Monday, October 28, 2019

Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, Travelin’ Thru Tennessee

The latest installment of Bob Dylan’s official bootleg series, out Nov. 1 on Columbia Records, is a generous grab-bag of four separate moments from the past. Its three discs feature new songs you’ve never heard, new versions of decades-old favorites, and cleaned-up tracks from the long-underground and only partially bootlegged Dylan-Cash collaborations in Columbia Studio A, Nashville, Tennessee, and live at the Ryman Auditorium on May 1, 1969.

Disc 1 compiles the recording sessions for John Wesley Harding, done in 1967, and Nashville Skyline, 1969. The spare purity of the John Wesley Harding tracks, from a delicate “All Along the Watchtower” with keen, keening harmonica interludes to a high, nasal Woody Guthrie-ish “Drifter’s Escape,” stands out thanks to the three men recording alone, with Bob Johnston, on a couple of long days. Dylan, Kenneth Buttrey (drums), and Charlie McCoy (bass) spent almost 10 hours in the studio working on the John Wesley Harding songs included on Travelin’ Thru. Pete Drake played steel guitar on two tracks for which only the master exists; they are not on this album. Colin Escott, in his excellent liner notes for Travelin’ Thru, outlines the John Wesley Harding songs and sessions:

“In McCoy’s recollection, they recorded the entire album in nine-and-a-half hours. The session sheets say that there were two three-hour sessions and one double session spaced several weeks apart. …Talking to journalist Matt Damsker about the sound of John Wesley Harding, Dylan said, ‘I didn’t know how to record the way other people were recording, and I didn’t want to … I just didn’t think all that production was necessary.’ He also went for lyrical economy. ‘What I’m trying to do now is not use too many words,’ he said. ‘There’s no line you can stick your finger through. There’s no blank filler.’ Dylan’s methodology had changed, too. He was working expeditiously, recording no more than two or three complete takes per song. Everything about John Wesley Harding from the cover photo to the last note had an aura of mystery. Still does. The outtakes hold a few small lyric changes, but more than anything they reveal Dylan’s obsession with finding the tempo and rhythm to mirror the words.”

Take 4 of “I Am A Lonesome Hobo” stands out, this plaint of a hard-living, hard-luck man who’s lost it all in a biblical fall — all but his guitar, and his voice raised in song. “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” – Take 2 belongs to Dylan and Buttrey, with the voice, the harmonica, the steady friendly drums keeping good and gentle company. “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” is sung in a way unlike you’ve heard it before. Dylan is experimenting with the highs and lows, his voice sweeping and swooping through the lyrics. The way he punches out that “fears his death” and “through the mud” makes you pay attention.

The Nashville Skyline sessions of February 1969 saw Johnston now working as producer at large for Columbia and a lot more men in the studio — from Charlie Daniels to engineering assistant Kris Kristofferson. Writes Escott, “Every outtake opens a window onto Bob Dylan’s creative process. We have an early version of Nashville Skyline’s big hit, ‘Lay, Lady, Lay.’ Buttrey wasn’t happy with his drum part so when they tried it again the following day, he asked for suggestions. ‘Bongos,’ said Dylan. ‘Cowbells,’ added Johnston. Figuring that he’d show them just how misguided those ideas were, Buttrey asked the engineer’s go-fer, Kris Kristofferson, to hold bongos and a cowbell up to a boom mic so Buttrey could play them on the verses, switching to drums on the bridge. It became Buttrey’s most acclaimed percussion part. The performance on the first disc shows what it sounded like the day before.”

Similarly, “Country Pie” – Take 2 is a frolic that now showcases the myriad guitars in the hands of Dylan, Kelton Herston, Norman Blake, Charlie Daniels, Wayne Moss, and Peter Drake. Charlie McCoy’s thumpy bass keeps a happy beat with Buttrey’s drums. Buttrey is, for my money and along with Levon Helm, the best drummer who’s ever worked with Dylan.

Last, but not remotely least, is a song called “Western Road,” a bluer-than-blues (based, Escott notes, “on an old Count Basie tune”) of a lonesome traveler making his was from Baltimore back to Chicago.  The guitar playing, and spectacular keyboards, on this one light up the whole bootleg.

The Cash sessions and their recording history Escott recounts in full. “Amen” is just as it sounds — anything Johnny Cash ever sang using that word is a beatitude, and as brief and done in fits and restarts as this track is, it qualifies. “Big River” launches with that familiar gallopy-trot guitar that can be no one’s but Cash’s. Dylan takes the first verse, his high light tenor and Cash’s rich rumble of a baritone setting the tone for how all their collaborations here will sound. Dylan chiefly harmonizes. Vocally, Cash is the oak and Dylan the willow. (Yes, June Carter Cash appears on this record; listen for her contributions in the plentiful chatter, and in the immortal song she wrote with Merle Kilgore, “Ring of Fire.”)

The goofy cautionary tale “Careless Love” is my favorite of the Cash/Dylan tracks that have been in circulation for decades. To have it clear so that you can hear them chuckling as one munition gives way to another (.44, .45, .38, 30/06), at Cash’s “female son of a gun,” and when Dylan drops in “pass my hive” and Cash says, “my what?” and you know .45 has to be the rhyme. Windowpane, Cash complains, “don’t rhyme with nothin’” — so he just makes it a refrain, and sings “again.” The tangled choruses of “O love”s are the jolliest part of this song.

The mash-up of “Don’t Think Twice” and “Understand Your Man” with, to put it mildly, alternate lyrics, finally gives way to Cash singing Dylan’s song and vice versa. “You know the phrasing, right?” says Cash. “I mean, we both stole the same song” [general laughter].

“Folsom Prison” spins out with a skiffle beat and Dylan singing lead.  What must it have been like to sing this one in front of Cash? Dylan does it beautifully, turning it into sheer rock and roll. When Dylan cues “aw right” into the instrumentals, he’s flying. The song has become a runaway train, free at last, steel wheels spinning and the rails shaking down the line.

I’ll always regret that they don’t do “The Wreck of the Ol’ 97,” but that they decide to perform “Girl From the North Country” instead redeems the time. The takes of this are fluid, experimental, and fun. As Cash and Dylan work on songs more than once, the good time they’re having shows clearly. Take 5 of “I Still Miss Someone” is a fine example, with Dylan singing harmony and Cash on lead and chiming in commentary and laughter behind (the ad lib of “Ol’ Blue Eyes” and Cash humming is a delight). They’re loose and a little slap-happy, with Cash singing “bum-bum-bum” along with his own bass strings. Finally, when Carl Perkins plays guitar on “Matchbox” for you, and you are Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, there’s a Nashville pinnacle that won’t be reached again.

The Earl Scruggs interview is a nice surprise. The birdsong in the background, Scruggs’ drawl, and the laughter fade into Scruggs suggesting “Bob, why don’t we do one that we can all sing together, somethin’ like ‘East Virginia Blues’?” Dylan leads off perfectly, and A.P. Carter’s song, plaintive and warm at once, becomes pure front-porch, down-home magic with the jingle-jangle of the instruments and voices of friends.

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