Country Pie VIII: Nine words that changed my life

by Jochen Markhorst

VIII       Nine words that changed my life

Ready or not here I come
Gee that used to be such fun
Apples peaches pumpkin pie
Who's afraid to holler I?

 One of the many pleasant surprises of The Basement Tapes is the corny, churting parody of Bobbie Gentry’s exceptional world hit “Ode To Billie Joe”, which inspired Dylan’s deliberately saltless throwaway “Clothes Line Saga”. Although, throwaway… when 34 years later The Roches adorn the tribute album A Nod To Bob (2001) with their version, the raw lump of ore from the basement turns out to contain a shining jewel. By then, the three Irish-American sisters from New Jersey have had the song in their repertoire for more than 20 years, and that prolonged polishing, refining and sanding has by then taken the featherweight trifle into, as Dylan would say, the stratosphere, into the regions where only Very Great Dylan covers are allowed to float around. Where Hendrix’s “All Along The Watchtower” is, and Derek Trucks’ “Down In The Flood”, “Tangled Up In Blue” by the Indigo Girls, those regions.

Dylan’s inspiration is not that hard to trace; in that same summer of 1967 when the men have their playtime in the basement, Gentry’s “Study of Unconscious Cruelty” (her words) dominates the charts; the song is a mainstay on the radio. And the radio DJ digging into the Billboard Top 20 for his playlist in the late summer of ’67 will, in many cases, snap up a neighbouring hit that accompanies “Ode To Billie Joe” in those same months: “Apples, Peaches, Pumpkin Pie” by Jay & the Techniques, a dated but still enjoyable soul stomp. A relaxed Dylan, relieved of his toothache and finally pie-eating again, listening to the radio in the background at the breakfast table in the morning, scribbling down a witty response to Billie Joe in his notebook, quickly writes “pie assortment” down in the margin – should yield some funny lyrics at a later point, the self-confident best songwriter in the world knows.

At least, that is an attractive scenario on the premise that the lyrics of “Country Pie” are a leftover from the Big Pink. Which does seem very likely, after all. Just as nice a guess would then be the scenario that an inspiration-seeking Dylan, a year and a half later in a motel room in Nashville, leafing back through his notebook, gets struck by Saxophone Joe, the pie assortment and especially the word “country”.

We know that Dylan arrived in Nashville with only “a handful of songs”, or, to be more precise: “The first time I went into the studio I had, I think, four songs” (Rolling Stone Interview with Jann Wenner, 1969), and that even the idea of making an album only surfaced after a day or so. And that “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You”, the “Girl From The North Country” duet with Cash and “Nashville Skyline Rag” only emerged sometime after the first day of recording.

It seems obvious then that Dylan arrived with the songs that were also recorded first: “To Be Alone With You”, “I Threw It All Away”, “One More Night” and “Lay, Lady, Lay”. The only tune that follows “Lay, Lady, Lay” on that 13th February is the rather directionless, clearly improvised on the spot “Western Road” – it seems plausible that the basket was empty at that point, and that the rest of Nashville Skyline, including “Country Pie”, was not written until after this 13th February.

It is even quite likely that a lot of the music and melody are only conceived on the spot, in the studio on February 14. Session musicians pianist Bob Wilson and guitarist Charlie Daniels, the two driving forces of “Country Pie” both emphasise the free, unstructured nature of the Nashville Skyline sessions. As Charlie puts it on the Letterman Show, 27 July 1982:

“That was some of the freest… about as free as you can get in the studio, because he wanted you to do, you know, what you wanted to do. As opposed to somebody telling you exactly what to do. He would want you to put your own self into it, your own style of playing and all.”

It is something they are not used to at all, and it is especially clear from the stories of the eternally grateful Charlie Daniels, that the musical accompaniment to songs like “Nashville Skyline Rag” and “Country Pie” came more or less out of the blue.

Charlie Daniels being eternally grateful, as he is convinced he owes his entire career to nine words spoken by Dylan during the Nashville Skyline sessions. He tells the story often, like here for the Grammy Foundation Living History interview in 2017:

“They had a really good guitar player booked that had worked with him before, that was booked for all 15 sessions, but he couldn’t make the very first one for some reason. He was booked on another session. And they asked me to come in and fill in for him, which I did, and I literally… I was playing guitar and I literally hung on everything that Dylan did, every chord he played, every note that came out of his mouth. I was sitting there looking at him and playing, and when the session was over, I was packing my gear up, I was fixing to leave, and Dylan asked Bob Johnston: where’s he going, and he said he’s leaving, I got another guitar player coming, and then Bob Dylan said nine words that changed my life. He said, I don’t want another guitar player, I want him.”

It is a story Daniels gladly retells, almost always in roughly the same words (including that dramatic “he said nine words that changed my life”). And then explains it further; Dylan “had a big enough heart that he put the name of the session players on the back of his album, pretty prominently actually,” and that changes everything. Not only for his own self-confidence and status, but “it gave me a validity that I could have worked years and years to try to find.”

Sympathetic and modest, but perhaps a little too modest; Charlie Daniels’ exceptional talent would have taken him to the Premier League without Dylan’s nine words just as well. Dylan sped it up a bit, probably. Moreover, Daniels – out of that same sympathetic modesty – underplays the reciprocity; that Nashville Skyline owes its charm and magic in no small part to Charlie Daniels. That is, anyway, what quite some insiders with a right to speak argue…

To be continued. Next up Country Pie part 9 (final): When Charlie was around, something good would usually come out


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:


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