After the rock ‘n’ roll of The Basement Tapes sessions and the Biblical imagery of John Wesley Harding, Bob Dylan returned in 1969 with the release of a country album.
1969 would find a far different Dylan than just a few years previous. Gone were the angry protest songs and bohemian lifestyle. He was now married with three children and was shunning the limelight. Nashville Skyline, despite being rooted in country music, was a calm and even happy affair. His fans would flock to records stores to purchase this release as it would soar to the number two position on the National charts and reach number one in England.
I have purchased a lot of Bob Dylan albums during the course of my lifetime but I remember few as surprising as Nashville Skyline. It was not even the country direction of the music that initially caught my attention but rather his vocals. Gone was the gruff, nasal quality which had been replaced by a more smooth pop tone. Dylan attributed it to kicking his smoking habit.
Nashville Skyline would be Dylan’s shortest album, clocking in at less than thirty minutes. The songs would be structurally tight and the lyrics would turn away from the overwhelming imagery of the past. The songs would pick up where the last two songs of John Wesley Harding left off.
The beauty and lasting quality of Nashville Skyline is found in the love songs. “Lay Lady Lay” is an enduring Dylan classic and was recognized as such upon its release. His use of words to portray this love story and the understated smooth vocal push this delicate song along and make it a pleasurable listen. “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” is another mellow song, this time of lost love. Pete Drake, who played his superb steel guitar sparingly on John Wesley Harding, returns to provide some subtle underpinning for this song and others.
Dylan would later resurrect this gentle love song as a flat out electric rocker but I have always preferred this tone-downed version. “To Be Alone With You” and “One More Night,” while not of the quality of the previously mentioned two, are still excellent in their own right.
The first song on the album would establish this album as a true country release. His old folk song, “Girl From The North Country,” would become a country duet with none other than Johnny Cash. The vocal styles of Dylan and Cash may seem mismatched but they make it work. He recorded almost an album's worth of material with Cash, but only used this one song for the album.
I am not as enamored with the playful tunes “Country Pie” or “Peggy Day.” The instrumental track, “Nashville Skyline Rag,” is only adequate at best. “I Threw It All Away,” however, is a lost gem in the Dylan catalogue of songs.
Nashville Skyline remains a pleasant listen and was a nice stopping point for Dylan. While a very good album in its own right, it does not measure up to such classics as Highway 61 Revisited, Blonde On Blonde, Blood On The Tracks, or even John Wesley Harding. I would rate it as a little above the average for a Bob Dylan album which is still better than what most artists would create in their lifetime.