Bob Dylan brought international attention to Nashville’s musicians and studios when he recorded landmark albums in the city in the late 1960s. Many non-country acts followed his example and made important records in Nashville with major contributions from the city’s stellar players.
Artists That Followed
Here, There, Everywhere
Rock and folk-based performers and songwriters from New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto, Montreal, and London came to Nashville for the same reasons as Dylan. The musical and cultural cross-pollination pointed popular music in a new direction.
From New York
Numerous acts from New York’s folk scene were interacting with Nashville musicians by the late 1960s. Many of the singers met Bob Dylan early in his career in Greenwich Village, and arrived in Nashville in the wake of his success there. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel—Simon & Garfunkel—came to Nashville to work with producer Bob Johnston and local musicians at Columbia’s studio. Nashville session guitarist Fred Carter Jr. became an important part of Simon & Garfunkel’s sound, joining them for many of their New York sessions as well.
Two of Dylan’s early influences from New York eventually followed him to Nashville to record with Johnston. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott arrived in 1969 to make Bull Durham Sacks and Railroad Tracks, which included five Dylan songs. In 1971 Pete Seeger recorded Rainbow Race. Both albums featured musicians who had played on Dylan’s Nashville recordings, and both artists appeared on Johnny Cash’s TV show.
Vanguard Records and Nashville
Maynard Solomon, founder of New York-based Vanguard Records, sent the label’s folk artists to Nashville to record in the 1960s and 1970s. Vanguard was a small classical label when Solomon and his brother Seymour signed Joan Baez in 1960, early in the folk boom.
Baez’s commercial success allowed Vanguard to add other urban folk acts to its roster, including Ian & Sylvia, Eric Andersen, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Jerry Jeff Walker. When Bob Dylan recorded in Nashville with good results, Solomon had his Vanguard artists follow suit.
Overseeing many of the sessions himself, Solomon often used traditional country instrumentation, including dobro, steel guitar, and fiddle—the latter often played by Buddy Spicher. Singing style and repertoire reflected the artists’ urban folk sensibilities. The Nashville musicians were adept at providing relaxed, country-leaning accompaniment, which created unique musical hybrids.
Among the albums reflecting this dynamic was Driftin’ Way of Life by Jerry Jeff Walker. While many of the songs espoused countercultural values, the music was pure country. The 1969 album recorded in Nashville set the tone for Walker’s role as a key member of the “cosmic cowboy” scene of the 1970s in Austin, Texas.
Joan Baez, the most popular act on New York-based Vanguard Records, recorded a number of successful albums in Nashville. She praised the city’s musicians, and her example drew other performers to Nashville.
Baez came to Nashville first in 1968. Working with veteran guitarist Grady Martin as her session leader, she was prolific, capturing enough material for multiple albums. Guitar virtuoso Jerry Reed is featured prominently on the recordings, adding to their country flavor. Baez was well known for her activism in the anti-war and Civil Rights movements. She was a highly polarizing figure, and heightened security was present at her Nashville sessions.
“I probably wouldn’t agree with her on her politics,” fiddler Buddy Spicher said, “[but] it was such a joy to back up somebody that had chops like she did.”
The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down
For her 1971 album, Blessed Are…, Baez enlisted bassist Norbert Putnam, a veteran of her earlier Nashville sessions, as producer. She trusted that he could make her music more appealing to pop audiences. They recorded at Quadraphonic Studios, owned by Putnam, pianist David Briggs, and producer Elliot Mazer.
Blessed Are … became the biggest seller of Baez’s career, its success driven by a major pop hit, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” First recorded by the Band, the song was written by the group’s guitarist Robbie Robertson.
Other artists followed Baez to Quadraphonic Studios, and Putnam emerged as a popular producer for folk acts, with clients such as Buffy Sainte-Marie and Eric Andersen. Later, Putnam used a similar folk-pop style with artists such as Dan Fogelberg and Jimmy Buffett.
Ian & Sylvia
In the early 1960s, Toronto’s folk music scene resembled that of New York’s Greenwich Village. The city’s coffeehouse culture made it a bohemian magnet for Canadian musicians.
Toronto native Sylvia Fricker and Ian Tyson, from Vancouver Island, formed a duo in the late 1950s to play local coffeehouses. They married a few years later. As Ian & Sylvia, they established themselves in New York in 1961.
On Vanguard Records the duo became one of the most successful acts in folk music. Inspired by Dylan’s songwriting, Ian composed “Four Strong Winds,” which became a folk standard and a country hit for Bobby Bare in 1964.
Ian & Sylvia turned to Nashville for invigoration as the folk circuit that supported the duo started to fade. Working with producer Elliot Mazer and a wide cross-section of the city’s best pickers, the Tysons recorded the albums Nashville and Full Circle there in 1968. Ian & Sylvia returned to Nashville in 1971 to record their self-titled album for Columbia.
Orillia, Ontario, native Gordon Lightfoot settled in Toronto as a solo performer before making albums in Nashville that helped define the folk-pop sound of the 1960s and ’70s.
Taking inspiration from country music and from Bob Dylan’s songwriting, Lightfoot had written songs by the early 1960s that would become standards. Ian & Sylvia and Peter, Paul and Mary made popular recordings of his “Early Morning Rain” and “For Loving Me.” In country music, Marty Robbins scored a #1 hit with Lightfoot’s “Ribbon of Darkness” in 1965.
After Dylan made his 1966 album, Blonde on Blonde, in Nashville, manager Albert Grossman suggested to Lightfoot that he record his second album there with musicians Kenny Buttrey and Charlie McCoy. Lightfoot’s The Way I Feel, released in 1967, helped inspire the more stripped-down sound of Dylan’s next album, John Wesley Harding.
Feeling a natural fit with country players, Lightfoot returned to Nashville in 1968 to make Back Here on Earth with producer Elliot Mazer at Bradley’s Barn. Lightfoot moved to Woodland Sound Studios in East Nashville to record Summer Side of Life in 1970 and ’71.
Montreal native Leonard Cohen’s journey from promising young Canadian poet to fascinating and influential songwriter began in the 1950s. He found the urban folk music scene receptive to the surrealistic, dark songs he was beginning to write in the 1960s, such as “Suzanne” and “Dress Rehearsal Rag.” His debut album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, released on Columbia Records in 1967, was a major critical success. Eager to record Cohen in Nashville, producer Bob Johnston persuaded him to move south, to the quiet hamlet of Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee, just outside of Nashville. There Cohen rented a cabin from songwriters Felice and Boudleaux Bryant.
In 1968, working with Johnston at Columbia’s Music Row studios, Cohen recorded Songs from a Room, featuring the classic “Bird on a Wire.” Ron Cornelius, Charlie Daniels, and Elkin “Bubba” Fowler provided backing. So comfortable was Cohen with the players that he toured far and wide with Johnston, Daniels, Cornelius, and Fowler in his band.
In 1971 Cohen recorded in Nashville again, working with his seasoned road band. Songs of Love and Hate included Cohen classics such as “Famous Blue Raincoat” and “Joan of Arc.”
The rebellious, youth-oriented culture of San Francisco in the late 1960s stood in sharp contrast to Nashville’s generally conservative values. Long a bastion of bohemian attitudes and liberal politics, San Francisco became the center of the hippie movement.
A surprising number of the Bay Area’s popular rock acts—including the Beau Brummels, Country Joe McDonald, the Steve Miller Band, Moby Grape, Tracy Nelson & Mother Earth, Doug Sahm, and Skip Spence—traveled thousands of miles to Nashville to make records.
The Beau Brummels anticipated the sound of folk-rock with its 1965 hits “Laugh, Laugh” and “Just a Little.” By 1968, the group’s two principal members, Sal Valentino and Ron Elliott, were looking for a new musical direction. They made their next album, Bradley’s Barn, at producer Owen Bradley’s studio in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, in 1968. “Sal and I were both immersed in Nashville, especially with Dylan’s experiments down there,” said the group’s producer, Lenny Waronker.
The Beau Brummels hired the cream of the city’s young studio players and enlisted top guitarists Harold Bradley, Wayne Moss, Jerry Reed, and Billy Sanford.
In 1969, San Francisco rock band Moby Grape worked with producer Bob Johnston and A-team bassist Bob Moore in Nashville to record the band’s fourth album, Truly Fine Citizen. Former Moby Grape member Skip Spence recorded his 1969 solo release, Oar, at Columbia Nashville.
The Steve Miller Band
Guitarist Steve Miller moved from Texas to San Francisco to form a band in 1967. The group found immediate success, signing with Capitol Records and becoming a staple on the city’s popular ballroom circuit.
In 1970 the Steve Miller Band—supplemented by Nashville musicians—recorded its album Number 5 at Wayne Moss’s Cinderella Sound Studio in Madison, Tennessee. Charlie McCoy’s harmonica and Buddy Spicher’s fiddle are prominent on “Going to the Country,” which received heavy airplay on rock radio.
Miller invited McCoy, guitarist Moss, and banjo player Bobby Thompson to join the band on another song, “Tokin’s,” and was amazed by the results. “They learned the song in seven minutes and sat down and recorded it,” Miller recalled. “When it was done, it sounded better than anything else on the record, and we said, ‘Well, that’s how pros do it!’”
Country Joe McDonald
Country Joe McDonald recorded in Nashville in 1969, soon after performing anti-Vietnam War song “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” at the Woodstock festival. McDonald fronted Country Joe & the Fish, a band that had great success in the late 1960s blending the radical left politics of their hometown, Berkeley, with the psychedelic flavors of San Francisco.
McDonald made his first solo albums, Thinking of Woody Guthrie and Tonight I’m Singing Just for You, at Bradley’s Barn in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. Nashville A-team guitarist Grady Martin led the sessions.
Tracy Nelson and Mother Earth
Growing up in Madison, Wisconsin, Tracy Nelson listened to rhythm & blues on WLAC, from far away Nashville, one of the only radio stations reaching Middle America with black music.
Nelson released an album of acoustic folk blues in 1965, before moving to San Francisco, where she formed blues-rock band Mother Earth. The band performed at the legendary Fillmore Auditorium and shared bills with the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Jimi Hendrix.
Mother Earth toured in support of their 1968 debut album, Living with Animals, ending with a show in Nashville. They stayed in Tennessee, rented a farmhouse in Mt. Juliet, and recorded their next album, Make a Joyful Noise, at Bradley’s Barn.
Nashville steel guitarist Pete Drake introduced Nelson to Elvis Presley’s pioneering guitarist, Scotty Moore, and other local players. She was so taken by Nashville that she decided to relocate to the area.
“The musical community that Pete introduced me to was far and away more reasonable, and nicer to be around, than in San Francisco,” Nelson said.
In 1969 Drake encouraged Nelson to record a solo country album, Mother Earth Presents Tracy Nelson Country, for which Nelson sang direct, strong versions of songs written by Hank Williams, Don Gibson, and Tammy Wynette. Nelson made the album at Moore’s Music City Recorders, accompanied by Moore, Drake, D.J. Fontana, Ben Keith, Johnny Gimble, Shorty Lavender, the Jordanaires, and other local stalwarts.
A number of Los Angeles-based rock acts of the 1960s developed influential ties to Nashville. Recordings by the Byrds, Linda Ronstadt, Neil Young, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Michael Nesmith, and others would help define the emerging Southern California country-rock sound that became an important part of pop music in the 1970s.
The Byrds were among the first successful purveyors of folk-rock. The group’s arrangement of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which went to #1 in 1965, and their recording of Dylan’s “All I Really Want to Do,” helped introduce his songs to a broader audience.
Founding members Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn, whose roots were in folk and bluegrass, began to introduce country songs and sounds onto Byrds albums. When Georgia native Gram Parsons joined the Byrds in 1967, he encouraged the group to embrace country music more fully.
Sweetheart of the Rodeo
Inspired by their enthusiasm for country music, the Byrds came to Nashville in March 1968 to begin work on their sixth album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. The group was augmented in Columbia’s Studio A by local musicians Junior Huskey on bass, John Hartford on banjo, and Lloyd Green on pedal steel guitar.
Pedal steel guitar—played on some tracks by Lloyd Green in Nashville, and on others by Jay Dee Maness in Los Angeles—gave the record a distinctively country feel. Despite mixed reviews and modest sales, the album is now regarded as a landmark for its melding of country traditions with a rock & roll sensibility.
Southern California country rock pioneer Linda Ronstadt recorded most of her 1970 album, Silk Purse, in Nashville. Produced by Elliot Mazer at guitarist Wayne Moss’s Cinderella Studio, it included her first solo hit, “Long, Long, Time,” along with interpretations of Hank Williams and Mel Tillis classics.
During her visit, Ronstadt appeared on The Johnny Cash Show and performed on the Grand Ole Opry. After her return to California, she hired a band that would become the Eagles, and released two more country-rock albums. Ronstadt found acceptance with country audiences, scoring many country hits in the 1970s and 1980s.
Michael Nesmith of the Monkees came to Nashville in 1968 to record backing tracks for the group’s next record. Among the songs recorded were “Listen to the Band” and “Some of Shelly’s Blues.” The sessions inspired some of the Nashville musicians to form a band, Area Code 615, and set the stage for Nesmith’s country-rock solo career.
After recording country-inspired rock music with Buffalo Springfield; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; and as a solo artist, Neil Young came to Nashville in 1971 to perform on Johnny Cash’s TV show. Young also booked studio time at Quadrafonic Studios, where he recorded most of his fourth album, Harvest, with producer Elliot Mazer.
Released in 1972, Harvest remains Young’s most successful album. It included “Old Man” and Young’s #1 hit, “Heart of Gold.” He met Nashville musicians Kenny Buttrey, Tim Drummond, and Ben Keith at the sessions, dubbed them the Stray Gators, and continued to employ them for many years.
Leon Russell and J.J. Cale
From Tulsa, Oklahoma, by way of Los Angeles, J.J. Cale and Leon Russell took divergent musical paths to Nashville. A former L.A. studio pianist, Russell rose to rock stardom before recording Hank Wilson’s Back, his collection of country classics, cut in Nashville in 1972. The album harkened back to the honky-tonk and rockabilly Russell performed with Cale as a teenager in Tulsa nightclubs.
J.J. Cale’s debut album, Naturally, included his biggest hit, “Crazy Mama,” featuring Mac Gayden’s innovative wah-wah slide guitar. Produced in Nashville and released in 1972 on Russell’s Shelter label, the album also featured other Cale originals, such as “After Midnight” (popularized by Eric Clapton) and “Call Me the Breeze” (made famous by Lynyrd Skynyrd).
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
Originating in Southern California in the 1960s, folk-rock group the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band bridged cultural and generational gaps with their landmark 1972 album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken. The sessions at East Nashville’s Woodland Sound Studios brought together country legends and veteran musicians, including Roy Acuff, Maybelle Carter, Vassar Clements, Jimmy Martin, Earl Scruggs, Merle Travis, and Doc Watson.
The project was notable for deliberately connecting the young artists in the Dirt Band with older country music styles and with musicians from an earlier era. Its tremendous success introduced the legends and their music to a whole new audience.
George Harrison and Ringo Starr
British acts including the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were influenced by folk and rock albums made in Nashville in the late 1960s. George Harrison’s friendship with Bob Dylan and the Band helped the Beatles find their way back to a simpler sound and pointed to the distinctive sound of Harrison’s 1970 album, All Things Must Pass.
Aware of Pete Drake’s work with Dylan, Harrison flew the pedal steel guitarist to London to add Nashville flavor to All Things Must Pass. Drake was joined on the sessions by an all-star band that included Beatles drummer Ringo Starr, who told Drake of his lifelong appreciation for country music.
Persuading Starr to record in Nashville, Drake produced Ringo’s 1970 country album, Beaucoups of Blues, at guitarist Scotty Moore’s studio using local musicians and songwriters.
Wings Over Nashville
Paul McCartney spent six weeks in Nashville during the summer of 1974, rehearsing his band, Wings, for a world tour. While there he took in the sights and sounds of the city.
“I rather fancy the place,” McCartney told a Nashville Banner reporter. “It’s a musical center. I’ve just heard so much about it that I wanted to see it for myself.”
McCartney, his wife Linda, and their three daughters, as well as members of Wings and the band’s road manager, stayed on a farm near Lebanon, Tennessee, owned by Curly Putman, composer of the country and pop classic “Green, Green Grass of Home.”
McCartney cut seven songs at Buddy Killen’s Sound Shop. Two became hits. The title of “Junior’s Farm” was inspired by Putman’s home. For “Sally G,” McCartney enlisted pedal steel guitarist Lloyd Green and fiddler Johnny Gimble to give the song a country feel.