Country Pie (1969) part 9 (final): When Charlie was around, something good would usually come out


by Jochen Markhorst

IX         When Charlie was around, something good would usually come out

“Country Pie” is a song that I played a guitar part on – my favourite guitar part ever played on a Dylan song, back on Nashville Skyline. I wanted to do it different, so I played fiddle on this. But it is just a good-time tune, you know. I think it’s kinda Bob’s concept of country life: “Give to me my country pie”.
(Charlie Daniels on his “Country Pie” cover on Off The Grid, 2014)

At the talk-show-style book launch of Ron Cornelius’ book The Guitar Behind Dylan & Cohen at Nashville’s Music Hall of Fame, 2017, Charlie Daniels and Bob Wilson sit next to each other on stage. So the conversation, despite Cornelius having absolutely no involvement in the album, a few times drifts off to Nashville Skyline – which is, after all, the album where Wilson and Daniels met, the breakthrough for Charlie Daniels, and the album that is at the intersection of Cornelius, Bob Johnston, Dylan and both musicians. And to that joyous, frequent drifting off we owe insights and backstories about the origins of individual songs like “Country Pie” and the album at all. Recalling “Country Pie” in particular enthuses Daniels:

“Something that always sticked in my mind with Nashville Skyline is when Bob started doing “Country Pie”. And I had my Telecaster and Bob [Wilson] had the piano, and he started playing those chords and Bob started playing tadeladeda-tatataa… I never forget that, that’s my favourite piano part you ever did, and then I came in on the Telecaster, remember that? [singing:] “And just like old Saxophone Joe when he got the hogshead…” and I just…, I mean…, it just blew… we were just… but that was the spirit of things I mean: we were having fun.”

He stumbles over his own words, bursts out in infectious laughter almost 50 years after that evening at Columbia Studio A, seems to completely forget about the other guests, the presenter and the audience, here on this stage in Nashville, and has a reminiscing, intimate entre-nous with Bob Wilson – who does confirm his stories in full. And then just wants to have said publicly:

“But for Charlie Daniels and that Telly of his, Nashville Skyline would not have been Nashville Skyline. I mean, this guy was perfect. You got all these talented god-gifted guitarists in Nashville, but he was perfect for that album.”

They wave praise at each other rather effusively, but it doesn’t get awkward; the recording of “Country Pie” illustrates and supports both the memories and analysis of both men. It is true, after all; the song is carried by Wilson’s funky piano intro and the bouncy, pleasantly intrusive encouragement of Daniels’ Telecaster. Dylan’s objection at the time, “I don’t want another guitar player, I want him”, is quite understandable. And in his autobiography Chronicles (2014), Dylan reaffirms his appreciation, even confesses to feeling a kind of soul affinity, and moreover, suggests a kind of dependence on Charlie Daniels’ input:

“I was wondering who he [Johnston] was going to bring to the sessions this time and was hoping he’d bring Charlie Daniels. He’d brought Charlie before, but he’d failed to bring him a few times, too. […] When Charlie was around, something good would usually come out of the sessions.”

… in which, as an aside, that oddly passive “I was hoping he’d bring Charlie Daniels” also stands out. This is 1970. Dylan has long since been in the position of being able to dictate who he wants to play with – but still seems unaware that he could order Jimi Hendrix, Glenn Gould, Paul McCartney and Gene Krupa to the studio, so to speak.

Our cliché expectations of country & western it definitely does not meet, the intro by the duo Wilson & Daniels. Which is hardly surprising: Bob Wilson hails from Detroit and indeed has soul in his blood and in his fingers, having made a modest name for himself in the years before with piano contributions to the San Remo Quartet’s instrumental soul-muzak and sweaty, funky, flopped soul stompers like “All Turned On” and “After Hours” – which we also hear back in that blues trifle “Western Road”, the improvisation he, as an encore, set in after “Lay, Lady, Lay” last night, 13 February 1969.

How song-defining Wilson’s intro is, the prog rock dinosaurs of The Nice demonstrate, with one of the first covers of “Country Pie”, still in its 1969 birth year. Side A of their over-ambitious LP Five Bridges is devoted entirely to the rather pretentious “The Five Bridges Suite”, but no less brave is Side B: rock symphonic arrangements with jazz-rock-like excursions on Sibelius’ “Karelia Suite” and Tchaikovksky’s “Pathetique”. And then, No.3 of Side B, a bizarre interpretation of Dylan’s “Country Pie”, larded with Bach’s “Brandenburg Concerto No. 6”. How successful that is, is debatable, but Keith Emerson is obviously an extremely talented craftsman, and accurately hits the bearing of “Country Pie”: he builds his entire excerpt on Wilson’s piano pattern from the intro.

In the studio, Charlie Daniels also immediately picks up on its funkiness – his pinched guitar licks and rousing lines are closer to Curtis Mayfield than to Chet Atkins. Looking back on it fifty years later with justifiable pride, he still finds: “My favourite guitar part ever played on a Dylan song.” Can’t be topped, he apparently thinks in 2014, when he records the song again for his Dylan album Off The Grid: Doin’ It Dylan; he swaps the Telecaster for his violin. He could have skipped the song, of course, but the “good-time tune” is irresistible – Charlie has contributed to some 30 studio recordings of Dylan originals (apart from Nashville Skyline, also for Self Portrait and New Morning), but this is the only song on his tribute album to which he returns (the other nine covers are mostly from the 1963-1967 period).

Fun, and good-time, indeed – but the fiddle does not compensate for the loss of that energising, funky guitar part. Fairport Convention demonstrates as early as 1981 that Daniels should have stayed true to himself; Richard Thompson, an exceptionally adept and original guitarist himself after all, takes his hat off to Charlie’s input and in broad strokes copies the part. In an otherwise rather perfect cover from which the funk and ragtime has virtually evaporated – promoting the song to a dynamic country rocker. Including a ferociously-disrespectful, anarchistic rockabilly coda.

Still, it is only one of the rare covers. The song does not become a classic. Dylan himself ignores the song as well, more than thirty years, until he suddenly resuscitates it in 2000, playing it over a hundred times. In rather faithful, funky and hoppy versions, with a starring role for Larry Campbell’s solo guitar, usually playing attractive derivatives of Daniels’ template. After 2001, “Country Pie” does pop up on the setlist a few more times, but after a final performance in 2007, it is over.

The latest revival for now comes from the good old Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the guys who have been distinguishing themselves at times with fine Dylan covers since the 60s and crowned it in May 2022 with the very attractive tribute album Dirt Does Dylan. Beautiful cover design and filled with nice to very nice versions of everyman’s friends like “She Belongs To Me”, “Quinn The Eskimo”, “Forever Young” and “Don’t Think Twice”. Plus one outsider: our half-forgotten country-funk gem “Country Pie”. This time in a folky, unpretentious pub version.

Listen to the fiddler play.


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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