Nashville Skyline

Nashville Skyline

“Truly he is what the land and country is all about,” Bob Dylan wrote in 2003, soon after Johnny Cash died, “the heart and soul of it personified and what it means to be here; and he said it all in plain English.” Dylan had been reared on country music, of course, and Cash was one of the brightest stars in that constellation. When Cash lashed out at the folk-music press for decrying Dylan’s new direction as the 1960s progressed, Dylan rejoiced, leading to their status as pen pals—and then real pals. When the two finally met, Dylan purportedly jumped up and down on a bed, exclaiming, “I met Johnny Cash.” Though they long talked of working together, their schedules interfered until they both happened to be working at Nashville’s Columbia outpost in early February 1969. After sharing dinner, Dylan and Cash cut 18 songs together in a late-night marathon. One of those songs, a gentle duet of “Girl From the North Country,” leads 1969’s Nashville Skyline, Dylan’s brief-but-reverent entry into classic country. The singer had begun the decade with a famously nasal sneer, but he’d wound up quitting cigarettes, and his voice here is rich, nearly matching Cash’s stentorian baritone. What’s more, Dylan’s dense poetics from earlier in the decade had given way to something like simplicity, with the singer engaging in stick-with-me-baby entreaties during “Tell Me That It Isn’t True” and grandiose yearning during “I Threw It All Away.” Four years earlier, it would have been unfathomable to consider him singing something so blunt as “Love is all there is/It makes the world go ’round.” His sincerity and commitment on Nashville Skyline, though, are endearing. By the the end of the 1960s, Dylan was one of music’s biggest stars, independent of genre. For his third album in Nashville, he plucked from the best of the best, with a lineup that includes Pete Drake on pedal steel, Charlie Daniels on bass, and Norman Blake on guitar. Together, they ripple like lean muscle during the instrumental “Nashville Skyline Rag,” sit perfectly in the pocket during “Lay, Lady, Lay,” and dance with a silly grin for “Country Pie,” a saucy number about the rural lifestyle and loving. “This man can rhyme the tick of time,” Cash wrote in the liner notes, again offering his imprimatur for his bold friend. “The edge of pain, the what of sane.”

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