Country Tradition Goes To Heart of Dylan Songs

Whether it be Johnny Cash or Bob Dylan, country and western music is back

Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images; Jan Persson/Redferns
Johnny Cash/Bob Dylan
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For more than a year now, I have wanted to write something about country and western music. It is an idiom that is at the historical core of rock and roll (they called Elvis the "rockabilly") and has returned, with Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding, to the spiritual core of contemporary rock and roll. Soon it will become a rock style with the forthcoming release of a new Byrds album now being recorded in Nashville. But there is something in it much deeper than fashion.

Country music has had a great hold on me for some time and, at the very least, I have had the opportunity of seeing both Flatt and Scruggs and Buck Owens and the Buckaroos in the last two months and in the last six months, seeing Johnny Cash twice. It explains a lot about where rock and roll is headed, musicially and spiritually.

Johnny Cash, more than any other contemporary performer, is meaningful in a rock and roll context. At the end of the Newport Folk Festival in 1964, Cash, who has just finished a compelling set of story-telling songs gave his guitar to Bob Dylan, the traditional country singer's tribute to a fellow musician. They are both master singers, master story-tellers and master bluesmen. They share the same tradition, they are good friends, and the work of each can tell you about the work of the other.

Cash has recorded a number of Dylan songs "It Ain't Me Babe," "Mama [Daddy] You've Been on My Mind," and "Don't Think Twice It's Alright," which tune he later set to his own words, "Understand Your Man." And Cash once wrote and recorded a song called "Hardin Wouldn't Run," the story of the desperado John Wesley Hardin.

"Country music," says Cash, "is slow to jump on any trend, but we've been effected greatly by the sound of the Beatles and the lyric of Bob Dylan."

Cash's performance, his ability with a song, the intensity of his presence fully felt in his deep, luxurious voice, his passion, reaches — in precisely the same way as do Bob Dylan and Otis Redding — directly to the heart. He sings with such soulfulness, that he can transform any lyric he touches, including the most blatantly sentimental from the country tradition.

Johnny Cash was born in a shack in Arkansas in a family totally hit by the Great Depression. His father was a hobo. Cash himself nearly died of malnutrition before his mother stole some goatsmilk to nurse him. When he was five, Cash's family moved to the snake-infested delta farmland in Dyess, Arkansas, fifty miles from Memphis. His talent was obvious at an early age.

Finally, through the same label, Sun, which Elvis Presley first recorded on, Cash, in late 1955, came into his own. Thirteen years later, Cash's latest release — and one of his very best — is Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison (Columbia CS 9639) produced by Bob Johnston (also Dylan's producer) the only man at Columbia Records, according to Cash, who believed Cash that Folsom Prison was "the place to record an album live." Cash's backing group includes Carl Perkins, the man who wrote "Blues Suede Shoes."

There is no question that rock and roll is connected with much of the country and western tradition. Much of the best and newest recent developments in rock and roll have had more and more to do with country music. Otis Redding was deeply touched by country music. The soul music tradition has been deeply involved with country sounds; they are both from the south and the marriage of the two is what was called rock and roll.

Today, country music has begun to appear in a number of popular sports, as it always has in the past. One of them, for example, was Nancy Sinatra's totally lame version of Johnny Cash and June Carter's great "Jackson." Another fashionable piece was in the movie, Bonnie and Clyde. Olde Excessive England, which is currently going through a "rock and roll revival," (not really what the name implies, but something close to it) has also been innundated with some of the vacuous extremes of country music, the Engelbert Humperdink ballad.

But by far the most significant reappearance of country music is in Bob Dylan's latest record, John Wesley Harding. It is the second album he has recorded with country musicisians in Nashville, but it is the first in which he goes straight to the heart of the country tradition. It is a natural and logical move: not a step forward, not a step backwards, but part of a circular pattern. It is a move that makes what Dylan is doing all the more clear.

It might seem like a truism, but at this point in time when the frivolous and the bullshit in rock and roll comes faster than royalty checks and thicker than "pop music" critics, it ought to be re-asserted that the main thing is the music and understanding begins there. It always has been and should always continue to be the case, that the best groups and performers are those who are solidly grounded in the music, who can play and perform well, and not those who just have timely, hip messages.

There are a number of things we can see in country music, a number of styles and ideas that are a part of the music, a part of the music Dylan now sings and a part of the what he has to say.

They are story-telling songs, tales of people and their people, intensely simplistic and moral in their nature. With these overtones, it goes to the roots of human relationships. In many cases, there is a lot of tiresome and uninteresting sentimentality and hokeyness, but in its highest moments — in everything Johnny Cash does, in what Otis was doing, in what Dylan now sings, — it is intensely heartfealt, intensely soulful and intensely close to people.

It would probably be deadly accurate to say that country and western music is the soul music of white people. Its origins are in the lives of the dispossessed okies and it reflects the knowledge and suffering of people who had learned that there is an honest compromise with other men and with the land. In many ways, it is a music of reconciliation, of people who have been wronged or wronged others, but who, in the end, found out that that's the way it is.

I think that this is, in many ways, what Dylan now sings about. And, as Dylan says, "The country music station plays soft, and there's nothing, really nothing, to turn off."

This is a story from the May 25, 1968 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 11: May 25, 1968