How Bob Dylan Found His New Country Voice on 'Nashville Skyline'

How Bob Dylan Found His New Country Voice on 'Nashville Skyline'

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How Bob Dylan Found His New Country Voice on 'Nashville Skyline' news

Bob Dylan fully embraced his country influence, and sang in a surprising new croon, on 1969's 'Nashville Skyline.' Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

In June 1969, two months after Nashville Skyline landed in stores, Bob Dylan told Rolling Stone founder Jann S. Wenner that he’d originally had a different name in mind for his latest album. “The title came up John Wesley Harding, Volume II,” he said. “We were gonna do that.” As usual, Dylan must have been at least partly kidding. Nashville Skyline was recorded in the same city as its 1967 predecessor, and re-enlisted its rhythm section – but that’s where the similarities end. Where John Wesley Harding was an ominous riddle, Nashville Skyline was a big, warm hug, from its all-smiles cover photo to the sweet, romantic love songs on its track list. “The record company wanted to call the album Love Is All There Is,” Dylan added. “It sounded a little spooky to me.”

He’d been flirting with country music for a few years, but this is the album where Dylan fully embraced the influence of Hank Williams, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. “The sound was Nashville, and I was so glad,” says Charlie McCoy, who played bass on the album. He and drummer Kenny Buttrey were joined by other top Music City session players, including guitarist Charlie Daniels and pedal steel master Pete Drake, for a colorful full-band sound. “We just take a song,” Dylan said of the laid-back sessions. “I play it, and everyone else sort of fills in behind it.”

Dylan claimed cutting out smoking was all it took to unlock the surprising baritone croon he debuted on the LP: “I tell you, you stop smoking those cigarettes, and you’ll be able to sing like Caruso.” “Lay Lady Lay,” a sexy ballad written for the film Midnight Cowboy, showcased his new voice over Drake’s syrupy steel and Buttrey’s syncopated rhythm. Years later, Buttrey recalled nailing his part with the use of “a real cheap bongo set” and a spare cowbell. “Kris Kristofferson was working Columbia Studios at the time as a janitor, and he had just emptied my ashtray at the drums,” Buttrey said. “I said, ‘Kris, do me a favor, here, hold these two things.'”

A few days after the initial sessions for Nashville Skyline, Dylan returned to the studio with his buddy Johnny Cash. Together, they recorded upward of a dozen loose covers – from “You Are My Sunshine” to the Appalachian folk standard “Good Ol’ Mountain Dew” to Cash’s own “I Walk the Line” and “Ring of Fire.” Only one made the album: a friendly duet on Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country,” sounding like a milestone to show how far its author had traveled since the song’s first appearance, on 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. It almost served another purpose, too. “Some of the names [for the album] just didn’t seem to fit,” Dylan said, laughing, in that 1969 interview. “Picture me on the front holding a guitar and Girl From the North Country printed on top!”

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