Taking the Country Road

By Paul Rigg

Bob Dylan’s ninth studio album, Nashville Skyline (Colombia Records: 9 April, 1969), built on the more countrified- and Nashville– oriented direction of John Wesley Harding and, musically and lyrically represented a radical break from the past.  

While critics initially gave it a mixed reception, Nashville Skyline has come to be seen as one of Dylan’s best, making number 3 in the US and number 1 in the UK charts, and becoming one of the American singer-songwriter’s biggest sellers.

The album was a departure for Dylan in at least three ways: musically, vocally and lyrically. 

In terms of the music, Dylan surrounded himself with a number of big names on the Nashville country scene who, nonetheless, never sought to impose themselves on the songs. Drummer Kenny Buttrey and bassist Charlie McCoy were joined by
Charlie Daniels, Pete Drake, Bob Wilson and Norman Blake in successfully producing a simpler, more rustic, sound than Dylan had previously experimented with.

The second novelty that is likely to strike anyone listening to this album is Dylan’s smoother and more subtle crooning voice. Gone is his familiar gravelly rasp, which many have put down to the great man temporarily giving up smoking.  


Thirdly, gone are the poetic, politicially charged and socially critical lyrics. In their place are simpler themes, which therefore means the music is relied upon more to carry the songs. Some have even suggested that Dylan’s big smile on the album cover is indicative of him being happier, having adopted a more simple and positive approach to his music; and perhaps his life. But this interpretation would be taking things too far: while he may not be as explicitly angry, the lyrics are all about heartache, regret and loss. One critic in fact has even called it “one of the saddest and most melancholy albums of Dylan’s career.”

The record kicks off with Girl from the North Country, which originally appeared on
The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, but this time features Johnny Cash on vocals. Clearly Dylan and ‘The Man in Black’ had a lot of respect for each other, and the version that results is warmer than that which appeared on Dylan’s legendary second album, which suits the feel of Nashville Skyline better.

The opening track is followed by the instrumental
Nashville Skyline Rag, which draws heavily on the skills of the musicians Dylan has assembled and, frankly, sounds like they had a lot of fun making it.

Next up is the album’s first single, the outstanding I Threw It All Away, which made the top 30 in the UK and features Dylan seemingly playing his acoustic
Martin 000-18. This track is hugely surpassed however by the eternal classic, Lay Lady Lay, with its trippy lyric: “Whatever colours you have in mind, I’ll show them to you and you’ll see them shine.” Dylan’s yearning voice also shines, along with his use of his Fender Telecaster, and undoubtedly takes the album to an entirely different level.  

Tell Me That It Isn’t True,
a song about infidelity, is another example of this record being darker than might first appear. The album closes with the third single, Tonight I’ll be Staying Here With You, which peaked at number 50 in the US Billboard charts.

However, some critics argue the album might have more appropriately closed with Country Pie, with its apparent celebration of country music: “Get me my country pie”, Dylan sings, “I won’t throw it up in anybody’s face.” And certainly the wry humour in this lyric seems to capture something that might well also be behind Dylan’s big smile on the front cover…