That Clean Sheen: Nashville Skyline

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Nashville Skyline extends the late-60’s return to Dylan’s folk roots. This isn’t the hobo folk we once heard though, but a Dylanized brand of Nashville country, equal parts Appalachian and high production. Right from the opening lyric of “Girl from the North Country,” his voice is markedly different, smoother, lower in the throat–“If you’re traveling to the north country fair…”–before Johnny Cash steps into the duet with his hardened barroom croon. Somehow this song, written and recorded for Freewheelin’, now sounds hundreds of years old, imported from the pastures of the British Isles. Six years is a long time in the 1960’s. Between the two versions, The Beatles had already almost had their entire run; and Dylan has reinvented himself a couple times over.

This album contains an instrumental track, a Dylan-album first, “Nashville Skyline Rag.” Its upbeat tempo, heavy on the 2 and 4, really moves, and the flourish of an ending suggests showtime more than rail yards. Throughout the album, pop country licks and overtures color and structure the songs, such as the clopping percussion on “Lay Lady Lay,” or the church organ setting the back line on tracks like. “I Threw It All Away” and “Tell Me That It Isn’t True.”

Dylan is a showman here. Even the cover depicts a gracious smiling performer, tipping his hat for the main stage, ready perhaps for the Grand Ole Opry. The closing “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You,” with its rolling piano and line-dancing guitars, is a song strong enough for any stage.

Do I get Nashville Skyline? To me, it’s Dylan trying on yet another sound, testing the malleability of his song-writing prowess. Do I need to have heard the earlier albums to get it? On the whole, no, because so much is different here. But a fluency in Dylan’s suggestive, rhythmic, subconscious lyric style doesn’t hurt. Do I like it? Each song is nice. Like, if I were drinking in a saloon and any one of these songs came on, I’d be mighty happy. As an album, though, it’s got that overproduced sheen and those strange vocals, all of which casts it just above John Wesley Harding in the pantheon so far.

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