2019 American Music Awards

What Charlie Daniels Learned From Bob Dylan's 'Nashville Skyline' Sessions

Anwar Hussein/Getty Images
 Bob Dylan on stage at the Isle of Wight Festival in Wootton on Aug. 31, 1969.

"Johnny didn't have a piercing yell, but ten thousand years of culture fell from him," Bob Dylan wrote about Johnny Cash in his 2004 memoir Chronicles: Volume One. "He could have been a cave dweller. He sounds like he's at the edge of the fire, or in deep snow, or in a ghostly forest, the coolness of conscious obvious strength, full tilt and vibrant with danger."

The two-day recording sessions between Dylan and Cash in 1969, born amidst the Minnesota troubadour's famed appearance on the Man in Black's TV variety program The Johnny Cash Show and the recording of Dylan's Nashville Skyline (including the pair's indelible duet "Girl From The North Country"), has been on fans' Bootleg Series wish list for years. On Nov. 1, Legacy Recordings' rolling archive series gave the people what they wanted in Travelin' Thru, 1967-1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 15, a three-disc set focusing on Dylan's time in Nashville to work on John Wesley Harding, the aforementioned Skyline and 1970's Self Portrait and New Morning.

Most fans of post-bike wreck Bob will have much to cherish on the first disc of this latest edition of the Bootleg Series with loose, luminous alternate takes of such JWH favorites as "I Pity The Poor Immigrant," "Drifter's Escape" and "All Along The Watchtower" with lean accompaniment by Charlie McCoy on bass and Kenny Buttrey on drums. Yet it's the Cash stuff on Vol. 15 that's king, the result of a keen idea to bring together these mighty totems of Columbia Records by renowned label producer Bob Johnston, who had been recording Dylan since Highway 61 Revisited and had just begun working with Johnny Cash on his storied prison concert albums At Folsom Prison (1968) and At San Quentin (1969).

"Nashville's horizons were getting broadened quite a bit at the time, and I think Bob Johnston was probably as responsible for that as anyone," says Southern rock legend Charlie Daniels, who at the time was a close associate of the producer just making his presence felt on Music Row. "Bob [Johnston] brought people into town. All of a sudden you had Al Kooper coming into town, Ringo Starr, The Byrds, Leonard Cohen... A lot of people didn't like Bob, they were down on him because he did bring a whole different work ethic and a whole different approach to making music in Nashville. He didn't watch the clock as much as other people did. Bob was a rebel; he was a definite rebel. And him bringing Bob Dylan to town was responsible for loosening whatever needed to be loosened in Nashville and let the music flow."

Johnston and Daniels went back to 1959, when they first met on the club scene in Fort Worth, TX. But it wasn't until 1962 that their professional rapport took root, when Johnston invited the guitar player to work with him on a song that would become Elvis Presley's 1964 single "It Hurts Me." The producer intrinsically seemed to know the young Southern rock pioneer from North Carolina would make a great addition to the Nashville Skyline sessions. The famed fiddler, however, will be the first to tell you he nearly didn't get to play on the sessions.

"They had built the nucleus of that studio band around him with the other two albums he had done in town, Blonde On Blonde and John Wesley Harding," Daniels tells Billboard. "But the guitarist they wanted [Wayne Moss] could not make the first session because he was already booked elsewhere. So Bob Johnston called me and got me to fill in for him, and Dylan liked what I was doing. I was getting ready to leave but he didn't want me to leave and asked me to stick around and I wound up doing two more records with him in Self Portrait and New Morning. But it was happenstance that I was on those initial sessions for Nashville Skyline."

"When Charlie was around, something good would usually come out of the sessions," Dylan wrote of Daniels in Chronicles: Volume One.

"I remember he was in a great mood during these sessions," Daniels recalls of Dylan to Billboard. "All the players were. They had booked I think it was 15 sessions to do that complete album Nashville Skyline. We didn't use all 15; we got it done in less time than that. It went fast and it went well, and we had a really fun time doing it. And of course, Dylan at the time didn't want to mess around with 50 cuts of something. He wanted to get it done."

Johnston wasn't looking to put together a glistening team of slick Nashville pro musicians, but rather true Music City cats who were already hip to Dylan and the directions he was going with his amplified strain of folk rock in the mid-to-late 1960s. And Daniels fit that mold, his guitar chops rough, ready and road-tested from time on the bar circuit, which can be clearly heard on the scorching renditions of two Cash classics from the Self Portrait sessions, "Ring of Fire" (where he plays bass) and "Folsom Prison Blues" (playing guitar).

"I am not the consummate studio musician, because studio musicians are so multi-talented in their ability to go from one session to another and do all different kinds of things," Daniels tells Billboard. "And when I came to Nashville, I came off 13 years of straight balls-to-the-wall club music, playing rock n' roll dance music and stuff. I was not studio savvy. I used to play loud and bluesy, stretchin' strings and a lot of stuff not going on in Nashville at the time. But working with Dylan was something I was able to really sink my teeth into and was certainly not out of my field of expertise.

"I came out to Nashville originally to produce records and write songs," he recalls. "But I soon found out that's not where my heart is. My heart has been, and I come to find it will always be, out here playing music and walking on stage in front of a crowd of people. And with the Dylan stuff, I definitely felt that same energy."

Those sessions helped give the now-83-year-old icon the confidence to venture forth into a successful career that shows no signs of slowing down after 60 years.

"At the time I was going back and forth from Nashville to L.A., so I got this smattering of both worlds," Daniels explains to Billboard with regard to his time recording with Dylan as well as producing Elephant Mountain, the underrated 1969 album from psychedelic folk rockers The Youngbloods. "It was a time of good music, where there were less restrictions on rock radio, and they would play anything from bluegrass to Weather Report on the air. They had such a wide range of music they would play, and they'd play whatever they wanted. Bob Dylan represented that kind of creative freedom to me as to somebody who was not concerned so much with how long it took to get a song done, whether it was three minutes or thirty minutes, whatever it took to get it done. That made a lot of people, including myself, think, 'Wait a minute, let's try not crowding things up. If we need 10 minutes, let's just do a 10-minute song and do a long instrumental part if we need to.' It made for some great creative music and being able to get stuff played on the air just because it was good. And to learn how groups like The Youngbloods had the greatest respect for guys like Earl Scruggs and Johnny Cash; you'd think they'd be isolated from those kinds of sounds, but they weren't at all."


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