When Bob Dylan first came to Nashville, in February 1966, he was at the crest of a meteoric journey that had made him an immensely influential figure, in American culture and beyond.
Dylan in Nashville
Bound for Glory, 1941-1960
Born Robert Zimmerman in 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, Bob Dylan was raised in that state’s iron ore town of Hibbing. By the age of eleven he had acquired his first guitar and was listening to Grand Ole Opry radio shows and enjoying recordings by Hank Williams, Hank Snow, and other country artists.
Like so many teenagers in the mid-1950s, Dylan was swept up in the new sounds of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard. Dylan started a series of rock & roll bands in high school, but by the time he enrolled at the University of Minnesota in 1959 his imagination had been sparked by folk music. Records by Odetta, Lead Belly, and Woody Guthrie inspired Dylan to trade his electric guitar for an acoustic, and he soon fell in with Minneapolis’s bohemian crowd.
Talkin’ New York, 1961-1963
Bob Dylan moved to New York City in 1961 and began appearing at Greenwich Village folk clubs and coffeehouses. Established artists on the scene quickly took notice of the way Dylan absorbed the styles of the blues and country singers he had long emulated. Dylan secured contracts with Columbia Records and innovative artist manager Albert Grossman. In 1962 the singer released his debut, self-titled album.
As he hit his stride as a songwriter, Dylan interacted with a like-minded community of singers who wrote topical songs about current events, often penned with a political slant. By this time Dylan had met his heroes Woody Guthrie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Pete Seeger, and he soon became friends with Joan Baez, the reigning queen of the folk music world.
Dylan emerged as the dominant figure in what was called the “protest song” movement.
Another Side of Bob Dylan, 1964-1965
In 1964 and ’65 Bob Dylan transformed popular music, as he went from folk to pop stardom.
He left the world of political songs behind with his fourth album, Another Side of Bob Dylan. “There aren’t any finger-pointing songs in here,” Dylan said of the album, emphasizing that he no longer wanted to be seen as a spokesman for anything. He wrote more about relationships, and he expanded the boundaries of popular music lyrics, influencing everyone from the Beatles to Kris Kristofferson.
Artists from all ranks rushed to cut Dylan tunes—including the Byrds (“Mr. Tambourine Man”) and Johnny Cash (“It Ain’t Me, Babe”)—making him the toast of the music business. As Dylan’s lyrics moved in new directions, so did his sound. Half of his next album, Bringing It All Back Home (1965), featured rock instrumentation. Dylan released his breakthrough radio hit, “Like a Rolling Stone,” in the summer of 1965.
New York Meets Nashville, 1965
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 multi-instrumentalist 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, 1966
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&B-based 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.
Back to the Country, 1967
Bob Dylan spent much of 1967 exploring his musical roots by making music with his friends the Hawks in a relaxed atmosphere in Woodstock, New York, just as the counterculture and psychedelic music were becoming dominant.
Recovering from a motorcycle accident and taking a break from touring to be with his growing family, Dylan collaborated with the Hawks in the basement of their house, known as Big Pink. They recorded casual versions of new Dylan songs and played around with numerous folk and country classics, including old favorites by Hank Williams, Hank Snow, and Johnny Cash.
This process would inform much of the music Dylan made from then on. The basement tapes were not released at the time, but would emerge later as a missing link in understanding Dylan’s relationship to country music.
John Wesley Harding, 1967
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.
Nashville Skyline, 1969
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.
Self Portrait, 1970
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.
Pledging my Time
After Bob Dylan’s first recording trip to Nashville, to begin work on Blonde on Blonde, he praised the city’s musicians to guitarist Robbie Robertson of the Hawks. “(Bob) was really impressed by the Nashville music machine,” Robertson recalled. “He said, ‘I just went in there, these guys didn’t know me, they didn’t know this music … They just all got in a huddle and they figured it out so quickly, coming up with an arrangement, a whole idea for the song.’”
To show his gratitude for their inspired work, Dylan included the names of the musicians on the gatefold cover of the Blonde on Blonde double LP. He was among the first to credit the Nashville pickers in that way. The music Dylan created with the Nashville cats between 1966 and 1970 continues to rank among his most vibrant and influential work.