Nashville Skyline: From The North Country

Jan 31, 2004 (Updated Jan 31, 2004)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Good stuff, this.

Cons:Dylan's voice not up to the task at hand.

The Bottom Line: Bob Dylan in cowboy boots; check it out.

The morning after Johnny Cash died, I was in my car, driving down to some corporate plaza in South Atlanta to do a training. I was wondering to myself about how long it would take the local country & western Top 40 station to decide whether or not it would actually, you know, play some Johnny Cash music to honor the Man in Black. It took them a while after they first acknowledged the announcement to rustle something up; meanwhile they stuck to their steady diet of Toby Keith and Shania Twain.

I had this mental image of the program managers turning their CD collections upside down, pawing past stacks of Lone Star and Rascal Flats discs, trying to find something, anything, that had a Johnny Cash song on it. And then, from back in some disused back office somewhere, they found a Johnny Cash CD, blew the dust off the cover, and sent out the soulful strains of Folsom Prison Blues to comfort and edify the people of North Georgia.

Not that I'm bitter or anything.

There are lots of bad things you can say about the sort of people who select songs to play on your local country-music radio station -- sleazy, trend-rubbing brutes, let's say, or mindless, ratings-drunk Philistines -- but you can just sum it up by saying that they won't play another Johnny Cash record ever again, unless they're somehow shamed into it.

And if they won't play Johnny Cash on the radio, for the love of God, how long do you think it will take them to play Bob Dylan?

Maybe we had better not ask.

I can tell you the answer, anyway. I've been listening to country music on the radio for the better part of thirty years, and I have never, ever, not even once heard one single cut off Bob Dylan's masterful Nashville Skyline over the airwaves. Listening to the CD now is like hearing about some long-lost family secret from thirty years ago for the first time -- it's something that just isn't talked about among the country music family. The idea that, once, for a few weeks in 1963, Bob Dylan was a country-music singer, is more the stuff of legend and myth than anything else.

Part of the problem is the title. Nashville Skyline, of course, implies that one is standing outside Nashville, looking at the city from afar, silhouetted against the morning sunlight. Nashville Skyline is near Nashville, is about Nashville, but is never of Nashville. It sounds like what it is; an album by a talented musician trying to imitate, as best he can, the sounds of 1960's country music. It's a wonderful attempt, and it succeeds in doing everything but convincing the Nashville establishment that Dylan's music deserved to be included in the country pantheon.

I do not set myself up as a music critic, and probably ought not to try. The following is more impressionism than criticism; take it for what it's worth.

Dylan's voice: The one reason casual Dylan fans will want to bother with Nashville Skyline as anything other than a curiosity is that Dylan sounds so different here. You can understand every word he says, for one thing. The usual tortured Dylan vocals aren't anywhere to be heard; his voice rings out clear, but a little thin.

The lilt: Speaking of Dylan's voice, he's got a little lilt in it, here and there, which is problematic for a country singer. The lilt is most apparent in Tonight No Light Will Shine On Me, which is a perfectly written song, as bluesy and depressing as country music ought to be. But there's a huge contrast between the lightness in Dylan's tone and the darkness of the song - it really needs more of a George Jones baritone growl to it that Dylan can't get. (The lilt works perfectly for the upbeat and innocuous Country Pie, the weakest song on the album.)

The music: Lots and lots of steel guitar, with occasional piano in the background. Could use a fiddle or two for accompaniment here and there.

The songwriting: Nashville Skyline shows Dylan at his best as a songwriter; he's trying a lot of different C&W genres here, and does them all effectively. There's the usual excursion into dumb wordplay ("love to spend the night with Peggy Day"), an inane novelty song or two, a couple of lost-love songs, an instrumental, even. Lay Lady Lay is probably the best song on the album, slow and sexy.

The Man in Black: The first track on Nashville Skyline is something of a folk song; Girl From The North Country, a Minnesotan version of "Scarborough Faire". Johnny Cash pitches in a verse or two, and sings in an oddly timed duet with Dylan; the two men's voices are just ever so slightly out of phase.

I mention Cash at the last there because his voice is the one bit on the album that sounds authentically Nashville; he shows why Dylan's effort fell short as it did, and why we don't have any further efforts from him in this arena. Cash is the real deal; Dylan is the outsider looking in, the man from the North Country who approaches Nashville from the outside, but can't find his way in.

Still, despite these traces of inauthenticity, Nashville Skyline is well worth a listen, and is superior to a good bit of what was really coming out of Nashville in the 1960's as it is. It's not a perfect country album, but sincere efforts like this ought not to go unrewarded. As the glories of music past sink down the memory hole of the Top Forty programmers, Nashville Skyline is a necessary reminder of everything else they're missing by turning their backs on our great country music heritage.

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