In April 1969, Bob Dylan went to Nashville to record his ninth studio album. It would be his third time recording there with local session pros and producer Bob Johnston, but this time it would be different: Unlike the “thin, wild mercury sound” of 1966’s Blonde on Blonde and the ominous acoustic folk of 1967’s John Wesley Harding, his next LP would be a traditional country record. He called it Nashville Skyline.
While experimental bands like New York’s Velvet Underground and San Francisco’s Grateful Dead were pushing boundaries in music, Dylan had been secluded in Woodstock, New York, focusing on his growing family and paying little attention to new musical trends. He ended up once again subverting audience expectations and delivering an album no one was anticipating. “These are the type of songs that I always felt like writing when I’ve been alone to do so,” he told Newsweek. “The songs reflect more of the inner me than the songs of the past.”
Nashville Skyline marked a stark change in Dylan’s vocals: He had developed a baritone country croon that he claimed was a result of his decision to quit smoking cigarettes. “When I stopped smoking, my voice changed…so drastically, I couldn’t believe it myself,” he told Rolling Stone founder Jann S. Wenner in his first-ever interview with this publication. “I tell you, you stop smoking those cigarettes and you’ll be able to sing like Caruso.” In actuality, he was trying to create a new vocal persona to match his new style of music.
In honor of the 50th anniversary of Nashville Skyline, here are 10 things you may not know about the album.
1. The working title for the album was John Wesley Harding Vol. 2.
The record was originally going to be named John Wesley Harding Vol. 2, but according to Dylan, Columbia wanted to call the record Love Is All There Is. “I didn’t see anything wrong with it,” he told Rolling Stone. “But it sounded a little spooky to me.”
He considered other working titles including Lay Lady Lay and Girl From the North Country before settling on Nashville Skyline. “That was another title which didn’t really seem to fit,” Dylan recalled, laughing. “Picture me on the front holding a guitar and Girl From the North Country printed on top.”
2. “Lay Lady Lay” was almost featured in the 1969 film Midnight Cowboy.
Months before he began work on the album, Dylan was asked to contribute a song to the in-progress Jon Voight/Dustin Hoffman movie. But by the time he presented “Lay Lady Lay” to director John Schlesinger, they had already decided to go with Harry Nilsson’s cover of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin.'”
In the fall of 1968, Dylan offered the song to the Everly Brothers when he met up with them backstage at a New York concert. It was widely reported that they turned it down, but the duo set the record straight in an interview with Kurt Loder in 1986: “He sang parts of it, and we weren’t quite sure whether he was offering it to us or not,” admitted Don Everly. “It was one of those awestruck moments. We wound up cutting the song about 15 years later.”
3. Kris Kristofferson assisted with the percussion parts on “Lay Lady Lay.”
The seductive ballad featured guitarist Norman Blake’s steel guitar and Dylan’s low croon, but it was missing a drum part after an early attempt at the song. Drummer Kenny Buttrey asked Dylan what he had in mind. “Bongos,” he replied. Buttrey found an old set of bongos and ran a cigarette lighter underneath to tighten the skin. When Johnston suggested adding cowbells, Buttrey found those, too.
Kristofferson, working as a studio janitor at the time, was asked to hold the bongos and cowbell next to Buttrey’s drum kit. “He had just emptied my ashtray at the drums,” Buttrey remembered. “I said, ‘Kris, do me a favor, here, hold these two things.’”
4. When Dylan asks “Is it rolling, Bob?” in the intro to “To Be Alone With You,” he’s talking to producer Bob Johnston.
Johnston, who also produced Johnny Cash, Simon & Garfunkel and Leonard Cohen, began working with Dylan on 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited. Dylan had spent much of his career working closely with legendary producer Tom Wilson, but they parted ways after completing “Like a Rolling Stone.”
It’s unclear to this day why Wilson was replaced by Johnston. As the ever-elusive Dylan told Rolling Stone in 1969, “All I know is that I was out recording one day, and Tom had always been there — I had no reason to think he wasn’t going to be there — and I looked up one day and Bob was there.”
5. By coincidence, Johnny Cash was recording in the same studio as Dylan in Nashville. They recorded 18 songs together.
The country star dropped by while Dylan was recording “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” and “Nashville Skyline Rag.” The next day, the two went out for dinner while Johnston prepared for them to record together. “While they were gone, I put lights in the studio, made it look like a damn nightclub,” Johnston said. “Set up all the microphones out there, guitars, all of that.”
The duo recorded 18 songs together. “Girl From the North Country,” a country take on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan track, was the only one officially released. “Cash said ‘Well, look at my 45,’ and Dylan said, ‘I’ve got my 45,'” Johnston remembered. “It’s the most amazing, asinine thing I’ve ever heard in my life.” The sessions have been widely bootlegged.
6. The album opened the floodgates to country rock.
Though Nashville Skyline didn’t place on the country charts, it peaked at Number 3 on the Billboard 200, introducing mainstream fans to a sound many had never heard before. This crossover of country and pop helped pave the way for the Eagles and other country-rock superstars of the early ’70s.
“Our generation owe him our artistic lives, because he opened all the doors in Nashville when he did Blonde On Blonde and Nashville Skyline,” recalled Kristofferson. “The country scene was so conservative until he arrived. He brought in a whole new audience. He changed the way people thought about it — even the Grand Ol’ Opry was never the same again.”
7. Dylan played “I Threw It All Away” for George Harrison on Thanksgiving 1968.
When Harrison and his then-wife Pattie Boyd spent the holiday with the Dylans in Woodstock, Dylan performed this guilt-laden tune for them. Harrison was so blown away, he went on to cover it with his fellow Beatles during the Let It Be sessions in January 1969.
With lines like, “Once I had mountains in the palm of my hands/And rivers that ran through every day,” “I Threw It All Away” is rich in detail and imagery. On an album where most of the tracks were stripped down and pure, “I Threw It All Away” is more traditionally Dylanesque in structure. “On Nashville Skyline you had to read between the lines,” he told Jonathan Cott in 1978. “I was trying to grasp something that would lead me on to where I thought I should be, and it didn’t go nowhere — it just went down, down, down. I couldn’t be anybody but myself, and at that point I didn’t know it or want to know it.”
8. The album was recorded in a mere four days.
Most of Nashville Skyline was recorded over the course of four days in mid-February. This was typical for Dylan, who recorded 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan in a single evening and rarely took longer than a week to cut his albums once he began working with backing bands. The lightning pace also suited the Nashville session cats accompanying him, who were used to working very quickly as to not rack up expensive studio time.
9. “Nashville Skyline Rag” is the first instrumental on a Dylan album.
If reworking “Girl From the North Country” featuring Johnny Cash didn’t make it clear enough, “Nashville Skyline Rag” told listeners that this was not your typical Dylan album. Featuring just over three minutes of ragtime music, this lively tune could have easily fit on a Scott Joplin record.
It was also a chance for some of Nashville’s finest session players — some of who had been working with Dylan since the Blonde on Blonde days — to showcase their chops and take solos without being interrupted by Dylan.
10. Two of the songs on this album have never been played live.
Dylan didn’t tour in support of Nashville Skyline, and wouldn’t hit the road again until he reunited with the Band in 1974. On that tour, the only Nashville Skyline song he included in the show was “Lay Lady Lay.” He’s since played “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” “Country Pie,” “To Be Alone With You,” “Tell Me That It Isn’t True” and “One More Night” over the decades, but he has yet to perform “Nashville Skyline Rag” or “Peggy Day.”