Western Road 1: They wanted to record everything in case Dylan said something profound

Western Road (1969) part 1

by Jochen Markhorst

I           They wanted to record everything in case Dylan said something profound 

Well I'm going to Chicago, going on the Western Road
Yes I'm going to Chicago, going on the Western Road
There are good times in Baltimore
But I've packed this heavy load

It is clearly an improvised cooling down, the trifle “Western Road”, the “outtake” we received as an unexpected gift, just like that, on the release of The Bootleg Series Vol. 15 1967-1969: Travelin’ Thru (2019). The song bubbles up at the end of the second recording session for Nashville Skyline, 13 February 1969. From six p.m. to midnight, Dylan, bassist Charlie McCoy and drummer Kenny Buttrey, assisted by Bob Wilson on piano and four alternating guitarists, have been busy putting the final versions of “I Threw It All Away”, “To Be Alone With You” and “One More Night” on tape, plus four attempts to capture the beauty of “Lay, Lady, Lay”, and now we’re pretty much ready to call it a day. But then someone serves up another nightcap.

“Take 1 (Outtake)”, as it is somewhat overly ambitiously catalogued on CD1 of this episode of The Bootleg Series, begins abruptly, when the first bars have already been played. Remarkable, since producer Bob Johnston has a habit of always having a tape running when Dylan is in the studio (to which we also owe the invaluable The Bootleg Series 12 – The Cutting Edge 1965-1966). A quirk confirmed again in 2016 by one directly involved, by Bob Wilson, the pianist of the Nashville Skyline sessions, being interviewed on a panel with Charlie Daniels and Ron Cornelius, among others, on the occasion of the release of Cornelius’ book The Guitar Behind Dylan & Cohen:

“They rolled the tape constantly. And they’d run the tape machine on high speed, 30 ips instead of the usual, you know half of that speed. It’s a higher fidelity, but it also ate the tape up. They had stacks of tape lined up. I mean, they had the engineers moving them tapes in and out… ’cause they ate all that tape up, they recorded everything. All the time the machine was running, which was very, very unusual, very rare – they didn’t do it that way. So, consequently, the red light was on all the time. So what they wanted, what Bob Johnston wanted, if Dylan said something, they wanted to record everything in case Dylan said something profound [audience laughter].”

So those first bars of “Western Road” must also be on a tape somewhere. But for the official release, the first seconds have been cut out; presumably it took a little while before the originator was followed, whoever that might have been. That same pianist, Bob Wilson, would be an educated guess; “Western Road” is musically a copy of Wilson’s “After Hours”, the B-side of his not-very-successful single “Suzy’s Serenade”. It is, of course, only a run-of-the-mill 12-bar blues, so both “Western Road” and “After Hours” are copies of a billion other blues songs, but still – Wilson plays exactly the same runs with his right hand, the key is neighbourly (now C major, after the G major of “After Hours”), the groove is identical, albeit the tempo is slightly slower.


And it sort of ignites Dylan. “Unleashed” would be a somewhat overenthusiastic characterisation, but he does shake, with apparent ease, tolerable lyrics out of his immaculate white shirt sleeve. Very deeply he does not dive into his stream-of-consciousness, though. “Going to Chicago” bubbles up rather smoothly as (presumably) Bob Wilson deploys a Chicago blues. Any research hasn’t been done, evidently; if you take the Western Road from Baltimore, you’re heading northeast – away from Chicago, that is. Unwise, especially if you “packed this heavy load”. As such, it’s a dead end. Dylan sticks to Baltimore and Chicago for another verse, but his head is clearly already very much elsewhere, much further west:

Might take a train I might take a plane
But if I have to walk
I'll be going to Chicago just the same
I'm going to Chicago on the Western Road
There's bad times in Baltimore I can't take this load

Dylan has already sung “I’m going to…” twice, and now no longer resists the words that then inevitably impose themselves on a walking jukebox:

Well I might take a train I might take a plane, 
But if I have to walk I'm going just the same
I'm going to Kansas City, Kansas City here I come
They got some crazy lil' women there
And I'm gonna get me one

… the third verse of one of the all-time great rock songs of the 20th century, Leiber and Stoller’s “Kansas City”. A song that apparently continues to bounce around in the creative part of Dylan’s brain through the decades. It is just short of “One For My Baby (And One More For The Road)”, the Sinatra song that echoes in at least seven Dylan songs, but “Kansas City” also comes a long way. It is the song from which Dylan lovingly steals in 1965 for “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” (they got some hungry women there is a little disguised derivation of Wilbert Harrison’s they got some crazy women there), and in 2001 for “High Water” (He made it to Kansas City, Twelfth Street and Vine is literally copied). He himself plays it once in between, in – of course – Kansas City, when Tom Petty’s band is backing him, 24 July 1986. “Well. That’s the first time I’ve ever played that. Well anyway, we know where we are,” he says contentedly after the final chord. And as a DJ, in the twenty-first century on his radio show Theme Time Radio Hour, he can’t ignore the monument either, in Episode 20, “Musical Maps”:

“Here’s a chart-topping smash by Mr. Wilbert Harrison, recorded for Bobby Robinson in 1959, and features the barbed-wire guitar of Wild Jimmy Spruill. Y’all know this song, and it always sounds good. Wilbert Harrison. Kansas City.”

The song is, in short, unstoppable when an improvising Dylan accidentally sings “I’m going to…” over a spontaneous Chicago blues at the end of a recording day in Nashville.

But soon he will return to Baltimore…


To be continued. Next: Western Road part 2: Ridin’ in a buggy, Miss Mary Anne


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:


One comment

  1. Really interesting piano technique revealed in Kansas City where Wilbert Harrison is playing with an almost flat right hand instead of curved fingers. It works for this sort of music but it must put a huge strain on the wrist. I guess that is just how he taught himself to play.

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