Recorded: February 1969
Released: April 9, 1969
Dylan goes country! Except… Dylan grew up with country music. Maybe that wasn’t really known in 1969, but we know it now. And thee’s the mid-60s video of him singing Hank Williams song, and the huge numbers of old time country songs he ran through on The Basement Tapes. Not to mention that many of his songs, including from The Basement Tapes were (at the least) country adjacent.
Now, I like country(-ish) music. And I quite like a few of the songs on this album: “To Be Alone With You”, “I Threw It All Away”, and “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”. Now, past Dylan country excursions — like the stuff he did on The Basement Tapes or “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” from John Wesley Harding — sounded like Dylan; he made this his own. But the problem I have with Nashville Skyline is that it strikes me as a genre exercise: country-style themes with stereotypically country instrumentation.
Also, this album is only 27 minutes long. And one of the songs is a duet with Johnny Cash of “Girl From The North Country”, an old song, and another is an instrumental.
So the other reaction I have to Nashville Skyline is that it doesn’t seem like Dylan was trying too hard.
There is another hand, however. I actually like it when Dylan reins things in, when he writes mores straightforward songs. (Although I can’t go so far as to say I prefer this style to his visionary work of a few years before.) But I do appreciate when he tries to work within limits, often demonstrating he can turn out a really appealing song. Here’s what that means to me. For Dylan’s most famous songs — say “Hard Rain” or “Like A Rolling Stone” or “Desolation Row” or “Visions of Johanna” — his version is the definitive one: the songs are his. But he also sends songs out into the world that other performers can do great versions of. (You might be objecting: “What about Jimi Hendrix ‘All Along the Watchtower”? “What about The Byrds ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’?” Even “What about Peter Paul & Mary ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’?” I have answers. Hendrix created a different song. So did the Byrds. And ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ is exactly the type of song I’m referring to here… others can do great versions of it.)
I guess I should mention two other things. “Lay Lady Lay ” was a hit, but it always struck me as teetering on the edge of ridiculousness. Maybe I’m the only one, but there it is. And the Nashville Skyline Voice?!? Dylan can sing? This is because he gave up smoking? Maybe… I don’t know how he got to sound like this (or perhaps why he chose to sound like this). But after all the listening I’ve done to Dylan’s various voices over the years, I actually am not much of a fan of his voice here. It sounds… too smooth, almost artificial… not real Dylan.