Nashville Skyline Rag
- Nashville Skyline Rag (1969) part 1: “Do what you want to do”
- Nashville Skyline Rag (1969) part 2: Some of the names just didn’t seem to fit
by Jochen Markhorst
III The long-haired hippies and their drugs
The Soggy Bottom Boys they call themselves, the unlikely folk sensation that breaks through like a bolt from the blue with “Man Of Constant Sorrow”, in the Coen Brothers’ enchanting love project, O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000). A band name, which, like many names and scenes in the film, kindly nods to a cultural phenomenon from twentieth-century America, in this case to the Foggy Mountain Boys, the backing band of legendary bluegrass duo Flatt & Scruggs.
Dylan is a passive but still destructive force in the duo’s career. After 20 highly successful years, during which traditionalist Lester Flatt’s resistance to his mate Earl Scruggs’ drive for experimentation and innovation continues to erode, something inside of Flatts dies, presumably during the recording of their last record together, 1968’s Nashville Airplane.
Scruggs and producer Johnston push through four Dylan covers: bluegrass versions of “Like A Rolling Stone”, “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”, “The Times They Are A-Changin'” and even “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”. Meanwhile, the places of the former-familiar Foggy Mountain Boys have been taken by men who have just recorded Blonde On Blonde and John Wesley Hardin with Dylan, or will be heard shortly afterwards on Nashville Skyline and Self Portrait: Charlie Daniels, Bobby Moore, Henry Strzelecki and Kenny Buttrey. And in the producer’s chair these days is Dylan producer Bob Johnston. None of which Lester likes. In Bluegrass: A History (1985), the standard work by the eminently knowledgeable professor Neil V. Rosenberg, Flatt’s uneasiness is catchily, though not academically, articulated:
“Behind the scenes, Lester Flatt was very dissatisfied with their material; he didn’t like singing Bob Dylan and was disgusted by the long-haired hippies and their drugs. He refused to perform the new songs, and this became a source of contention between him and the Scruggses.”
… and the professor knows very well what he is talking about. In the liner notes of the compilation album Flatt & Scruggs (1982), he already incorporated excerpts from interviews with Flatt:
Lester Flatt felt uneasy with Bob Johnston: “He also cuts Bob Dylan and we would record what he would come up with, regardless of whether I liked it or not. I can’t sing Bob Dylan stuff, I mean. Columbia has got Bob Dylan, why did they want me?”
Scrolling back through the discography, however, we have to hand it to Lester: he has demonstrated a respectable amount of tolerance, he did put up with it for quite some time. From May 1966 to the last recordings with Earl in August 1969 (i.e. well after the release of Nashville Airplane, the recording sessions forming the second-to-last drop), he bowed his head no less than nineteen times, playing yet another one of those damn Dylan hippie songs. “Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance” is, ironically, the very last one. Released on the album that hit shops after the irreparable break-up, as a kind of Let It Be: the aptly titled 1970’s Final Fling – One Last Time (Just For Kicks). With even more indirect Dylan input; SEVEN Dylan covers. And Dylan’s unofficial bandleader in Nashville, Supreme Nashville Cat Charlie McCoy, joined too (harmonica). It’s almost beginning to look like poor Lester Flatts was, in fact, bullied out.
You can kind of hear it too, with hindsight. From Lester’s vocals on “Girl From The North Country”, “Wanted Man”, “One Too Many Mornings” and “One More Night” drips dejection, some fatigue and reluctance, and only “Maggie’s Farm” seems to be able to light a flame. And, well alright, in the announcement of “Nashville Skyline Rag”, understandably the only Dylan song Lester really likes, we can actually hear a trace of enthusiasm:
Lester: “Earl, what’s the name of this tune”?
Earl: “The Nashville Skyline Rag.”
Earl, however, this much is clear, has long been a full-blooded Dylan fan. Which is also well illustrated in the 1972 documentary The Bluegrass Legend – Family & Friends. The recordings in that living room with Dylan and with Earl’s sons Gary and Randy are weirdly moving – not so much because of the music, which is fine, but because of the moments around it, because of the interaction of Dylan and Scruggs;
“Have you heard this latest version of your song Nashville Skyline Rag?” the meek Earl Scruggs asks, smiling shyly
“Yeah,” Dylan replies, appearing equally bashful.
“Could… could we just try that one?”
Touching. As is Earl’s half-proud, half acknowledgement-seeking look and smile after the final chord.
Dylan & Scruggs – Nashville Skyline Rag (at 2’31”):
The actually, by Dylan standards anyway, somewhat silly “Nashville Skyline Rag” remains quite popular with the peers – especially in country and bluegrass circles, of course. And surely this will be mostly due to the missionary work of giant Earl Scruggs. With Scruggs, the song remains on the repertoire, in his Earl Scruggs Revue, the band with his sons in which Dylan songs all remain a regular part of the setlist – the live album Live! From Austin City Limits from 1977 opens again with the Rag, for instance.
Banks & Shane (1975), J.D. Crowe & The New South (1976), Knoxville Grass (1977), Knoxville Grass (1978)… meanwhile, the next generation of bluegrass, alt-country , cowpunk and all its variants, long-haired potheads or not, keep “Nashville Skyline Rag” alive with recordings and live performances as if passing on a relay baton. Even into the generation after that; in the twenty-first century, it’s the children’s children, bands like Monroe Crossing, The Abrams Brothers and the David Grier Band, so that the song seems to be gradually becoming a kind of rite of passage; apparently, it belongs on your setlist if you want to count in bluegrass circles.
None of them add anything to the original. At most if the band happens not to have a banjo or mandolin, it sounds a nuance different (like Dan Whitaker & The Shinebenders, 2006), but otherwise, the dozens of covers in the twenty-first century are all equally enjoyable and utterly interchangeable. Which doesn’t bother anyone, of course.
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
- Bringing It All Back Home: Bob Dylan’s 2nd Big Bang
- Time Out Of Mind: The Rising of an Old Master
- Crossing The Rubicon: Dylan’s latter-day classic
- Nashville Skyline: Bob Dylan’s other type of music