Imagine how intimidating it must be to sing with Bob Dylan for the first time. Now think of how Dylan must have felt singing alongside Johnny Cash in 1969 when the pair united for a loose recording session in Nashville. Cash was nine years Dylan’s senior, and had put out his first single in 1955, seven years before Dylan, who turned 28 that year. It’s rare to hear Dylan sound like a fan trying to be a peer, but that’s what’s evident here. Those sessions serve as the core of Travelin’ Thru, Dylan’s 15th “Bootleg Series” release, but since the Man in Black is spry and dominant throughout — he’s the true star here — it could also be a new entry in his own Bootleg Series.
The songs the duo perform together come mostly from Cash’s catalogue (though it includes two versions of their take on Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country,” which appeared on Dylan’s country album Nashville Skyline), and they feature Dylan playing with the band that backed Cash on his iconic At San Quentin LP; the lineup includes lead guitarist Carl Perkins. They’re so tight and well-rehearsed on Cash’s hits and the hits of the Cash era that on versions of “Careless Love” and “That’s All Right, Mama,” you can hear Dylan trying his best to fall in with the group. But along the way, they laugh and trade verses, and when Dylan does find his groove, such as on “I Walk the Line,” he has a warm tenor that pairs perfectly with Cash’s basso profundo. It’s some of Dylan’s best singing.
The most fun on the compilation is listening to all the banter in between the songs. On a short mashup of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and Cash’s “Understand Your Man,” they sing each other’s lyrics over the same chords. “We both stole it from the same song,” Cash exclaims at the end to laughter in the room. Later, when they sing the whimsical folk song “Mountain Dew,” the Man in Black tells Dylan, “Hey, this will be real funny if you talk off a verse,” and recited one of the tune’s sillier lyrics with Shel Silverstein flair. On “Careless Love,” Cash says, “Sing one, Bob.” It’s the sound of two masters find the sweet spot between their artistry, and by the time Cash tries to get them to do the “Wreck of the Old ’97,” Dylan finally says, “I don’t know if I can do that, Johnny.” And after they go through a couple of run-throughs of a Jimmie Rodgers medley, Dylan pushes back and says, “I’m not gonna do it another time.” By this point, they’re finally on the level.
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The collection also includes audio from Dylan’s lively appearance on The Johnny Cash show, some bluegrass banjo playing with Earl Scruggs, and outtakes from his own albums, including a quicker paced take on John Wesley Harding’s “I Pity the Poor Immigrant,” a more somber “All Along the Watchtower,” and a sparser version of Nashville Skyline’s “Lay Lady Lay.”
The most curious offerings are a couple of Cash covers from around the time Dylan recorded his much despised Self Portrait record: There’s an electric, honky-tonk take on “Ring of Fire” that is admirable in its funkiness but detestable in its overproduced excess, and there’s a thumping “Folsom Prison Blues” that features one of Dylan’s best and most countryish vocal performances. When he sings “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” he hits a perfect mix of glibness and shame. But you’ll never know just what he was feeling then; only he knows how that Cash session rubbed off on him and influenced him.