Bob Dylan spent his 1966 world tour in the throes of drug abuse and paranoia, living behind dark glasses and flying on amphetamines. As his songs grew more ambitious, his behavior became more erratic. “He was very edgy, very uptight,” D.A. Pennebaker, who directed the 1967 Dylan doc Don’t Look Back, remembered in the 2001 book Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades Revisited. “I just couldn’t take it after a while… there was a lot of weird behavior on that trip.”
That tour arguably happened at Dylan’s creative peak, but the jet-setting lifestyle took a toll on him. “It wore me down… I didn’t want to live that way anymore,” he told Rolling Stone three years later. He also got tired of his elaborate lyrical approach. “What I’m trying to do now is not use too many words,” he told journalist Matt Damsker at the time according to Dylan’s website. “There’s no line you can stick your finger through. There’s no blank filler.” In 1967, he headed to Nashville’s Columbia Studio A and made the earthy John Wesley Harding, and in 1969, he recorded the breezy Nashville Skyline at the same studio.
This three-year stretch in which Dylan laid low, got back to his roots and collaborated with Johnny Cash has been captured on a new box set, Travelin’ Thru, 1967-1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 15. The set includes outtakes from John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, two previously unreleased 1969 sessions with Cash, Dylan’s appearance on The Johnny Cash Show that same year and a 1970 session with Earl Scruggs.
This is often seen as a peculiar era for Dylan — partly due to his voice, which changed from harsh and nasal to a mellow country croon in the Nashville Skyline era. (“I tell you, you stop smoking those cigarettes, and you’ll be able to sing like Caruso,” he told Rolling Stone.) And after ripping up the rulebook with epics like “Desolation Row,” “Visions of Johanna” and “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” it was jarring for some fans to hear him write so modestly. In that sense, the music on Travelin’ Thru won’t rewire your brain like anything from 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited or 1966’s Blonde on Blonde. But these studio outtakes and live cuts offer their own simple, subtle pleasures. Here are seven things we learned from the box set.
Dylan played with rhythms and tempos for the John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline songs According to the liner notes, Travelin’ Thru doesn’t include all of the John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline outtakes. “The producers opted not to include multiple takes of the same song,” Ben Rollins explains in the introduction. “Rather, they looked for those takes that… illuminate a different approach to a song.” This mostly applies to drummer Kenny Buttrey’s grooves: Disc 1 reveals that “As I Went Out One Morning” was once a waltz, “To Be Alone With You” had a barrelhouse shuffle, and “Tell Me it Isn’t True” was played much faster.
Nashville Skyline almost had a 12-bar blues called “Western Road”
“We were just moving microphones around, pushing buttons, doing whatever we had to do to capture whatever Bob was coming with,” producer Bob Johnston says of the Nashville Skyline sessions in the liner notes. “So much of the time, you never heard it again.” One tune that slipped under the wire was “Western Road,” a variation on Count Basie’s “Going to Chicago Blues” seemingly improvised on the spot. (The tune was so off-the-cuff that Johnston forgot to hit record on the intro.)
Dylan and Cash recorded around 20 different songs together, and they’re all featured here
Despite recording a lot of songs together, Dylan and Cash only released one on a studio LP: “Girl From the North Country” from Nashville Skyline. Travelin’ Thru corrects this on Disc 2 and Disc 3, which features their complete joint sessions as well as Dylan’s 1969 appearance on The Johnny Cash Show. The pair play a mixture of traditional songs (“Mountain Dew,” “Careless Love”), rockabilly standards (“That’s All Right Mama”) and originals by both men (“I Walk the Line,” “One Too Many Mornings”).
The pair tried a mashup of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “Understand Your Man”
The weirdest Travelin’ Thru track is Disc 2’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right/Understand Your Man,” in which Dylan and Cash sing their originals at the same time, over the same chords. (“We both stole it from the same song!” Cash reveals at the end, perhaps referring to the traditional song “Who’s Going to Buy You Ribbons When I’m Gone.”) As you can imagine, this doesn’t really work, mostly sounding like two clashing browser tabs left open, but it shows how Dylan and Cash drew from the same well.
Carl Perkins stopped by to jam
Seven tracks feature Carl Perkins plugging in and plucking away, including versions of his “Matchbox,” Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right Mama” and two takes of a Jimmie Rodgers medley. The liner notes explain why: Perkins was in an adjoining Columbia studio re-recording his old hits. Dylan told Perkins that “Matchbox” was the first he ever recorded in high school, the rockabilly legend obliged by joining Dylan and Cash in the studio. (“I don’t know what I’d do without you, Rock King,” Cash told him.)
Dylan tried two Cash songs without Cash
Travelin’ Thru briefly pivots to Self Portrait on Disc 3, capturing two songs from a Studio A session two days after Dylan’s appearance on The Johnny Cash Show. Clearly still riding the feeling of his time with the Man in Black, he tries two Cash songs with a souped-up lineup including Charlie Daniels. “Ring of Fire” gets a blaring, Vegas-y feel, followed by “Folsom Prison Blues,” sung in Dylan’s newly affected croon.
We hadn’t heard everything from Dylan’s TV appearance with Earl Scruggs
Banjo innovator Earl Scruggs appeared with Dylan on 1971’s Family and Friends, a 90-minute PBS special. Along with Scruggs’ sons Randy and Gary, they filmed four songs together at the Carmel, New York, home of Nashville illustrator Thomas B. Allen in 1970, two of which were released: “East Virginia Blues,” which appeared on the PBS special, and “Nashville Skyline Rag,” from its soundtrack album. Two unheard recordings made it to the boxed set: lo-fi versions of “To Be Alone With You” and “Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance.”
The Scruggs-assisted tracks’ casual, homey vibe is the perfect capper for Travelin’ Thru: when grandiosity fails, a blast of country air will do.