Album Review: Bob Dylan “Nashville Skyline” (1969)

Released in 1969 during the height of flower power Nashville Skyline was completely removed from much of everything else that was going on musically at the time and saw Bob Dylan build on the rootsy sound of his previous release 1967s John Wesley Harding as he moved head first into country music, leaving behind his politically charged folk anthems in the process.

Nashville Skyline is a very warm and friendly album and has a strong homely feel to it. The music on the album is unthreatening lyrically and musically very much unlike Dylan’s earlier folk material as he attempts a radical change of direction in his music. Coming in the wake of his motorcycle accident in 1966, Dylan’s change of direction musically seems to have fallen in line with his new perspective on life where he became a more private family man. He also began to publically distance himself from the political and social unrest of the late-1960s and from the counter-culture, especially the tag of being seen as the spokesmen for a generation to which he responded: “I wasn’t the toastmaster of any generation”. The state of mind Dylan seemingly was in during this period comes across in the tranquil-like music on Nashville Skyline, while country music was the perfect genre for him in which to retreat into his thoughts and reflect on his feelings.

On this album Dylan surrounds himself with in-demand Nashville country players a move which I feel translates into an I play, you follow ethos on the album. What I mean by this is that the backing musicians are simply there to serve the song rather than to display their virtuosity on their instrument. These simple country songs don’t lend themselves to solos or amazing displays of musicianship, with Dylan very much going for simplicity over any form of musical statement. The album contains a mixture of soft country ballads and up-tempo tracks, while the only real display of musicianship from his reputable Nashville musicians occurs in the form of instrumental “Nashville Skyline Rag”. Although the album as a coherent whole flows nicely from song to song, the songs that stand out for me include the opening track “Girl from the North Country” which features Johnny Cash on vocals, one of the few up-tempo songs on the album “To Be Alone with You” and album closer “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You”. Dylan’s voice is also a pleasant surprise as he switches to a country crooning style taking many fans by surprise. On first listen he sounds unrecognizable in comparison to his folk twang that made him famous, but after a few songs his voice begins to grow on you as it gives off this warm soothing sound well suited to the short and sweet songs, and the country style of the album.

Although the style of the album was a surprise to many, Dylan was lauded by critics for this album especially for going down a completely different avenue musically. Nashville Skyline went on to become one of his best-selling albums and had a direct influence on the development of country rock during the early-70s. This reaction was quite ironic considering Dylan wanted more privacy and less attention at this time and what he got instead with this album was the exact opposite in the form of praise from music critics and commercial success. This album’s release led to an increased interest in Dylan and his music, his whereabouts, and what his next move would be, the sort of heightened attention that resulted in his highly anticipated set at the 1969 Isle of White Festival, his first concert in three years. Nashville Skyline is a very fine album and is one of Dylan’s best, marking the moment where he left behind his political folk songs for a more self-reflective sound that he would continue with for much of his career. It is a very soothing album musically, which is not always the case for Dylan who can be a hard listen at times and has an underlying relaxing quality to it allowing listeners to drift off. I thoroughly recommend it to Dylan fans, country rock fans, and those that like to chill out and relax to music.

– Sam

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