Saturday, October 1, 2016

Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats: A Music History Lesson

Earlier this week I received an unexpected surprise. A friend had sent me a copy of the book Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats. I don't recall what my plans were for the evening Tuesday because once I began reading I was unable to put it down till it was complete.

The book is a synopsis of a current exhibit that has been on display in Nashville since the spring of 2015, running thru the end of this year. It's a tribute to the studio musicians of Nashville and a story about their influence, in large part as a result of the catalyst role of Bob Dylan, though you might say the key ingredient was Charlie McCoy.... or was it Bob Johnston. Hmmm. When you step back and consider the alignment of the stars, including the mutual admiration of Johnny Cash and Dylan, it really seems like the magic was serendipitous.

This book -- or rather, the exhibit -- tells the story of how the Nashville music scene blossomed in the late Sixties and early Seventies as a result of a few key trigger events. One of these was the decision by Bob Dylan to record Blonde on Blonde in Nashville.

The exhibit opens with a brief biographical section on Dylan’s career prior to his 1966 arrival in Nashville and on the events that drew him to Music City. To record his album Highway 61 Revisited, in 1965, Dylan was in New York working with producer Bob Johnston, a former Nashville resident. Johnston often had hired multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy to lead sessions in Nashville. At Johnston’s invitation, McCoy visited one of Dylan’s New York sessions and was asked to play guitar on “Desolation Row.”

McCoy impressed Dylan with his musicianship, and Johnston urged Dylan to record in Nashville, where there were many other skilled musicians. Dylan took Johnston’s advice; he came to Nashville in February 1966 to make the recordings that would become Blonde on Blonde. The album is considered one of the great achievements of Dylan’s career and a benchmark of American popular music.*

Whether you're a Dylan fan, Johnny Cash fan or a country music fan, the book is full of enough anecdotes and stories that you're bound to learn a few things you didn't already know. For me, the big "Aha" was the question I'd always wondered about as to why Dylan abandoned the recording of Blonde On Blonde in New York and headed to Nashville in the first place. Fans all know how he was trying to get that "thin, wild mercury sound" as legends recall it. But why couldn't he find it with his backing band The Hawks who did the world tour with him? Why did he leave most of his troop behind?

Well, the answer isn't blowing in the wind. It's right here in this book.

The Hawks, a.k.a. The Band, were performers first and foremost. You can read Levon Helm's This Wheel's On Fire to get the incredible story of how these guys developed their stage style, riling audiences and blistering paint wherever they assembled. But they were not a studio band. Studio work is a whole different animal. They were skilled at reading audiences, responding to the room, and that's not what studio work is all about.

Dylan recognized this, and his brief experience with Charlie McCoy gave him an inkling that there might be some alternative means of getting the tracks on his head transferred to acetate. Producer Bob Johnston became the conduit and, as they say, the rest is history.

Dylan recorded three albums in Nashville. In addition to Blonde On Blonde, he also cut John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline there, albums completely against the current of what was then happening in the pop scene. Even though acid rock and heavy metal were transforming the culture elsewhere, serious musicians were paying attention to what Dylan was doing. The Nashville Cats exhibit not only showcases the musicians who made up this respected circle, but is also a virtual who's who of stars who made a trek to Nashville. Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Michael Nesmith, Leon Russell, Eric Andersen, Joan Baez, and Johnny Winter are just a few of the names that passed this way. Even three of the Beatles recorded albums here. After the breakup George Harrison made a call with the result being his famous triple album All Things Must Pass. Ringo came next and then Paul.

The exhibit runs through the end of this year, so you still have a few months left to drop in at the Country Music Hall of Fame and take it in. If this isn't in the cards for you, you can still order this rich collection of stories from behind the scenes and get your heart warmed.

Much more could be said (e.g. Johnny Cash won a Grammy for his liner notes on Nashville Skyline), but you can read it yourself if you get the book. Or you can bookmark the website.*

* * * *

MEANTIME, here in the Northland we're celebrating the 25th Anniversary of John Bushey's KUMD program Highway 61 Revisited. This special event, to be held on October 15 at The Rex in Fitger's, will not only have a great evening of music, there will also be some rare Dylan-themed memorabilia sold in a silent auction fund-raiser (to cover expenses of the night and see money for the 2017 Duluth Dylan Fest.) One very special item of note: Bob himself personally signed a copy of his Highway 61 Revisited album and sent it this past week for the occasion. (Count your pesos! It might end up yours.)

Magic Marc Percansky, the inimitable Paul Metsa (Wall of Power Radio Hour) and others will be part of the evening, which will include music from The Freewheelers and Cowboy Angel Blue. (i.e. lots of Dylan music!)

Tickets are cheap. I hope we'll see you there. (Link to Tickets.)

* Read more: Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City


Jerry Dixey said...

Great overview Ed. As someone who has seen the exhibit first hand I encourage everyone who enjoys the stories of how we got to where we are musically today to make it to Nashville for a look. Jerry Dixey

Ed Newman said...

Thanks, Jerry. If my Frequent Flyer miles reach a plateau I may have to take the tour.... Best to you

Jim Mello said...

I agree, the exhibit was inspiring and illuminating. A wonderful recognition of the blending of folk, country, and rock. There's a two CD set of the music by the way.