If you want to know how Nashville has changed over the years, Charlie Daniels is a good person to ask. Just look at the back cover of “Nashville Skyline,” the 1968 record by Bob Dylan on which Daniels played as a session man. Daniels points out that there was only one skyscraper at the time, the Life & Casualty building. Today you can’t see the taller buildings in the photo anymore because they’re covered by what’s been built since.
“The city’s changed. The industry’s changed. The business has changed,” Daniels told me. “The system of selling music has changed. What hasn’t changed is playing live. It’s the thing that keeps me going.”
Daniels connection to Nashville has come back into focus recently with the release of Bob Dylan’s Travelin’ Thru Featuring Johnny Cash: The Bootleg Series Volume 15. The three-CD archival release is the latest project in the authorized Bootleg Series that originated in 1991 and is approaching twenty years.
Travelin’ Thru chronicles the sessions beginning with John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline a series of sessions with Johnny Cash and the beginning of songs that became Self-Portrait.
Daniels was just another guitarist with a dream when he moved to Nashville at the urging of producer Bob Johnston in the mid-Sixties. When another guitarist was absent from the first session, Daniels filled in for him that day. When Daniels thought he was finished, Dylan asked producer Bob Johnston, “Where’s he going?” Johnston told him Daniels was finished. “I don’t want another guitar player,” Dylan said. “I want him.” Dylan liked him so much he stayed for the entire album, one that was revolutionary at the time as Dylan transformed his counter-culture image, trading verses with Johnny Cash on “Girl From The North Country” and re-inventing himself again in an unlikely setting.
A few years earlier, Johnston was working in New York as a staff producer for Columbia Records. He told Nashville session man Charlie McCoy to call him if he ever wanted to come to the Big Apple. He’d procure Broadway tickets. When McCoy took him up on the offer, he asked McCoy to come to a session he was producing for Bob Dylan. Upon meeting the renown Nashvillian, Dylan said, “I’m getting ready to do a song. Why don’t you pick up a guitar?” McCoy did as suggested, unknowing that the song would go on for eleven minutes. It was “Desolation Row” and is replete with all of McCoy’s fills.
Shortly after, Johnston hatched plans to take the songwriter to Nashville. “Get the band together,” Johnston told McCoy. “I’m bringing Bob Dylan to Nashville.”
As Daryl Sanders chronicled in his book That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound, Dylan made his first foray to Nashville to record Blonde on Blonde. The sessions were hardly conventional and bucked a system where artists typically cut three songs over four hours. Dylan was often writing while the session men like McCoy were on the clock, forcing them to wait into the wee hours of morning until he was ready to start recording, sometimes until 4:00.
In contrast, the sessions for Blonde on Blonde’s successor album were fairly conventional. By the time Dylan returned to record John Wesley Harding, Dylan knew what he wanted. He was accompanied by a stripped down trio featuring Kenneth Buttrey on drums and McCoy on bass guitar. The first CD on Travelin’ Thru features alternate takes from those sessions as well as the Nashville Skyline outtakes from the album released in February 1969.
Enter Daniels into the Nashville Skyline sessions. He remembers the anticipation of meeting Bob Dylan who had been called a genius and was the most dissected figure of his era. “So much has been written about him, I didn’t know what he was going to be like,” Daniels told me, saying his songs didn’t tell you what his personality would be. “But he was just like everyone else and had a great sense of humor.”
Daniels says Nashville Skyline was a fun album to make. “It was all about the music and because it represented such a departure,” he remembers. And Daniels said that just like that it was finished in a flash. There were fifteen sessions booked but they didn’t use them all.
Along with McCoy and Daniels, Norman Blake is one of three surviving musicians who backed Dylan during the Nashville Skyline sessions. Blake had backed June Carter who later introduced him to her husband Johnny Cash. “This is Norman Blake, He plays the guitar and dobro,” Blake recalls of their meeting. “He said if you can get a dobro, I can use you tomorrow.”
Blake called in to talk with Earle on his SiriusXM radio show. The memories of the years blur. He can’t definitively tell you when the sessions occurred but adds that it was “daytime as far as I can remember.”
“I knew this would be different,” he recalled. “Nashvillized is the best word I can use.”
Blake also backed Dylan when he appeared on the Johnny Cash Show on May 1, 1969. The three songs aired from that night are captured on Travelin’ Thru. Two days later Dylan recorded “Ring of Fire” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” two songs that were part of his Self-Portrait sessions.
In Travelin’ Thru’s liner notes, writer Colin Escott brings Dylan’s Nashville saga to an abrupt ending noting that after those sessions Dylan never returned to the city to record again.
Certainly the legacy of Dylan’s time in Nashville is the long list of his contemporaries who followed him to record in the city. In 2015, Daniels went on to record a full album of ten Dylan songs Off The Grid–Doin’ It Dylan. When Daniels was finished with his new album, he talked to Dylan over the phone. He hadn’t heard what he thought about the project and wanted to send him a copy. “He was very conversational, very nice and not in a hurry trying to say hello goodbye,” Daniels told me. “He was talking about his grandchildren and his life. I really sincerely like the man. But if you listen to his songs, you get no clue what he is like.”
All these years later, Charlie McCoy is still excited to be talking of the sessions on Travelin’ Thru.
“I’m glad you’re doing this Steve,” he said in closing his segment on Earle’s radio show. “This is great for people to learn about.”