding, it was recorded in Nashville and used several of the same session musicians.
But the result had a significantly more country sound, Dylan’s vocals in particular. Dylan said the sweeter-sounding voice was the result of his quitting cigarettes, but clearly there was more to it than that. Dylan obviously consciously chose to sing in a more standard style (something he had done before, well before he became famous).
David Pichaske, in his book Song of the North Country, has some interesting thoughts on exactly why Dylan’s vocals sound “country”. Or rather, sort-of country.
The Johnny Cash-Bob Dylan duet which opens the album offers an instructive contrast between Dylan’s soft, almost New York, lost r’s and Cash’s relatively harder Arkansas r’s, especially on words like “north,” “for,” “there,” “remember,” “fair,” and “hair.” In the balance of the album, “r” is half present at best (“ticket out the door,” “here with you”), gone most of the time. It’s mostly “mah” for “my”, and “ah” is back as “I,” although in a few cases Dylan retains the pure [aI]. Plenty of “oughta,” “whatcha,” “and “by golly.” Dylan sings “I wish the night was here” even where he writes “I wish the night were here.” He appears to be going for a country sound by singing “on” as “awn” (“One More Night”) and “want” as “waunt” (Tell Me It Isn’t True”), but what he shold have done was add a “t” to “across” on “lay across my big brass bed” and converted “window” to “winder” in the first line of “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You.”
It’s really not a country record. As session man Charlie McCoy said, “I wouldn’t call that a country record. But it wasn’t pop or R&B or anything like that. It had a folk feel to it.” That sounds about right.
Now a country star in his own right, Charlie Daniel’s had some interesting thoughts on the sessions. He said Dylan was “just like everyone else and had a great sense of humor.” He remembers that they had scheduled fifteen sessions but didn’t use them all.
It was a particularly odd time for the man who was once called the voice of the counter-culture (against his wishes) to release a country-influenced record. The Vietnam War protests were filling the streets, civil leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy had been shot. The Democratic Convention had devolved into violence and anarchy. A weird time to release music aligned with the Richard Nixon-loving right-wingers. His fans didn’t mind apparently as Nashville Skyline became his best selling record.
The album played an instrumental part in the adaption of country stylings by many major figures in the world of rock music, most notably The Byrds, pushed in that direction by Gram Parsons. Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, John Hartford, and many other artists would also soon head to Nashville to record.
Country great Johnny Cash sings a duet with Dylan on Girl From the North Country. Dylan and Cash had first met at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. Cash was a big fan. He recorded Don’t Think Twice, It Ain’t Me, Babe and Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind for his 1965 album, Orange Blossom Special.
By coincidence, Johnny Cash was recording in the same studio as Dylan in Nashville. The country star dropped by while Dylan was recording Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You and Nashville Skyline Rag. The next day, the two went out for dinner while Johnston prepared the studio to make it look inviting. “While they were gone, I put lights in the studio, made it look like a damn nightclub,” Johnston said. “Set up all the microphones out there, guitars, all of that.” They ended-up recorded eighteen songs together.
Cash won a Grammy Award for the liner notes of Nashville Skyline, which included the lines: “I’m proud to say that I know it/ Here-in is a hell of a poet/ And lots of other things/ And lots of other things.” See the full notes below.
In my view, it’s a pretty successful record. Yes, a few trite songs. One highly annoying one, Pretty Peggie-O. But it also has several classics or near-classics, such as Lay Lady, Lady, I Threw It All Away, and Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You. The performances are all extremely well-done. And he gets a lot of points for (once again) entering a new frontier and shaking up the world of popular music.
I like what Tim Riley said (from his book Hard Rain):
The records shapeliness comes from the way romantic moods shift between celebrations (“To Be Alone With You”, which he wrote for Jerry Lewis, and “Tonight I’m Staying Here With You,” the record’s closer), entreaties (“Lay, Lady, Lay,” “Tell Me That It Isn’t True”), and morning-afterthoughts (“I Threw It All Away,” “One More Night”).
Dylan, however, never liked it much. He said, “I was trying to grasp for something that would lead me on to where I thought I should be, and it didn’t go nowhere – it just went down, down, down.” (Behind the Shades)
Here’s is the original Rolling Stone review, fun it read after all these years. Rolling Stone Review.
Fans of Nashville Skyline probably want to pick up a copy of volume 15 of The Bootleg Series, which contains several outtakes.
Dylan performance on the Johnny Cash show.
Ring of Fire
One Too Many Mornings (my favorite) with producer Bob Johnson interview.
I Still Miss Someone
Outtake No Direction Home – Interview w/ Dylan
I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry
Liner Notes for Nashville Skyline
Of Bob Dylan: by Johnny Cash
There are those who do not imitate,
Who cannot imitate
But then there are those who emulate
At times, to expand further the light
Of an original glow.
Knowing that to imitate the living
And to imitate the dead
There are those
Who are beings complete unto themselves
Whole, undaunted,-a source
As leaves of grass, as stars
As mountains, alike, alike, alike,
Each is complete and contained
And as each unalike star shines
Each ray of light is forever gone
To leave way for a new ray
And a new ray, as from a fountain
Complete unto itself, full, flowing
So are some souls like stars
And their words, works and songs
Like strong, quick flashes of light
From a brilliant, erupting cone.
So where are your mountains
To match some men?
This man can rhyme the tick of time
The edge of pain, the what of sane
And comprehend the good in men, the bad in men
Can feel the hate of fight, the love of right
And the creep of blight at the speed of light
The pain of dawn, the gone of gone
The end of friend, the end of end
By math of trend
What grip to hold what he is told
How long to hold, how strong to hold
How much to hold of what is told.
The yield of rend; the break of bend
The scar of mend
I’m proud to say that I know it,
Here-in is a hell of a poet.
And lots of other things
And lots of other things.