Bob Dylan’s ninth album poses fewer mysteries and yet, paradoxically, offers greater rewards than any of his previous work. Its only difficulties aren’t metaphysical or interpretative — indeed, the beauty and openness within is kept almost rigorously simple in genre — but rather those of taking the artist’s new-found happiness and maturity for exactly what they appear to be. That smiling face on the cover tells all — and isn’t it wonderful?
Most obviously, Nashville Skyline continues Dylan’s rediscovered romance with rural music (here complete with a more suitable, subtle “country” voice). The new LP represents a natural progression, both historically and emotionally, from the folk-music landscapes of John Wesley Harding into the more modern country-and-western worlds of Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
In Harding, Dylan superimposed a vision of intellectual complexity onto the warm, inherent mysticism of Southern Mountain music, rather like certain French directors (especially Jean-Luc Godard) who have taken American gangster movies and added to them layers of 20th-century philosophy. The effect is not unlike Jean-Paul Sartre playing the five-string banjo. The folk element gains a Kafka-esque chimericality, and the philosophy a bedrock simplicity that leaves it all but invisible and thus easy to assimilate. “Down Along the Cove” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” exceptions to the above and the record’s last two songs, are almost a microcosm of the geography to come.
Nashville Skyline is a jewel of construction with three distinct beginnings. The much-anticipated guitar-and-vocal duet with Johnny Cash, a stately and beautiful rendition of “Girl from the North Country,” is a thoughtful bonus to the listener, a musical postcard to an old Minnesota love, and a reminder that Dylan has always been capable of tenderness. The song’s most painful verse — “Many times I’ve often prayed/In the darkness of my night” — has been deleted here.
The second beginning — or, if you prefer, an intermission in which each performer gets a chance to solo — “Nashville Skyline Rag,” serves as an instrumental introduction to the album’s excellent personnel: Kenny Buttrey, Charlie McCoy, Pete Drake, Norman Blake, Charlie Daniels, and Bob Wilson. It’s country music at its joyful, shit-kicking best.
Dylan finally announces the LP’s “real” beginning, “To Be Alone With You,” when he asks producer Bob Johnston, “Is it rolling, Bob?” Unlike the Beatles, he may not want to take us home with him, but he makes it quite clear that what follows should be viewed as a personal confrontation: “Everything is always all right/When I’m alone with you.”
“I Threw It All Away,” the first of the record’s three classic love songs, couples a haunting melody and magnificent singing to the hard-won realization that “Love is all we need/It makes the world go round.” In contradiction to the earlier “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” Dylan, cast as someone who has formerly tried to do without deep affection, now wants very much to be “A lover for your life and nothing more.” This is clearly going to be an album of staying, not leaving.
A good-natured exercise in country wordplay (“Love to spend the night with Peggy Day … Love to spend the day with Peggy Night”), complete with a Presley rave-up finale, “Peggy Day” presents two delightful sides of one ideal woman; or maybe two delightful women, each with one ideal side. “By golly, what more can I say!”
Side two begins with another classic. “Lay Lady Lay” has the organ sound of Highway 61 Dylan, and the lyrics are not as stringently genre-bound. “Whatever colors you have in mind/I’ll show them to you and you’ll see them shine” is more a metaphysical leap than a naturalistic hop, while “His clothes are dirty/But his hands are clean” seems a self-conscious attempt to needlessly bring it all back home.
“One More Night” and “Tell Me That It Isn’t True” are My-baby-left-me songs, but, as is befitting the structures of country music, there is little or no bitterness, and Dylan even calls one of the girls his “best pal.” The former, with its “Tonight, no light will shine on me” line, echoes the “dark side of the road” imagery of “Don’t Think Twice,” but its protagonist, unlike the hero of “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” can only mournfully state, “I just could not be/What she wanted me to be.” The latter bears a superficial resemblance to “Positively 4th Street” in that the singer has been put down strongly by someone dear to him. Rather than rage, the reaction here is a gentle “Darling, I’m counting on you/Tell me that it isn’t true.”
In some ways, the final song of the LP should logically be “Country Pie,” an unabashed tribute to country music (“Love that country pie!”) and a clear statement of Dylan’s present credo: “Ain’t running any race/Get me my country pie/I won’t throw it up in anybody’s face.”
As with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Nashville Skyline saves the best until last. “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” fuses personal commitment with professional preference, and functions as a sort of very content “A Day in the Life.” Musically, it’s brilliant, with a powerful Jerry Lee Lewis stride piano leading the way. Although the symbolism is hobo-traditional, the mise-en-scene of melody, lyrics, and performance overpowers and explodes any genre limitations in a glorious flow of every sort of imaginable triumph.
Perhaps, after all, it is more difficult to convey meaningfully a total fulfillment of marriage and family life than it is to create a nightmare world of complex hallucination, even though the latter seems more painfully our own. In many ways, Nashville Skyline achieves the artistically impossible: a deep, humane, and interesting statement about being happy.
It could well be what Dylan thinks it is, his best album.
This story is from the May 31st, 1969 issue of Rolling Stone.