Bob Dylan, “Travelin’ Thru, Featuring Johnny Cash: The Bootleg Series Vol. 15”

Bob Dylan
Travelin’ Thru, Featuring Johnny Cash: The Bootleg Series Vol. 15
COLUMBIA/LEGACY
8/10

For his second box set in one year (the first documenting just his bits of the 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue in fourteen CDs), Bob Dylan is short but sweet in reminiscences about his late-’60s trip to Nashville, his time recording John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, and his shockingly lively (well, for Dylan) performance on The Johnny Cash Show in 1969. 

Within three tightly packed CDs, Dylan cuts through the swath of his warmly relaxed Nashville period, one which found him swerving again into semi-acoustic territory from his controversial, revolutionary run with electric guitars. With that, and his famed teaming with oddball network television star Cash (whoever pitched The Man in Black in this role was a diabolical genius), this pair in 1969 built—or at least fortified—the still nascent “rock” genre into something countrified, something steadily insistent, something that could lean hard into rock’s (or Dylan’s hyper-folk, singer-songwriter éclat) C&W roots.

RELATED: Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan Netflix doc and the simultaneously released live recordings highlight a mythic chapter in Dylanology

You could talk about Gram Parsons and the Flying Burrito Brothers and The Byrds on the West Coast, or even point out how Buck Owens was causing a country rock stir in Bakersfield before 1969. They’re true and valid points. But this was Dylan. In Nashville. Young America’s most important lyrical voice, writing and singing in a softer croon about simpler things than the incendiary subject matter of his (then) recent past—history, humanity, happiness.

“Our generation owes him our artistic lives because he opened all the doors in Nashville when he did Blonde on Blonde and Nashville Skyline,” said Kris Kristofferson in a 2010 interview. “The country scene was so conservative until he arrived. He brought in a whole new audience. He changed the way people thought about it—even the Grand Ole Opry was never the same again.”

In a departure from the intricately wound and deep diving Bootleg Series, there’s not a ton of outtakes or rare, new unheard material to be found on this set. Masters went missing when CBS Records Nashville failed to pay for a storage facility at the time, and what you hear is what Sony currently owns, or has in its possession. Anyone out there with missing Dylan reels can write me, and we’ll work something out.

What is there on Travelin’ Thru, 1967 – 1969, though, is solid.

Along with a new song that never made it onto its intended slot within Nashville Skyline, the louche but lovely (and bluesy) “Western Road,” the first disc features Dylan in Columbia’s Studio A in Nashville quickly recording alternate versions of compositions written for Texas outlaw John Wesley Hardin (Dylan misspelled Hardin’s last name) (October 17 and November 6, 1967) and “Nashville Skyline” (February 13-14, 1969). Dylan wanted a taut ensemble—his guitar, bass, and drums. Producer Bob Johnston brought in session bassist Charlie McCoy and drummer Kenny Buttrey, then bugged Dylan to add steel guitarist Pete Drake to the yawning likes of “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and “Down Along the Cove,” and pow, the Harding album was completed in a burst of country creativity. Johnston and Dylan lingered on his Nashville Skyline set longer, and brought in a Technicolor recording crew that featured Drake, dobroist Norman Blake, guitarist-bassist Charlie Daniels, and on “Girl from the North Country,” Johnny Cash and electric guitarist Bob Wootton. Still, the results, though laid-back and bucolic, sound as if they were made by a man who knew exactly what he wanted and moved swiftly to get it.

The leftover session chunks on Travelin’ Thru reflect that confident bluntness, as a Harding outtake like “As I Went Out One Morning” and a Nashville Skyline version of “Peggy Day” sound damn near identical to tracks that made the cut on each album. Only “Country Pie” gets a little more soulful than its album version with some funky twanging from guitarist Charlie Daniels as the whipped cream to this pie. Other than that, there are no real variations, besides hearing Dylan diddling with different words and phrases, as if finding his vocal footing.

Dylan revered the outlaw Cash, and Cash admired the wordsmith Dylan, and together—rather than play to their status as burgeoning icons—they decided to just hang out, goof off, and sing each other’s songs.

The meat of this Bootleg Series package, then, is Dylan’s collaborations with Cash and their teaming on a handful of Columbia Studio A sessions and on-stage performances at Ryman Auditorium (May 1, 1969) and, for the recording of the premiere of The Johnny Cash Show (first broadcast on ABC, June 7, 1969). There are a handful of tunes that Dylan did in 1970 with bluegrass banjo legend Earl Scruggs for the PBS television special, Earl Scruggs Performing His Family and Friends—but this package belongs to Cash and Dylan.

Dylan revered the outlaw Cash, and Cash admired the wordsmith Dylan, and together—rather than play to their status as burgeoning icons—they decided to just hang out, goof off, and sing each other’s songs.

This means Cash classics such as “Ring of Fire” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” taped for The Johnny Cash Show, have both the gravitas of an approaching hurricane and the gentility of easy, breezy camaraderie, something both men rarely had on display. So, too, did the songs they pulled from Nashville Skyline, such as a confident “I Threw It All Away” and their “Girl From the North Country” duet. So chilled were Cash and Dylan that their joint summit on February 18, 1969, was a happily ramshackle mess in parts with each singing and playing each other’s songs, often forgetting the lyrics. OK, mostly Dylan forgetting the lyrics.

Cash’s “Understand Your Man” borrowed its rambling melody line and rhythm from Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” and the two play the double cut mash-up like rappers prodding the DJ to mix. They barely get through Cash’s “Guess Things Happen That Way” and “I Still Miss Someone” without a handful of ditzy blunders. Cash gives Dylan tips as to how to handle the sacred bravura of gospel standards and Appalachian folk traditionals such as “Mountain Dew,” without either man eschewing their signature vocal tics. Then Dylan introduces the song he wrote for Cash, the nu-outlaw standard, “Wanted Man,” and the two of them go at it like Laurel & Hardy.

That this humorous mess gets rinsed and repeated throughout their time together gives what could have been a brooding, pretentious meeting—and subsequent packaging—happy heft and a glimpse into what reverie looks like when neither man takes a situation too seriously. That was rare then, and rarer now.

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