by Jochen Markhorst
I The country music station plays soft
At the beginning of 1965, Dylan declares in the liner notes to Bringing It All Back Home: “I am about t sketch You a picture of what goes on around here sometimes,” and he seems to keep that promise, in the next five hundred days, in this mercurial period. Songs, or at least parts of songs on the Holy Trinity Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde On Blonde indeed do suggest impressionism, seem to sketchily express the impressions the young rock poet has to deal with, in this thin wild mercury, tumultuous period of his life.
For the setting of “Visions Of Johanna”, for example, the poet seems to sketch a picture of his temporary residence, Room 211 of the Chelsea Hotel. With accompanying soundtrack: “In this room the heat pipes just cough / The country music station plays soft.” At the time, in 1965-66, this may have been difficult to reconcile with the image of the über-cool hipcat Dylan, but by now we have long known that the love for country music is deep and sincere – and that this description of the setting is most likely a truthful picture of what goes on around here.
After Blonde On Blonde, and after the motorcycle accident (29 July 1966) that marked a long goodbye to the public, Dylan professes his country love anonymously and unheard with his mates from The Band in Woodstock, in the basement of the Big Pink. Without restraint, as we first heard on bootlegs and from 2014 officially on The Basement Tapes Complete; Hank Snow, Johnny Cash, Bob Nolan, Hank Williams, Porter Wagoner, Dallas Frazier, Bobby Bare… half the premier league of the Billboard’s Hot Country Charts passes by. And just as enthusiastically, Dylan reaches for hardcore, antique country songs like “The Hills Of Mexico” and “Quit Kickin’ My Dog Around”.
On John Wesley Harding, we first hear the love openly, especially in the last two songs (“Down Along The Cove” and “I’ll Be Your Tonight”) and a little over a year later, when Dylan records Nashville Skyline (February 1969), country is embraced completely – in the title, the cover photo, the songs, the arrangements and in the lyrics.
Exactly two years after Dylan recorded “Visions Of Johanna” in Nashville, after Dylan wistfully recalls the soft-playing country music station, the recording of the songs that will fill Nashville Skyline begins. And the first song to be recorded on that 13th February 1969, 6:00 pm, is probably also the first song that Dylan wrote for this record: “To Be Alone With You”.
Present session musicians Charlie McCoy, Wayne Moss and Kenny Buttrey must have had the pleasant feeling of playing a home game. Dylan’s first visit to Nashville, two years ago, had been quite an alienating experience. In many ways. The songs had strange lyrics and were exceptionally long, the musicians were not instructed at all and had to colour the songs as they saw fit, Dylan sat writing for hours in an adjacent room, sessions went on all night… all incomparable with the prevailing hourly-billing mores of recording a ready-made song as quickly as possible to the liking of producer and artist, incomparable with the usual method of working more like a 9-to-5 office job than a rock ‘n’ roll existence.
But in October ’67, for John Wesley Harding, at least McCoy (bass) and Buttrey (drums) have already met a different Dylan. Okay, most of the songs are still a bit weird, but almost all have a “normal” length, about three minutes, and the three recording sessions are short and simple, and finished before midnight. And now, February ’69, Dylan is more normal than ever: “To Be Alone With You” is short (2’10”), has an ordinary chord progression, an ordinary melody and ordinary lyrics – the experienced Nashville Cats are put to work on a song like hundreds they have played and recorded before. And for Dylan, too, it’s actually a kind of Trip Down Memory Lane, we gather from his autobiography:
“WWOZ was the kind of station I used to listen to late at night growing up, and it brought me back to the trials of my youth and touched the spirit of it. Back then when something was wrong the radio could lay hands on you and you’d be all right. There was a country radio station, too, that came on early, before daylight, that played all the ’50s songs, a lot of Western Swing stuff — clip clop rhythms, songs like, “Jingle, Jangle, Jingle,” “Under the Double Eagle,” “There’s a New Moon over My Shoulder,” Tex Ritter’s “Deck of Cards,” which I hadn’t heard in about thirty years, Red Foley songs. I listened to that a lot.”
(Chronicles, Ch. “Oh Mercy”)
And now all those hours of listening to the country music station playing soft come out. When Tex Ritter performs his “Deck Of Cards” at the Nashville Club in December ’68, he is led in by Canadian Stu Phillips with “How I’d Love To Be Alone With You”; life’s pleasures from the classic “Hard Times”; that’s the way it oughta be from Andy Williams’ “I Like Your Kind of Love”; Hank Williams echoes in at the close of the day (“Help Me Understand”) and in the whole night through (“Your Cheatin’ Heart”), although Dylan might just as well have taken that last one from The Beach Boys’ world hit “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, of course;
Wouldn't it be nice if we could wake up In the morning when the day is new? And after having spent the day together Hold each other close the whole night through
… and the great happiness from Dylan’s last verse, the joy of seeing your loved one after a hard day’s night,
I’ll always thank the Lord When my working day’s through I get my sweet reward To be alone with you
… no doubt reminds Charlie McCoy and Wayne Moss of six years earlier, when they were lucky enough to be on the payroll for the recording of Roy Orbison’s masterpiece In Dreams, reminds them of “Sunset”:
At last my working day is done The setting of the sun has finally come It's sunset I'm gonna hold my sweetheart Gonna hold her so tight
Not to mention the aha moment the entire studio audience must have had at Dylan’s bridge: They say that nighttime is the right time / To be with the one you love.
In short, the walking jukebox Dylan just shakes out his stetson, this chilly Thursday night in an overcast Nashville. But will take a critical look at the result fifty years later…
To be continued. Next up: To Be Alone With You part 2: That boy’s good
Jochen is a regular reviewer of Dylan’s work on Untold. His books, in English, Dutch and German, are available via Amazon both in paperback and on Kindle:
- Blood on the Tracks: Dylan’s Masterpiece in Blue
- Blonde On Blonde: Bob Dylan’s mercurial masterpiece
- Where Are You Tonight? Bob Dylan’s hushed-up classic from 1978
- Desolation Row: Bob Dylan’s poetic letter from 1965
- Basement Tapes: Bob Dylan’s Summer of 1967
- Mississippi: Bob Dylan’s midlife masterpiece
- Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits
- John Wesley Harding: Bob Dylan meets Kafka in Nashville
- Tombstone Blues b/w Jet Pilot: Dylan’s lookin’ for the fuse
- Street-Legal: Bob Dylan’s unpolished gem from 1978