Nashville — As the crowd settled in, T. Thomas Catrer, the master of ceremonies, explained how the show would run and what the applause sign meant and the rest. This was the Johnny Cash Show, they were taping the first segment now, and the part with Bob Dylan would come first. But first for a little warm-up humor, Nashville style.
“If anything strikes you as funny, just laugh,” said Tommy Catrer. “We’d appreciate it. Miss Fanny Flagg’s here. I think you’ll enjoy her.”
About that time, Dylan’s wife Sarah and their son Jesse took their seats with the wife of Bob Johnston, the Columbia producer who has worked with Cash, Dylan and the Statler Brothers. Johnston is said to be the man who interested Flatt & Scruggs into recording Dylan songs before the team broke up.
Cash came out before the taping began to sing a few numbers for the folks, and he seemed a happy man. He introduced a new number by Vince Matthews he’s about to record called “Wrinkled Crinkled Wadded Dollar Bill.” The Tennessee Three backs him with Carl Perkins on guitar. His wife June Carter joined him and they did “Jackson.” June is a woman who absolutely means to entertain or know the reason why. She’s got that hash-house flash and she really drives.
When Cash left, Dylan’s band got into the jungle of instruments behind the cameras and warmed up. They are the same group that backed him on Nashville Skyline: Kenny Buttrey, Charley McCoy, Pete Drake, Norman Blake, Charlie Daniels and Bob Wilson.
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The show with Dylan as featured guest will be shown June 7 on ABC. The taping took place May 1st at the Grand Ole Opry.
Cash seems determined to bring entertainment to television, a most remarkable innovation in this medium. Besides Dylan, Cash and his wife June Carter, and the Carter Family, the session included Joni Mitchell, the Statler Brothers and a remarkable Cajun fiddler named Doug Kershaw.
But the highlight, of course, was the performance by Dylan. Back in March, Dylan was featured in an NET special on Cash. The segment showed them recording a duet version of Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings,” one of his older songs. Apart from this, Dylan has been seen publicly only once since his motorcycle accident in the summer of 1966. He appeared at the Woodie Guthrie benefit in New York over a year ago.
For the Cash Show, Dylan did “I Threw It All Away” from the new album, Nashville Skyline. He also did a new song, “Living the Blues,” which will be released as a single on June 8th. Then he and Cash did “Girl From the North Country,” also featured on the new album.
The Dylan appearance was no secret in Nashville, fortunately. It goes without saying that Cash fans are as baffled by Dylan’s emergence here as Dylan freaks were startled at the news of this new axis. But they all lined up outside the Opry: businessmen and their wives, country boys, bald heads, acid heads, bee-hive bouffant blondes, drawling teenyboppers and other assorted traveling wonderers. There is no doubt that a good part of the audience was there just to see Cash and didn’t know what all the fuss was about. But the seats and aisles of the Opry were full, and Dylan did not lack a fine representation of people familiar with his work.
Dylan appeared to a great ovation, tieless, short-haired with his five-day beard, dressed in a stove-pipe suit, looking a little like Charlie Chaplin. His manner was somewhat strained.
He opened with “I Threw It All Away.” A shock went through the auditorium because all the amplification was off on the studio speakers and you could barely hear Dylan over Kenny Buttrey’s drums. From what we could hear, the takes on all the numbers were up to recording standards. (Reportedly, Dylan did only one or two takes for each cut on Nashville Skyline.)
The second number, “Living the Blues,” will be released as a single the day after the Cash show is aired. It’s almost an Everly Brothers swing song, and could have easily followed “Peggy Day” on the new album.
Dylan joined Cash in a living room set, where they did “Girl From the North Country.” It sounded virtually indistinguishable from the album cut. There was a fine friendliness between the two and if you watch closely, you’ll see Dylan slyly driving Cash on the refrain (“. . . true love of mine . . .”).
When the set was over, Cash said, “It’s really fine to have a great man like Bob Dylan on the show.” Then he announced that the first take had been fine and that Dylan enjoyed the audience so much that he wanted to do the numbers again for them with amplification.
While they were setting up to run it through again, T. Tommy Catrer came out to say that Dylan “just really doesn’t believe who he is.” It’s true: Dylan was incredibly reserved. He only flashed an occasional smile during the entire performance. But it was a strange audience, though not at all unenthusiastic. As a matter of fact, it was outrightly reverent. Not one word was heard from the crowd despite the fact there was no explanation about the lack of amplification on the first run through. Everybody just leaned forward. Those who knew were glad to have him back.
The amplified set was low-keyed, perhaps a bit cautious, but when Dylan ran through “Girl From the North Country” again with Cash, he seemed considerably looser, if the occasional flash grins he gave are any indication. He ran through the new single a third time after this set and left to hot applause.
(Earlier, Dylan had whispered something in Cash’s ear, who then turned to the crowd upstairs and said, “Bob says you’re a great audience.”)
Cash did his portion of the show next and he played some of his best numbers. He was exuberant about the affair, and it was a very fine performance. He did a medley of “Folsom Prison,” “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town,” “Egg-Sucking Dog,” and “It Ain’t Me, Babe” as a duet with June Carter. He also did “Orange Blossom Special” in his three-harmonica version.
Later, Cash, Dylan and June Carter went down to the Black Poodle down in Printers’ Alley to see Doug Kershaw, the Cajun fiddler who also played on the Cash show. To what must have been Dylan’s delight, the attention was primarily on Cash. Joni Mitchell and Graham Nash were there, too. Kershaw really ripped loose on the first set and passed the mike around at the table when he did “Orange Blossom Special.”
A little later, Cash and his wife took to the stage with Kershaw backing them on his fiddle. I have never heard happier music. Dylan sat quiet and smiling through the set. The people who happened to be in the club when this began were stunned.
The Nashville Banner ran an “interview” by Red O’Donnell on its front page. It was casual to say the least, but it showed sympathy for Dylan’s move to Nashville. The Tennessean ran a feature way back inside with a shot of all the longhairs sitting on the sidewalk outside the Opry House. Its caption ran “Subjects Wait to See Their King.” The headline for the story said: Now Monarch At Opry Tabernacle. The writer quoted “one mustached young man from Cincinnati” on his reaction to the show:
“‘Hey, he walks like an ordinary person. I came 300 miles to see an ordinary person!’ And he laughed.”
Another “reaction” was: “He just sounds like a not-so-good hillbilly to me. What’s he got?”
The fact is that the current sound he plays is more country & Dylan than country & Western, and Dylan is wise in not attempting to kick his way into the Grand Ole Opry. The one thing that was a constant source of conversation here, probably to too great a degree, was the shyness that he showed among his company.
After the concert, a photographer said to him: “You seemed to be a little nervous tonight, Bob.”
“I was scared to death,” he said with a smile.
Certainly he seemed a bit strained — not an unusual situation for a man who had given only one public performance in three years. But in my encounters with him, he seemed more reserved than afraid, and it was obvious that this reserve is getting him a good deal of respect in Nashville. They were there first and they know it. So does he.
The day after the concert Dylan came back to his hotel from a recording session with his producer, Bob Johnston. Word had it that he was planning to record an Everly Brothers tune, and sure enough, he had a copy of one of their singles in hand and the sheet music for a song called “Take a Message to Mary.” He said that one of the Nashville papers was going to “get a list of ten things I like.”
“You mean ten songs?”
“No. Ten things.”
Then he want off to a table to read the papers.
This is a story from the May 31, 1969 issue of Rolling Stone.