“This man can rhyme the tick of time
The edge of pain, the what of sane
And comprehend the good in men, the bad in men
Can feel the hate of fight, the love of right
And the creep of blight at the speed of light
The pain of dawn, the gone of gone
The end of friend, the end of end […]
Here-in is a hell of a poet
And lots of other things”
– Johnny Cash on Bob Dylan
The above liner notes that adorn the sleeve of Dylan’s 1969 album, Nashville Skyline
, describe very poetically the essence of Bob Dylan as a song writer and an artist. To many Dylan has always been a poet first and a musician second but one thing that makes Johnny Cash’s liner notes here so intriguing is that they appear in the context of an album to which this is perhaps the least applicable, making the last line in some ways the most fitting. Nashville Skyline
is an album that arguably represents Dylan at his least poetic and most musically polished and accomplished, seeing the singer-songwriter adopt a traditional country music style that was hinted at on previous album, John Wesley Harding. Vocally this album finds Dylan embracing a soft country-style croon that is considerably easier on the ear than his usual vocal delivery and despite lacking the emotional intensity of some of his less-reserved vocal performances makes for a pleasant and fitting change.
In addition to penning the album’s liner notes, Johnny Cash also features as a guest on opening track “Girl From the North Country”, a song that originally appeared on Dylan’s second album The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan
. This album’s rendition certainly doesn’t eclipse the original but it does offer a slightly different take on the song that makes what some might consider a needless rehash, an interesting remake. The combination of Dylan’s new-found gentle croon and the unmistakable voice of Johnny Cash works surprisingly well, whilst musically the song has a warmer feel to it than the original which works in its favour, especially within the context of the rest of the album which has a similarly warm atmosphere throughout. Despite the unavoidable, niggling query as to why a songwriter of Dylan’s pedigree would open an album with a remake of a previously released album track, the song is one of the highlights on Nashville Skyline
, which you could argue says more about the album as a whole than it does about “Girl From the North Country”.
There’s no denying that the song writing on Nashville Skyline
isn’t as strong as it had been on previous albums but it’s obvious that the album was never meant to be a showcase of Dylan’s lyrical flare, rather the sound of a man dipping his toes into the comfortably warm waters of a sound that felt right
at the time. Song’s such as “I Threw It All Way” and “Tell Me That it isn’t True” find Dylan creating simple country ballads that whilst on the face of it appear rather unremarkable, are actually surprisingly infectious and emotionally engaging. The most memorable song on the album comes in the form of the beautiful Lay Lady Lay, a song which displays the album’s more refined song writing approach at its best and finds Dylan’s new-found vocal style at its most emotive. It’s during these slower, more emotional songs that the album really shines, displaying Dylan’s take on country music at its most successful.
The album is let down slightly by the more upbeat, jovial songs which don’t particularly play to Dylan’s strengths. The likes of Peggy Day and Country Pie aren’t weak per se but they lack any real memorable melody and fall somewhat short in the song writing department. On the other hand no song on Nashville Skyline
ever sounds forced and despite often straying far from Dylan’s usual formula everything feels very natural, even “Nashville Skyline Rag”, an all instrumental piece (a rarity for Dylan) feels genuine and spontaneous and only suffers due to its rather awkward placement on the album.
Throughout Nashville Skyline
Dylan shows his competence as a musician, sounding more than comfortable playing a style that is somewhat removed from his usual stripped back folk sound or his blues based electric material. In many ways it’s the album’s focus on Dylan’s musical qualities that makes Nashville Skyline such an interesting listen. For once his lyrics aren’t consistently the centre of attention, often playing second fiddle to the musicianship and more basic, less poetic song-craft. Whilst nothing on Nashville Skyline
can hold a candle to Dylan’s best works it is nonetheless a refreshing and thoroughly enjoyable album that shows a different side to Dylan that has rarely been heard, and while there is no doubting that Dylan is indeed a hell of a poet
, this album puts emphasis on the fact that he is also lots of other things