I was a little hesitant to start with this record. Other than some of his major hits I don’t know much about Bob Dylan, and he’s one of those living legends that’s super polarizing. You either love his music or you “weren’t there and you’ll never understand, man.” In a way his music seemed inaccessible to me, I wasn’t even going to attempt.
There are, however, two things I know about Dylan. 1) He’s a character, and he basically seems like Don Quixote when it comes to women. I’m Not There is the extent of my research here. 2) He writes really good songs that other people make popular. “All Along The Watchtower” was written by Dylan, but no one is disputing the fact that it’s a Jimi Hendrix Song. Dylan himself said “I liked Jimi Hendrix’s record of this and ever since he died I’ve been doing it that way… Strange how when I sing it, I always feel it’s a tribute to him in some kind of way.” It’s not an insult, it’s a testament to his songwriting. And I think we can all agree that the screechy harmonica in his version of Watchtower is painful to listen to.
Anyway, I plopped the record on the turntable and it opens up on a slow song. Then out of nowhere Johnny Cash’s deep quivering voice bellows through the speakers. They go back and forth, Dylan dancing across the highs and Cash holding down the lows. The chorus comes and they both pretty much botch the highs, I’d bet a 20 spot they were drunk when recording and I love every second of it.
The rest of Side 1 feels like an experiment. Nashville Skyline Rag is playful with piano, guitar and harmonica licks competing for attention. To Be Alone With You is more bluesy & comes as quick as it goes. I Threw It All Away was a popular song from the album, reaching 85 on the Billboard Top 100 in the US. I found this surprising because it’s the biggest outlier on the album for me. It’s the least country/blues/bluegrass song. In the same vein, it’s probably the most Dylan, and I “just don’t get it man.” Peggy Day rounds out the first side & might be my favorite song on the album. Dylan’s voice sounds great on this track, the slide guitar is fun, and he breaks the song down before punching it home at the end.
Side 2 of Nashville Skyline feels like Dylan is playing to a form. Is he returning to his roots? His influences? Did he make a genre album? My friend told me this was his first album after a motorcycle accident and a period of being a recluse. He could have done a genre album as a red herring – how can you compare it to his past work if it’s 100% different? (I also think Daft Punk did this with Get Lucky, but that’s another post entirely)
There is one exception to this genre theory of course – Lay Lady Lay kicks the side off & it’s easy to see why this was the hit of the album. Dylan’s voice is warm, low and smooth, and the lyrics & instrumentation are simple and satisfying. The percussion is interesting in this song, with a commendable focus on what I can only assume is a cowbell. Like any good Dylan song, it was covered extensively by other bands, including Duran Duran at one point.
The rest of the songs on side two are unremarkable and could easily have been written and performed by Willie Nelson or even an energetic Patsy Cline. And that’s not a bad thing. Alone they wouldn’t set the world on fire, but together they add up to a solid, enjoyable record.
This was kind of an interesting find for me because no one in my family is a really big Dylan fan. It’s the only Dylan record in my grandpa’s collection – but it’s one of a bunch of country albums, which explains why it’s there. I honestly don’t know if this anything like Dylan’s other records (I may never learn), but I keeping coming back to Nashville Skyline and really enjoyed it.