In the autumn of 1967, Bob Dylan took a mysterious trip to Nashville. "As I recall, it was just on a kind of whim that Bob went down," Robbie Robertson, who had spent much of that summer wood shedding with Dylan and the rest of the Band in upstate New York, would later say. To this day, no one knows for sure when Dylan wrote many of the 12 songs he recorded on his secretive visit. He hadn't played a single one of them during his mythic sessions in the basement of "Big Pink" near Woodstock that year, and he reputedly composed several of the best new tunes ("The Ballad of Frankie Lee and Judas Priest," "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" and "Drifter's Escape") during his two-day train ride from New York to Nashville. Once there, he knocked out his eighth album in just three sessions in a local studio. "We did the whole thing in nine, nine and a half hours," says Charlie McCoy, who returned from the Blonde on Blonde sessions to play bass on the new material. "He was focused. And he never used a lyric sheet. To memorize those lyrics, with all those double meanings, was impressive."
John Wesley Harding came as a shock to fans, and decades later, it stands alone in Dylan's discography – a hard pivot away from the revolutionary rock & roll masterpieces that preceded it, and equally distant from anything else he'd done or would do. Its tightly crafted country-folk songs lack traditional choruses but teem with cryptic tales and strange warnings. "There was to be no wasted language, no wasted breath," Allen Ginsberg later said of the approach to songwriting that Dylan adopted after Blonde on Blonde. "All the imagery was to be functional rather than ornamental." Dylan himself traced the change to his 1966 motorcycle crash: "I thought I was just gonna get up and go back to doing what I was doing before," he recalled in 1969. "But I couldn't do it anymore."
Dylan began incorporating explicit religious language into his lyrics; much has been made of Beatty Zimmerman's report around this time that her son kept "a huge Bible open on a stand in the middle of his study." The death of Dylan's early idol Woody Guthrie, on October 3rd, 1967, less than a month before recording began, may well have influenced songs like "I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine" (a surreal riff on the labor-rally folk standard "Joe Hill").
The sound of the album was bracingly austere, which Dylan later explained as a reaction to the "very indulgent" psychedelic orchestration of albums like the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Casting aside his own ambitious arrangements on the previous year's Blonde on Blonde, he called back only two of his sidemen from that album – McCoy on bass and Kenny Buttrey on drums – and kept his interactions with them at a bare minimum. "He didn't talk to us, which was unusual," McCoy says. "Just did not communicate. I think he appreciated what we were doing. It was hard to tell."
It was a stark shift away from the late-night carnival atmosphere of the Blonde on Blonde sessions – but as the songs made clear, that Dylan was long gone.