- 21 Nov 19
Is It Rolling, Bob?
When Bob Dylan came off his Triumph motorcycle on July 29, 1966 on Striebel Road in Woodstock, it marked the end of the wild mercury electric road monster who had changed rock n’ roll with three masterpieces and tours – “Judas! I don’t believe you” - that we’re still talking about. Whatever about the injuries he received from hitting the tarmac, he was a bit of a wreck after all the epoch defining so he wisely used this opportunity to lay low. He spent the first half of 1967 having a laugh with his mates The Hawks at their Big Pink house, plugging back into the source of what Greil Marcus called that “old, weird America” recording what would become The Basement Tapes, having a go at everything from The Carter Family to Curtis Mayfield. By October, Dylan was back in Nashville – birthplace of Blonde On Blonde – recording the songs that would become John Wesley Harding.
It’s here that Travelin’ Thru – the 15th volume in this series that keeps on giving – takes up the story. The songs recorded at these sessions show the influence of the music Dylan and his pals had worked up in that basement – sparse story songs, rife with biblical allusion, outlaws, hobos and immigrants. Harding holds many great songs, although one view (mine) is that tracks like ‘All Along The Watchtower’, ‘Drifter’s Escape’, and ‘Wicked Messenger’ were better brought to life by Jimi Hendrix, Patti Smith, and The Faces. That being said, the album was a huge critical and commercial success, and its admirers will welcome disc one’s alternate takes of seven of the songs from that record. To these ears they seem to have slightly more life to them than the takes that were originally released, but more ardent advocates of the album might disagree.
The numbers from 1969’s more country – and more fun - follow up, Nashville Skyline, are far more enjoyable – the rollicking piano intro to ‘County Pie’, the gentle honky-tonk of ‘To Be Alone With You’, the tear-in-the-beer of ‘I Threw It All Away’. There’s one new song, the bluesy ‘Western Road’, but it’s not going to change your life.
The real meat for Dylanites are the sessions with Johnny Cash. Dylan had asked Cash to guest on Skyline and the two men worked together, with help from The Tennessee Three, on February 17 and 18, 1969. You get the feeling listening in that Dylan is on his best behaviour, almost eager to please a man he once described as “the north star – the greatest of the greats”. Cash, for his part, had long championed Dylan, recording three of his songs for 1965’s Orange Blossom Special. These two giants fit together well, jamming through Cash’s songbook and few Dylan numbers like ‘Girl From The North Country’, a great ‘One Too Many Mornings’, and ‘Wanted Man’ – the only time Dylan recorded this song that Cash made his own by opening his At San Quentin live album with it.
The package is rounded out by some performances with banjo God – you don’t hear that too often - Earl Scruggs and top marks for the Self Portrait outtakes of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ and a daft but great ‘Ring Of Fire’. One might argue that this is hardly the most essential entry in the series – that honour surely belongs to More Blood, More Tracks, “Royal Albert Hall”, or even Tell Tale Signs - but it has Dylan’s name on the front which means it’s never less than interesting.