Nashville Cats, play clean as country water,
Nashville Cats, play wild as mountain dew. — John Sebastian
Two autumns back 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 that Tuesday evening 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 2016. 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 inside 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 has run its course but 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.*
Originally published at pioneerproductions.blogspot.com