Bob Dylan

New York Meets Nashville

After recording albums with East Coast producers John Hammond and Tom Wilson, Bob Dylan worked with brash Texas native Bob Johnston on most of Highway 61 Revisited, recorded in New York in 1965.

Johnston had previously lived in Nashville, where he hired multiinstrumentalist Charlie McCoy to lead sessions for demo recordings that were used to pitch songs to Elvis Presley.

Johnston invited McCoy, who was visiting New York, to observe the Highway 61 Revisited sessions. Dylan told McCoy he owned Charlie’s record “Harpoon Man,” and he invited the Nashville musician to play guitar on “Desolation Row.”

McCoy made an impression on Dylan. Against the wishes of label and management executives, Johnston had been encouraging the singer to record in Nashville. He used McCoy’s brilliant performance to drive the point home.

Dylan hired Toronto-based bar band the Hawks to flesh out his new sound while on the road. Dylan tried using the Hawks for his next album, but the electricity they had created on stage proved elusive in the studio. After many attempts, only one song, “One of Us Must Know,” was considered good enough to be included on Dylan’s next album.

Blonde On Blonde

Bob Dylan made his first trip to Nashville in 1966, to record his seventh album, Blonde on Blonde, at Nashville’s Columbia Recording Studios. 

Dylan said that Blonde on Blonde was “the closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind.” The double LP is certainly one of the great achievements of Dylan’s long career and a benchmark of American popular music. His literary imagination is on full display in songs such as “Visions of Johanna,” and the Nashville musicians—working with imported pickers Robbie Robertson (of the Hawks) and Al Kooper—perform masterfully.

Charlie McCoy, Kenny Buttrey, and Wayne Moss—members of McCoy’s crack Nashville band, the Escorts—were roughly Dylan’s age, and they understood instinctively the sound and feel of the R&Bbased rock & roll that Dylan wanted. Also joining Dylan for the Blonde on Blonde sessions were Nashville studio regulars Hargus “Pig” Robbins,Jerry Kennedy, Mac Gayden, Henry Strzelecki, Joe South, Bill Aikins, and Wayne Butler.

Listen to "Visions of Johanna" form Blonde On Blonde.

Visions Of Johanna - Bob Dylan

John Wesley Harding

Bob Dylan returned to Nashville in late 1967 to make the sparse and folk-like album John Wesley Harding, with Charlie McCoy on bass and Kenny Buttrey on drums. Dylan enlisted pedal steel guitarist Pete Drake to add a strong country flavor to “Down Along the Cove” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight.” 

Working again with producer Bob Johnston at Columbia’s studios in the heart of Music Row, Dylan had a different sound in mind for this album.  “I heard the sound that Gordon Lightfoot was getting with Charlie McCoy and Kenny Buttrey,” Dylan said. “I used Kenny and Charlie both before, and I figured if he could get the sound I could.”

Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde had brought new attention to the city’s musicians, but John Wesley Harding and its follow-up, Nashville Skyline, drew artists from far and wide to Music City.

Listen to "i"ll Be Your Baby Tonight" from John Wesley Harding.

I'll Be You Baby Tonight - Bob Dylan

Nashville Skyline

With Nashville Skyline, Bob Dylan made an unabashedly country album.  His third straight release recorded at Columbia’s Nashville studios with Bob Johnston at the helm, Nashville Skyline marked a turning point in changing perceptions of the city from which it took its name.

Nashville Skyline brought back Dylan stalwarts Kenny Buttrey, Charlie McCoy, and Pete Drake, and introduced acoustic guitarist Norman Blake, pianist Bob Wilson, and electric guitarist Charlie Daniels to Dylan recordings. The sessions, Daniels said, were “loose, free, and most of all, fun.”

Johnny Cash sang with Dylan on “Girl from the North Country” and won a Grammy for writing the album’s liner notes.

Nashville Skyline was not played on country radio stations.  However, the album was perceived by Dylan’s audience as a country work, for its instrumentation, straightforward lyrics, and Dylan’s notably smoother, mellower voice.

Dylan insisted on including “Nashville” in the album title, in spite of label objections that it might limit the record’s appeal. The release turned out to be one of Dylan’s best sellers. 

Listen to "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You" from Nashville Skyline.

Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You - Bob Dylan

Self Portrait

Bob Dylan’s final Nashville recordings—combined with studio and live tracks created elsewhere—were included on his tenth album, Self Portrait. 

With the idea of recording an album of other people’s songs, Dylan began reworking old favorites by the Everly Brothers and others when he visited Nashville to appear on The Johnny Cash Show. Most of the musicians from Nashville Skyline were back for the Self Portrait sessions.

Before Dylan completed the album, he went home to Woodstock and would not enter a recording studio again for almost nine months. When he did, it would be in New York, recording stripped-down versions of traditional folk songs and a few new originals. Musicians in Nashville later added parts to some of the New York tracks.

By the time Self Portrait was released in 1970, Dylan was in New York putting finishing touches on an album of all new material with producer Bob Johnston and musicians Al Kooper, Charlie Daniels, and guitarist Ron Cornelius. Issued in the fall of 1970, New Morning marked the end of Dylan’s work with Johnston and the Nashville musicians he met in the sixties.

Listen to "Take Me As I Am (Or Let Me Go)" form Self Portrait.

Take Me As I Am (Or Let Me Go) - Bob Dylan