Lightning In A Bottle: Snapshots of Bob Dylan in Nashville, 1966-1969

 

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WITH THE NEWS that the next installment of Bob Dylan’s endlessly fascinating Bootleg Series will focus on his adventures in Nashville between 1967 and 1969 – including unheard takes from the spare, deeply mysterious John Wesley Harding album, and Dylan’s famous session with Johnny Cash – I’m running interviews I did with two key witnesses to Dylan’s excursions into the home of country music across that period.

KRIS KRISTOFFERSON needs no introduction. The son of an Army General, West Point wanted him to become an instructor, but he wanted to write songs, and so he quit the military to become a janitor in a Nashville studio. It was in that capacity, in 1966, that he first fleetingly encountered Dylan, during the recording of Blonde on Blonde. Their most famous association came when they co-starred in Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 movie Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid. During an interview with TV Guide in 1976, Dylan was asked how he imagines God. He responded: “How come nobody ever asks Kris Kristofferson questions like that?”

Anyone who knows anything about Nashville will know about CHARLIE MCCOY. One of the town’s most legendary session players, he’s made records with everyone from Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison and Loretta Lynn to, at the tip of the mountain, Robert Mitchum. He was nicknamed “The Nashville Hit Man” for a good reason. McCoy is maybe best known as a harmonica player, but can turn his hand to almost anything, and so he wound up providing the deathless guitar part on Dylan’s ‘Desolation Row’ when he first encountered Dylan in New York City during the recording of the Highway 61 Revisited album in the summer of 1965. He would become a mainstay of Dylan’s studio work until the end of the 1960s, playing on Blonde On Blonde, John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline and the sessions that fleshed out Self Portrait.


Kris Kristofferson

You mentioned earlier that it was hearing ‘Blowing in the Wind’ –  that’s what first made you listen to Dylan. How did you first encounter that song?
KRIS KRISTOFFERSON: Yeah, well, I was in the army. I had a band in the army called The Losers, and it was part enlisted men and part officers. And one of the musicians – well, we only had one real musician there, the guy played the dobro, West Pointer – he was showing us how to play this song, ‘Blowin In The Wind,’ and he said, “You gotta listen to the guy who wrote this…” And he gave me a Dylan album. And I played it and thought…My God. And I was coming from a different direction then, y’see: I was in the army. Dylan was on the other side at that time, for me. Because all my friends were, y’know, getting sent to Vietnam.

And you kept on listening from there.
KK: Well, Dylan got to be more and more hot around when I was in Nashville, when I went there. I mean, his name was brought up all the time. I was living with songwriters, and having conversations, and it was just what he was doing, y’know: “Jesus, what did ‘Mr Tambourine’ mean…?” And I came to realise that these songs weren’t the same as when I had first started to writing songs and getting into the music business, which was back in the 1950s, y’know. What Dylan was doing was like…it was worthwhile, it was something you didn’t need to be ashamed of, instead of writing some of that bullshit. And also, Dylan knew who Hank Williams was. I saw that on an album that I picked up when I was still in uniform, and I thought: Hmmmmm.

You also mentioned ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ earlier. What did you think when you heard that recording for the first time – were you aware Dylan had moved into a different place again?
KK: Well, nothing he did surprised me. I just loved it. It was like an anthem, y’know. And I didn’t want to hear the rumours of what the lyrics were about, who was who and what was what – it just worked. Yeah, I was in Nashville when I heard that.

I wanted to ask you about Nashville. I think you were there when he cut some of Nashville Skyline, weren’t you? But am I right thinking that you were around for some of Blonde On Blonde, too?
KK: Nashville Skyline, yeah – well, no. Well: I know I wasn’t there when he cut ‘Lay Lady Lay,’ because I remember Bob Johnston, the producer, playing it for me later in the same studio. But, yes: I was there as a janitor when he did Blonde on Blonde. And that’s how I was the only songwriter in Nashville that was allowed to be in the building. Because I was the janitor…but I was also a songwriter. But none of my other friends could get past the police. Man, Blonde On Blonde was the wildest sessions that I’d ever seen. In Nashville, you were expected to get three or four songs during a three-hour session, and they ran it in-and-out, you know, because it was Time-Is-Money, y’know. And, God, Bob, went into the big A studio at Columbia and he sat down at the piano for hours – while all the musicians were outside, out playing ping-pong and cards, and he’s in there, in the studio, writing a song. I mean, this was the most bizarre behaviour anybody in Nashville had ever seen, because he didn’t record the damn thing until the sun came up.

So you weren’t there when Nashville Skyline was being recorded?
KK: I wasn’t at all the sessions. But I was there when he cut a thing with John. I dunno if it was ‘Girl From the North Country.’

Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. You’ve talked about how you felt about Dylan, and I think I can guess how you regarded Mr Cash – at that stage in your career, you must have felt this was something quite special seeing the two of them together.
KK: Oh, Jesus. Like I say, it was very heady times for me. I was still barely four years out of the military, and ­– I truly felt like history was happening before my eyes. When you’re watching Johnny Cash – who was very elusive at the time – he was like catching lightning in a bottle. And to get them both together it’s like two pieces of lightning, you know.

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Charlie McCoy

How did you first start working with Dylan?
CHARLIE MCCOY: I’d known his producer, Bob Johnston. Bob [Johnston] first came to Nashville as a songwriter, and he was writing for the Elvis Presley publishing group, a company called Hill & Range. His whole idea to begin with was that he wanted to get songs into the Elvis movies. The way all that worked was that whenever they made an Elvis movie, they’d designate places in the script where a song would go, and the type of song they wanted. Then they’d send the script out to all the staff writers in their company, and these writers would compete for these spots, to get their songs in the movie. So Bob Johnston, who was from Texas, came to Nashville to make demos to try and get these songs into Elvis movies. And I think, in the end, he did wind up getting five or six songs into the movies. But, needless to say, he didn’t get all his songs into the movies. We recorded a lot that didn’t get in.

So he was taking these left over songs around to other record companies, to try and get them recorded by other artists. He took some to New York, to Columbia, and the guy there, Bob Mercy, he said, “Boy, I really like these demos, where did you cut these?” He said, “In Nashville.” And Mercy asked him, “Did you produce these? Ever wanted to be a record producer?” So Bob [Johnston] said, “Well…sure!” So they told him they had an artist they were getting ready to drop, because she wasn’t selling, but they had one more session on her contract, and asked Bob if he wanted to try and produce it. So he did it, and the woman turned out to be Patti Page, and using the contacts he had with the Elvis people and the whole LA scene, he found a movie that needed a theme song. So Johnston brought Patti to Nashville and he recorded ‘Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte’ with her,  which was a huge hit. It revived her career and extended her Columbia contract – and so Columbia, you know, they thought they’d found the second coming in Bob Johnston. So they offered him Bob Dylan.

So then he was recording Highway 61 with Bob Dylan in New York, and I happened to have a chance to go to New York, and Bob Johnston had told me, “If you ever come to New York, call me, I can get you Broadway tickets.” So when I got into town, I called him and said, “Hey, I’m in New York, how about them tickets?” He said, “No problem. Hey, I’m recording Bob Dylan this afternoon, why don’t you come over here and meet him?” So I went over to the Columbia recording studio, and he introduced me to Dylan, and Dylan said, “Uh, we’re getting ready to record a song – why don’t you grab that guitar and play along?” There was an extra guitar there. So, the song was ‘Desolation Row.’ And, unbeknownst to me, I think Johnston was using this as a way to convince Dylan to come to Nashville. I think, after it was all over, he said to Dylan: “Hey now – see how easy that was? That’s the way it would be in Nashville.” And he finally convinced Dylan to come to do Blonde On Blonde, and then Dylan came back twice more, for John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline – although, the next one, Self Portrait, Dylan wasn’t around for that.

I interviewed Kris Kristofferson, and he was telling me about how he was a studio janitor back then when Dylan arrived to do Blonde On Blonde, and that Nashville musicians hadn’t really experienced anything like Dylan’s…attitude to a recording session.
CM: Oh, yeah. Well, number one: he hadn’t finished writing the first song. We ended up recording at 4 o’clock in the morning. And we’d been there since 2PM the afternoon before. Dylan’s flight was late, and when he arrived he hadn’t written the song, and we sat and waited while he wrote the song. And the song was ‘Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands.’ We recorded it at 4AM. Also on board were Robbie Robertson and Al Kooper.

My own thought in that first session was that Dylan was a little uncomfortable in the Nashville set-up at first: because he was in a strange place, with strange musicians. He never said anything. He never said a word, except – “I’ve not finished writing the first song. You guys just hang loose till I finish it.” But he never said anything to us really, so, it was hard to tell just what he was thinking or what he was feeling. But, the next day, we came back, and it was pretty much business as usual then: he still didn’t say too much, but he started playing his songs, and we started recording them.

I’ve spoken with a few musicians who’ve worked with Dylan, including more recently, and a lot of them have told me much the same thing – about finishing songs in the studio, about not having a set idea, a set shape, about how he wants a song to be, trying it out all different ways.
CM: Yeah. I was session leader on Blonde On Blonde, and when you’re session leader, you’re kind of like the middleman between the artist and the producer. So, Dylan would pick up his guitar and play his song to us, and I’d hear it, and I’d immediately get some ideas, and I’d walk over and say to him, “Bob, what would you think if we did this, or that…” And he’d have the same answer every time: “I dunno, man. Whadda you think?”

And I finally went to Bob Johnston, the producer, and said, “You know what? I’m gonna quit asking him. Because I’m not getting any answers.” So I figured I’d rely on my instinct, and then maybe if he doesn’t like something we’re doing, he’ll speak up. And he never spoke up, so, either he didn’t want to be troubled by making a scene, or he was happy with it. He was strange in that way, very hard to read.

But while he never said anything to me, he obviously said a couple of things to Bob Johnston, because Bob [Johnston] came to me one day and he said, “Okay. Tonight, he wants to record a song that sounds like The Salvation Army. I think we need a trumpet and trombone.” And, you know, I started thinking, a lot of those Salvation Army bands are people who don’t play much, or are older people who used to play but don’t play much anymore, and they can, y’know, sound pretty awful. So I said, “Do you want the trumpet to be…good?” And he said “No!” So I said, “Well, okay: I’m your man.” So that’s how we did “Rainy Day Women.” I got a trumpet, it was two takes, and all that noise you hear in the background, that was the musicians in the room screaming.

How do you think the town took to him? I guess he was quite a different kind of artist for that period in Nashville.
CM: I think he hesitated about coming to Nashville, because it has always been known as the historical heart of country music. But, if you know your history, there have always been pop recordings recorded here, since they started recording. We had the Everlys, we had Brenda Lee, a lotta things that crossed over – we were recording like Perry Como and Bobby Blue Bland here. But we were known as a country market, and magazines like Rolling Stone, which were very important then – this was the height of what, in Nashville, we called The Hippy Period, the San Francisco, Haight-Ashbury scene, whatever it was. And, of course, Bob Dylan was seen as kind of like the champion of that group of people, he was the king of it. And so I think he took a bold step by coming here. But once he came, man, the floodgates opened – you couldn’t believe the kinds of people that followed him here: Joan Baez, Buffy St Marie, The Byrds, Leonard Cohen…the list just goes on and on and on. And, apparently, Dylan liked it enough himself that he came back two more times.

There’s an obvious change in the sound, the style of songwriting, between Blonde and John Wesley Harding. Did you notice a change in the man, or his attitude to the music?
CM: No. The same thing. He’d play a song and not say anything. But, yeah, we noticed a definite style shift. Blonde on Blonde took 39-and-a-half hours of studio time to record. John Wesley Harding took nine-and-a-half. Of course, the band was much, much smaller. Just me and Kenny Buttery, and maybe a keyboard, there wasn’t much on that record.

Before you started on John Wesley Harding, were you expecting that you were going to be going into the same kind of session as Blonde On Blonde? Or did you know in advance that it was just going to be basically the three of you?
CM: I didn’t have any information prior to going in about what it was going to be like. But we here, studio musicians in Nashville, we go to the studio every day, you know, usually never knowing what we’re going to be doing. We hear the music the first time we walk into the studio. We’re used to that, it’s just the normal way it’s done here.

The next time round for Dylan was Nashville Skyline, which again was a shift, a step right into country, were you surprised?
CM: Not really, you know, John Wesley Harding was kind of a bridge towards that, and he had formed a friendship with Johnny Cash, so it didn’t really surprise me at all.

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What about the change in Dylan’s singing style?
CM: I didn’t pay much attention to his singing style, I guess. I know there was an obvious change. After Blonde, he’d had that motorcycle wreck. I don’t know if that has anything to do with anything, but I do know that that was a major happening to him in his life, one that had nothing to do with music.

If you had one memory from your entire period of working with Dylan that summed it up – recording a single song, or a particular session, what would it be?
CM: I guess “Desolation Row,” because at least he spoke to me, and he asked me to play on it. We only did two takes of that song, because the bass player had to leave to go to another session. And the song is like 11 minutes long, y’know. So we did one take, listened back to it once, and then did one other take, and that was it. Session over. And when I played on the record at the time, I kept thinking, “…Man. This is a poor excuse.” It was like my worst try, y’know, and I kept thinking “What would Grady Martin do on this?” But ever since, every time I’ve played on anything over the past 45 years or whatever, people come up to me and say, “Oh my God, what you did on ‘Desolation Row’ was brilliant!” And I’m thinking, “Well, it didn’t sound brilliant to me…” It would’ve been brilliant if Grady Martin had done it, you know. But that’s the way music affects people, and that’s the great thing about music. But that’s the memory that I’d keep – Bob Dylan asked me to play on that song, and that was cool.

These interviews are edited from my work-in-progress manuscript
Rolling: In The Studio With Bob Dylan,
which I might finish one day.

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