"These are the type of songs that I always felt like writing. The songs reflect more of the inner me than the songs of the past. They're more to my base than, say, "John Wesley Harding." There I felt everyone expected me to be a poet so that's what I tried to be. But the smallest line on this new album means more to me than some of the songs on the previous albums I've made." Bob Dylan - Newsweek interview, April 1969.
Bob Dylan's brief flirtation with country music began with the last two tracks of 1968's "John Wesley Harding," included two studio albums ("Nashville Skyline" and "Self Portrait"), and stuttered to a halt with 1970's patchy "New Morning." "Down Along The Cove" and "I'll Be You're Baby Tonight" suggested a promise that "Nashville Skyline" was unfortunately unable to live up to, and it's release in April 1969 was met with much head scratching. Coming only a few short years after such ground-breaking albums as "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blonde On Blonde," here was Dylan, the unofficial spokesman for a whole generation singing songs that had all the substance of a meringue and all the staying power of an ice-cube on a hot day. Banal lyrics and ridiculously short running time aside, the biggest surprise however, and most unconvincing thing about the whole album was Dylan's voice, a sort of high-pitched nasal twang. He told Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone that it was due to him giving up smoking, "That's true. I tell you, you stop smoking those cigarettes...and you'll be able to sing like Caruso." He had, by his own admission, gone to Nashville with only a handful of songs ("The first time I went into the studio I had, I think, four songs...") and probably thought that his old make it up as you go along system would work again. It didn't. The bulk of the album was written and recorded hurriedly, and it shows. Only three songs "I Threw It All Away," "Lay, Lady, Lay" and "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You" rise above the totally forgettable, there is a duet with Johnny Cash (more of that later) and Dylan's first instrumental. The other five tracks are much of a muchness and have rhyming patterns of the moon/june variety, and even Paul Williams surely the staunchest of Dylan supporters, while describing the album as "...pretty" and "...magical," was forced to admit that if Dylan were to continue in this vein, history would see him not as a great artist, but as a mediocre entertainer.
Of the ten tracks on "Nashville Skyline" seven were recorded over two sessions, February 13th and 14th, and on the 17th, Johnny Cash, who was recording his own album in the same studios dropped in. The Dylan/Cash relationship went back a few years, to the time when Johnny Cash had fought Dylan's corner when CBS executives were considering dropping him from the label, and the pair decided to try out some duets. "I had microphones set up and stools and tapes and everything" recalls producer Bob Johnston "They looked at each other...got their guitars and started playing." Unconvincing results notwithstanding, the next day they taped some eighteen or so songs, and there was some talk of these being turned into an official album. The reason for this not happening will be fairly evident to anyone that has heard these recordings - put simply, the collaboration did not work. "Dylan's and Cash's voices do not blend well together," says Paul Cable in his book on Dylan's unreleased recordings, "they are seldom synchronised and Dylan's harmonies tend to be imaginative to say the least." The choice of "Girl From The North Country" to open proceedings is a poor one not because of the quality of the recording (it is no better and no worse than anything else from that session) but because of its history. This is one of the finest love songs from Dylan's early period, a tender ballad that was one of the high points of his second album, and a song that he has performed often in concert. Here it loses all its tenderness and poignancy as Cash's gruff baritone, so effective on so many other songs, rides roughshod over Dylan's thoughtful and reflective lyrics. If that session had to be represented here, then a better option might have been to pick one of the standards that was recorded (see list above). Johnny Cash increased his involvement with "Nashville Skyline" by writing the album liner notes, in which he referred to Dylan as "...a hell of a poet" - right description, wrong album. Dylan returned the favour by appearing on Johnny Cash's television show where he performed solo versions of "I Threw It All Away" and "Livin' The Blues," (a song that would appear on "Self Portrait") before being joined by his host for "Girl From The North Country." Dylan's performance was stilted and he appeared tense, saying nothing to the television audience during the taping. Some thought that he looked frightened and nervous in front of the cameras, but Cash's wife June put his demeanour down to his shyness. The show was offered to the BBC but they declined to take up the offer, saying that they considered that Dylan "...gave an inferior performance."
"Nashville Skyline Rag," Dylan's first release of an instrumental, is the album's second track, but it hardly taxes the expertise of the studio musicians. It has been described as "jaunty," and the best thing that can be said about it is that the end is not too far from the beginning. It was recorded at what was essentially the final session (February 17th) when most of the album was in the can, and if Dylan was happy with the quality of what he had recorded, he could not have been happy with the length of the material. This was almost certainly taped to pad out the album. It is followed with "To Be Alone With You," a perfect example of how Dylan was struggling with his muse. To hear him singing lines like "They say that nighttime is the right time/To be with the one you love" illustrates this perfectly. Of course I could be missing the point here, many people see "Nashville Skyline" as a celebration of the simple things in life, indeed, Wilfrid Mellors inexplicably says that the "...powerfully erotic love songs on "Nashville Skyline"...should be construed as a triumph for the personal life," but perhaps more pointedly, it has been described as the Dylan album for people who don't like Dylan, or even more disdainfully as Dylan for the under fourteens.
"I Threw It All Away" was the first song to be released as a single (only the three mentioned above were considered strong enough to be given single release), and is one of the better tracks on the album. The theme of lost or unrequited love features strongly in Dylan's writing and here he lays the blame squarely at his own door "But I was cruel/I treated her like a fool/I threw it all away" he sings, and then in the true spirit of only missing something once it's gone "I must have been mad/I never knew what I had/Until I threw it all away." Later in the song he gives the stark reality of "Love is all there is..." but follows it with the trite "...it makes the world go round" again emphasising the simplicity of the writing, and he ends in the same moralising tone "For one thing that's certain/You will surely be a-hurtin'/If you throw it all away." Although not a great song by any stretch of the imagination, "I Threw It All Away" did prove that Dylan had mastered the art of writing a three minute pop song, but our expectations were so much higher.
There isn't really much to say about "Peggy Day" apart from to comment on the dreadful punning of day and night. This is a poor song, made worse by Dylan's uninspired performance of it. The sheer banality of lines like "By golly, what more can I say/Love to spend the night with Peggy Day" and "Man that girl is out of sight/Love to spend the day with Peggy night" are enough to make one cringe.
By contrast, "Lay Lady Lay" is one of the strongest on the album. It was originally intended for the soundtrack of the John Schlesinger movie "Midnight Cowboy" but Dylan was typically vague about why it didn't make it "So I came up with that song. By the time I came up with it though, it was too late. It's the same old story all the time...So I kept the song and recorded it." he told Jann Wenner in 1969. Harry Nilsson's version of Fred Neil's "Everybody's Talkin'" was of course used instead (ironically, Dylan had played harmonica with Neil at Cafe Wha? in 1961). There is a feeling of sensuality and eroticism in "Lay Lady Lay" not found on the rest of the album, but unfortunately the song suffers with Dylan's slightly unconvincing delivery. His intentions however are quite plain with "...stay with your man a while/Until the break of day, let me see you make him smile" and "I long to see you in the morning light/I long to reach for you in the night" and in the 1978 Playboy interview Dylan said that he "...always had a feeling there was more to the song." This may be the reason that this is the only song from "Nashville Skyline" to have any sort of staying power and the only one from the album to be performed with any degree of consistency in concert. It was reinvented in 1976 for the second leg of the Rolling Thunder tour, but that rendering (it can be heard on 1976's "Hard Rain") is far more coarse in both lyric and delivery.
The next three tracks are all pretty poor, but "One More Night" which is a sort of Hank Williams meets Elvis Presley is probably the best of the three. Here for once Dylan's voice suits the lyric, and the writing does rise above the utterly banal, the plaintive refrain of "Tonight no light will shine on me" is a true country lament. Again we see Dylan blaming himself for the breakdown of the relationship "I just could not be what she wanted me to be," but I could have done without the use of the word "pal" in the line "I lost the only pal I had." There are little nuggets of the old Dylan here and the line "I will turn my head up high/To that dark and rolling sky" rolls easily off the tongue as he performs the song in a relaxed and laid-back manner.
"One More Night," the best of the minor songs on the album is followed by "Tell Me That It Isn't True," probably the worst. Here Dylan plumbs new depths in cliché ridden triteness in a song that would embarrass a love-sick teenager. "They say that you've been seen with some other man/That he's tall, dark and handsome, and you're holding his hand" and "To know that some other man is holding you tight/It hurts me all over, it doesn't seem right" are among the worst he has ever written or sung. This is truly the low point of the album, and the refrain of "Tell Me That It Isn't True" could well be what many of Dylan's fans were thinking as they listened to it, although Dylan claimed it was the one song on the album that he really liked, even though it came out differently to the way he had written it. "It came out real slow and mellow," he told Jann Wenner, "I had it written as sort of a jerky, kind of polka-type thing."
"Country Pie" on the other hand sees Dylan having a joke (maybe at our expense), as he revels in his idyllic country lifestyle, so much so that one can almost hear the yee haw after "Oh me, oh my/Love that country pie." He's having fun with words here and enjoying himself, something he doesn't seem to be doing on the rest of the album, and the line "I don't need much that ain't no lie/Ain't runnin' any race" seems to be affirming his contentment with his chosen lifestyle. "Country Pie" is a song that could have benefited from a little more time and effort, as we see evidence of Dylan's excellent timing, something quite rare here, "Blueberry, apple, cherry, pumpkin and plum..." you can almost taste them.
The final song on the album "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You," is also one of the best. It has echoes of the previous album's "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" but with it's more pragmatic lyrics, it lacks the playful sexuality of that song. "Throw my troubles out the door/I don't need them any more" sings Dylan as if it were that simple "'Cause tonight I'll be staying here with you." The classic elements of the love song are here "You cast your spell and I went under/I find it so difficult to leave" and the inevitable railway imagery of the country song that Dylan has used so often "I can hear that whistle blowin'/I see that stationmaster too" complete the picture. Although far from classic Dylan, "Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You" is vastly superior to most of the songs on the album. This was another song that was reworked for Rolling Thunder, (but the first, more successful tour), where a rewritten version was debuted late in November 1975. It was performed in almost every show after that, and on a couple of occasions, Dylan introduced it as a "...true story."
Dylan had served notice with the last two tracks of "John Wesley Harding" of his new musical direction and "Nashville Skyline" was that legacy. Commercially the album was a success on both sides of the Atlantic but critically it was a disaster. Dylan felt compelled to defend it at the time, but in 1978 said "...you had to read between the lines. I was trying to grasp something that would lead me on to where I thought I should be, and it didn't go nowhere - it just went down, down, down." Charlie McCoy, by now a veteran of four Dylan albums, found "Nashville Skyline" hard to define, "...I wouldn't call that a country record" he said, "But it wasn't pop or R&B or anything like that. It had a folk feel to it." Country Joe McDonald, however was less flattering, writing in Rolling Stone he said "...he's like a ghost of his former self, and it drives me up the wall. I don't know where the real Bob Dylan went, but I don't believe this one...He don't fool me, man." This disbelief was echoed by many, John Herdman said that Dylan was pursuing "...a set of ideals in which he does not really believe," in the Listener Tim Souster said that the idyllic country landscape that Dylan was presenting was "...too good to be true," and Ed Ochs in Billboard wrote that the new Dylan was speaking in "...clichés and blushes as if every day were Valentine's day...So good-bye Bob Dylan, I'm glad you're happy though you meant more to me when you were confused like everybody else." On the plus side, "Nashville Skyline" helped bring the previously unfashionable country sound to the ears of other artists who began flocking to Nashville studios, and it was largely responsible for the country rock sound of people like James Taylor, Kris Kristofferson, The Byrds, Poco and even Crosby, Stills and Nash. Dylan continued the defence of his album, telling Hubert Saal in 1969 that he admired the spirit of the music, it was he said "...like a good door, a good house, a good car, a good road, a good girl. I feel like writing a whole lot more of them too." Thankfully this was not the case. His follow-up album "Self Portrait" just over a year later, contained very little original material and by the time "New Morning" was released a suspiciously hasty four months after that, the country bug had all but disappeared. Time has not been kind to "Nashville Skyline," with only a couple of the songs having any sort of credibility, and the kindest way to describe it would probably be as an experiment that failed.