On Tuesday night, Nashville paid tribute to one of its most celebrated eras with a night of free music at the Country Music Hall of Fame to celebrate Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City, a two-disc audio companion to the exhibit of the same name.
The album, issued jointly by Sony Legacy Recordings and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, is available now. It features a previously unreleased version of Bob Dylan‘s “If Not for You” and 35 other essential tracks. Much of the exhibit is focused on the time Dylan spent in Music City in the latter part of the 1960s. After recording his Highway 61 Revisited disc in New York, the singer-songwriter was encouraged by producer Bob Johnston — a former Nashville resident — to give the city a try on his next project.
In February 1966, Dylan did just that, coming to Tennessee to record Blonde on Blonde. Al Kooper, who played on that historic album, said the sessions were definitely a little different than in the Big Apple. “I had never recorded outside of New York City. I played with musicians that were closer in age to me than the ones in New York. These guys were three or four years older than me, so it was a different kind of thing. They were fantastic players, and it was very joyful. I had a great time.”
One aspect of the Blonde on Blonde session Kooper has fond memories of was the late-night recording experience. “They were booked day and night. That had never been done before. It was about 3 in the morning, and we were waiting for them to have a mic changed. Wayne Moss leaned over the console and said to no one in particular, ‘My one hour of sleep is getting pretty lonely.’ I’ll never forget that.”
Once he got used to the Nashville style of recording, Kooper said he came away with respect for all that were involved in the creative process. “There was nothing to correct from anyone that played on the sessions. I did love playing with Joe South. That was a highlight for me. His playing was very special.”
Dylan went on to record two more full albums in Nashville — John Wesley Harding (1967) and Nashville Skyline (1969) — as well as portions of 1970’s Self Portrait. In addition to Dylan, the exhibit pays tribute to the musicians on the sessions, known as “The Nashville Cats.” John Carter Cash, son of Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, said he feels the Hall did an outstanding job putting the exhibit together. “I think it’s quite comprehensive. It covers the spectrum of history. I think it’s very important that it’s acknowledged. It’s graciously done, and pays respect without being sensationalist in any form or fashion. It’s a piece of history, a very important part of the history of Nashville — when it sprouted a new branch.”
One aspect of Bob Dylan’s time spent in Nashville that is well covered by the Hall is his friendship with Johnny Cash. “My father told a story about his meeting with Bob Dylan,” John Carter Cash recalls. “They had been writing letters for awhile before, and they were in New York City. Bob came in the hotel room, jumped up and down on the bed and said, ‘I met Johnny Cash!’ just like a little kid. They had a friendship that was based on humor. That’s what Dad talked about, that there was a lot more about Bob Dylan than what meets the eye. Of course, you can tell that by the writing.”
During one of those trips to Nashville, Dylan made an appearance on Cash’s ABC-TV series, which led to an unforgettable night at the icon’s home, John Carter Cash reflected. “My parents’ house in Hendersonville had this beautiful, round lakeside room. They would have guitar pulls there that were usually based around what was going on with the television show at the time. My father told me there was one night that Bob was there, along with Shel Silverstein and Graham Nash. All three of them debuted songs that night — ‘Lay Lady Lay,’ ‘A Boy Named Sue’ and ‘Marrakesh Express.’ That was quite a night.”
Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City also shines the spotlight on many of the famous musicians who graced the records coming out of Nashville at that time, such as Norbert Putnam, Pig Robbins, Pete Drake and Charlie Daniels. Long before the latter became one of the most influential southern rockers of all time, Daniels was a songwriter and session player. He appeared on the last three albums Dylan recorded in town and said that recording with Dylan was an experience he will always treasure.
“I walked in the studio having heard all this stuff about him being a reclusive genius and not knowing anything about him or how he would be to work with. He was totally a different person than I expected. He was fun, had a great sense of humor, and enjoyed doing the work. We had a great time doing it.”
What did being in the studio with Dylan teach Daniels? “In my mind, he was the original innovator. He did things his way and wasn’t concerned with meter, tuning, singing. What he wanted it to be was what it turned out to be. He demonstrated a great freedom also in how he went about writing a song. It didn’t have to be four verses and a bridge. It was about how you were feeling and expressing his self.”
For more information about the exhibit, go to CountryMusicHallOfFame.org.