Ground-breaking string band Old Crow Medicine Show tipped their hats to one of music's greatest innovators last night (May 12), performing Bob Dylan’s watershed Blonde on Blonde album in its entirety for the first of a two-night stand at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s CMA Theater in Nashville.
Conceived as part of the Museum’s ongoing Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City exhibit, the stirring and educational concert marked the 50th anniversary of Dylan’s first trip to Nashville, the 1966 journey that produced Blonde on Blonde — rock’s first-ever double album and the moment that refocused attention on Nashville's world class musicians and studios.
For a little bit of background, Dylan had already started recording what would become Blonde on Blonde in New York City in early 1966, but the sessions weren’t going well. Looking for a spark, Nashville session musician Charlie McCoy (a multi-instrumentalist most famous for his harmonica and guitar playing) was invited north to sit in on a session. His skill and versatility — and the fact that he could learn a whole song at the drop of a hat — impressed Dylan so much that when McCoy told him Nashville was full of young, ambitious players just like him, the star decided to give Music City a shot. He went on to record two more full albums in Nashville, and soon artists from around the world were seeking out session time on Music Row. Nashville was no longer viewed as a backwater, thanks to Dylan’s endorsement.
Opening the Hall of Fame event was Museum Editor Peter Cooper, who delivered an impassioned speech about why Blonde on Blonde is important to Nashville in the first place, and why a seemingly unrelated band of acoustically minded hillbillies would be chosen to perform it.
“Blonde on Blonde opened doors,” Cooper explained in the gorgeous hall, ringed by three levels of balcony. “It signaled Nashville’s place as a truly ecumenical Music City and as a beacon for music makers of all types. Fifty years later Nashville remains a beacon — a place where rock, pop, jazz, hip-hop and R&B artists come to create. Blonde on Blonde was an album of hysterical invention. It offered a language all its own.
“When we at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum pondered how best to honor Blonde on Blonde, we decided to move forward in the spirit of invention, which negates replication,” Cooper continued. “Rather than play what Nashville Cats Mac [Gayden] and Wayne [Moss] and Charlie McCoy, Kenny Buttrey, Pig Robbins, Jerry Kennedy, Joe South and Henry Strzelecki played with Bob Dylan and for producer Bob Johnston, we pondered what group of players might perform these songs in such a way that calls to mind Dylan’s whimsical genius, without copying his blueprint. What group of players could ground these songs in the blues and string-band traditions that Dylan holds dear? What group of players would have the patience, love and brilliance to get all the way inside one of music’s landmark works? What group of players would have the unmitigated gall to change the whole damn thing around and make it shine in different ways, with different sounds? Our first call, was our only call. There is only one band in the world that could pull this off, they’re called the Old Crow Medicine Show.”
Arriving onstage with a marching snare and bass drum and jumping right into the album’s first track, the woozy “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” Old Crow, led by their front man Ketch Secor, lovingly and intelligently presented each track from Blonde on Blonde in a new light, sometimes descending into foot-stomping madness and often replacing Dylan’s brilliantly simple melody lines with fiddle and steel guitar. Dylan’s much-loved sloppy harmonica work was cleaned up a bit by Secor, but each number maintained the rebellious spirit of Dylan’s originals. Secor even dipped into Dylan’s unmistakable vocal cadence from time to time, taking the weird, piercing electricity of the thing and making it his own.
Songs like “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later),” “I Want You” and the super-heated backbeat of “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” sent the crowd into a polite frenzy, hooting and hollering their approval from comfy theater chairs.
The band took a break after the end of the first disc, so Cooper returned to the stage to praise Old Crow and dig a little deeper into the way Blonde on Blonde changed Nashville.
“I keep looking around the stage for lyric sheets or teleprompters, and there’s nary a one,” he marveled. “Which maybe makes this a night of incredible achievement… Nashville shifted on its axis when Bob Dylan and the Nashville Cats got together to make Blonde on Blonde. What was regional became national, and then international. What was expected became verboten. What was hidden became revealed, and before long it was more expensive to park downtown.”
The second half of the show was just as rousing and unexpected as the first. Pounding pianos and rolling banjos met with Dylan's famously literary lyrics and unconventional use of structure, but all the while seemed right at home. Before closing for the night, Secor stepped to the mic and explained why that is. It was a speech he intended to give at the 2013 CMA Awards (where he and Dylan were nominated for Song of the Year for “Wagon Wheel,” which made use of an unfinished Dylan lyric), but “I Drive Your Truck” won the award instead.
“Clearly I needed to dig a little more surface,” Secor began as the crowd howled in laughter. “Bob Dylan belongs in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Not just because he made three or four powerful records here, not just because he wrote country music songs like ‘Lay Lady Lay,’ which is pure country. Because he has informed every songwriter in our city. He is at the heart of what our town is all about, and he came here before many other folks did — 50 years ago, in fact.”
The second and final performance of Old Crow Medicine Show Plays Blonde on Blonde begins tonight (May 13) at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s CMA Theater.