Deep down Bob Dylan always wanted to be a cowboy. His sombre role in 1973’s Sam Peckinpah flick Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid finally brought this to full realisation on the silver screen, but it’s there across his oeuvre – from naming a full album after deadly gunslinger John Wesley Hardin(g) to his tip of the cap to outlaws on ‘Absolutely Sweet Marie’.
Released in 1969 ‘Nashville Skyline’ feels like another attempt to document the fading west, looking instead towards a feeling of tradition, a sense of roots before Roots – as a form of music – had really come into fruition.
Pushed off road, literally and figuratively, by the much-mythologised motorcycle crash, Bob Dylan’s escape to upstate New York just as the flower children began to wilt became a masterpiece in timing. Spending endless evenings with The Band drinking and running through old folk songs, he allowed new elements to come to the fore in his songwriting.
Often billed as a speed freak run-through, 1966’s ‘Blonde On Blonde’ in fact brought Dylan closer than ever to his Nashville heroes, and the spectre of country looms large on ‘Nashville Skyline’, recorded a little under two years later. It’s a perfectly formed miniature, with its slim line – less than a half hour – run time sitting at odds with its mammoth twin disc forebear.
But it’s also a record dominated by fresh ideas, matching a longing for roots and stability with an urge towards experimentation. There’s that soft tenor for a start – Dylan claimed to have given up smoking, with the results more suited to a Southern church than a New York folk shebeen.
Re-working ‘Girl From The North Country’ alongside Johnny Cash is the perfect start. The two seem to find kindred spirits in one another, just two cowboys on the trail, separated by age and disciplines but locating a common cause, a common path.
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‘Nashville Skyline Rag’ is a jaunty, old timey workout, so much sweeter than a mere cast off. ‘To Be Alone With You’ is a country-soul croon, a Southern rocker that leaps head-long into the rather more sombre ‘I Threw It All Away’.
‘Peggy Day’ is a witty ragtime ramble, while ‘One More Night’ has the air of sitting on Dylan’s front porch in Woodstock. ‘Tell Me That It Isn’t True’ has a righteous strut, something that wouldn’t sit out of place on The Band’s ‘Music From Big Pink’.
Dominated by the mercurial spectre of Bob Dylan the album actually feels much more whole, more rounded that some of his previous work. Utilising some of the finest session musicians on the Nashville country scene – Pete Drake, Charlie McCoy, Norman Blake – Dylan seems to charge headlong towards the timeless, towards the innocent.
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Nowhere is this more evident than one of the record’s two truly great moments, with ‘Lay Lady Lay’ capturing the sweet blossoming of passion. It’s lust without sin, a full-blooded love, with Dylan promising “His clothes are dirty, but his, his hands are clean…”
As he puts it: “Why wait any longer for the one you love / When he’s standing right in front of you…”
An exercise driven by sheer love, ‘Nashville Skyline’ is often viewed as being slim, under-developed, a stopping off point before Dylan’s early 70s slump. Yet at the time it was viewed as being pivotal, part of the movement back towards the land dominated by The Band’s ‘Music From Big Pink’ and The Byrds’ country-rock opus ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’.
Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the middle, and we should rejoice as Bob Dylan once did at being able to delve into American mythology, a truly bewitching form of play-acting.
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