(“Exploring the Classics” (ETC) is an ongoing series in which I highlight and discuss an album from country music’s past that is of particular noteworthiness due to general acclaim, influence, historical import, commercial success, or some combination thereof. While in many instances I’ll be revisiting albums with which I’ve long been familiar, in others I’ll be experiencing these works for the first time. What albums count as “noteworthy” is obviously highly subjective and determined at my discretion, but I’m not too strict about it. I do, however, feel that these are the works that tell the story of country music and all of its many roots and branches.)
I know what you’re thinking. Bob Dylan? Everybody knows that Dylan is folk, or rock. What am I doing covering him on a country music website?
Nashville Skyline is widely seen as Dylan’s “country” album. While Dylan began to introduce country elements into his music with 1967’s John Wesley Harding, it was this album that represented his true foray into the genre. While hardly anyone would categorize this album as being among Dylan’s best work, it is a great album in its own right. And given that Bob has been in the news a lot lately due to his winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, I thought now was as good a time as any to cover him.
Dylan enlisted the help of some major players in the country music world to help him out on this album, including Johnny Cash, bluegrass guitarist Norman Blake, steel guitarist Pete Drake, and Charlie Daniels (not on fiddle but guitar, surprisingly). Dylan also changed his singing style for this album, adopting a soft, gentle croon. While this album is often characterized as a hardcore country album by non-country fans, I would personally describe the sound as more of a country-folk hybrid with a touch of bluegrass. It’s undoubtedly country, but more Guy Clark or Townes Van Zandt-style country than pure honky-tonk.
The most dramatic change from Dylan’s past work is not the sound or the vocals, but the songwriting. The songs are very straightforward and literal, dealing with simple themes such as heartbreak, being in love, cheating, and even the great taste of good ol’ country pie. This obviously represented a huge departure from the complex compositions Dylan was known for. This album is often lambasted for that reason, but I think this criticism is unfair. Writing intricate, poetic songs replete with literary allusions and deep symbolism is obviously one kind of genius, but as great country songwriters like Hank Williams (one of Bob’s idols) have proven, writing songs that are simple yet speak meaningfully to real-life truths is another.
The album kicks off with “Girl in the North Country”, a duet with Johnny Cash. While I wouldn’t rank this song as among either man’s most remarkable work, it’s quite a good song with some nice imagery, and hearing these two musical giants on one record is quite a thrill. “Lay, Lady, Lay”, “To Be Alone With You”, “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You”, – heck, let’s just say every track on the album – are all very fine, well-written songs that explore the range of basic human emotion – happiness, love, regret, sadness, loneliness.
Admittedly, there’s nothing here that stacks up to masterpieces like “Mr. Tambourine Man” or “Like a Rolling Stone”, but that’s an extremely high bar to set. As a songwriter overall, Dylan is arguably the greatest ever, but as a country songwriter, he’s merely pretty good. However, Nashville Skyline is absolutely a breezy, fun listen that will make 27 minutes fly by in a flash. If you’re a country fan who is unfamiliar with Dylan but would like to see what the big deal is, it’s a perfect starting point.
Standout Track: “Lay, Lady, Lay” is the most famous song from this album, and for good reason – it’s enchanting
Weak Track(s): None
Best Lyric: From “I Threw It All Away”:
“Love is all there is, it makes the world go ’round
Love and only love, it can’t be denied
No matter what you think about it
You just won’t be able to do without it
Take a tip from one who’s tried”
Hidden Gem: Yes, it’s a bit corny, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love the hell out of “Country Pie”
Recommended If You Like: Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Guy Clark