Thursday, June 25, 2009

Bob Dylan Song #115: Girl of the North Country (w/Johnny Cash)


"Vapid, down-home cliches"; "one can't help feeling something is missing"; just about every damn thing Clinton Heylin wrote about the album - Nashville Skyline is that true rarity, the 1960's Bob Dylan album that isn't beloved by the vast majority of critics and fans alike. This seems hardly surprising, given the fact that both the concept (Dylan goes country) and the execution (What's up with the voice? Is he singing about pie? What's going on here?) are ripe for divisiveness amongst anybody in the Dylan audience that hears the album. Not even the stabs at country on John Wesley Harding prepare you for this album, as Dylan fully embraces the genre (or, at least, what he feels the genre is) and gives us an album full of twangy guitars, pedal steel, lyrics about love and the loss thereof, and that wonderfully strange, obviously affected croon. One can only imagine how this must have freaked out the cognoscenti of the 60s, waiting for the Dylan they were comfortable with to return and spout his hipster poetry, and instead getting Dylan Does The Louvin Brothers.

I'm bringing up the Louvin Brothers for a specific reason. In his fantastic entry in the 33 1/3 series for The Gilded Palace of Sin, country music columnist Bob Proehl draws a distinct comparison between the Appalachian vocal sound of that duo and Dylan's voice on Nashville Skyline, a voice he'd only used once in his lifetime (in 1960, as a 19-year old in Minnesota). And that, to me, is the most important aspect of Dylan's voice on this album - the debate over cigarettes or Dylan's teenage self is ultimately window dressing. Dylan rather clearly knew what he was doing when he changed up his register for this album; much like the kid recording blues covers on his debut album to fit in with the folk crowd, Dylan decided to take a shot at aping Hank Thompson and Billy Grammer in order to make the medicine go down smoother. He knew the country world (who he was trying to play to, as much as the rest of the world - certainly not to the crowd that ate up the Electric Trilogy) would not accept "Country Pie" et. al. in his normal singing voice, so he decided to change things up to help gain the acceptance necessary for this album. One can only wonder what would've happened if he'd gained that acceptance - after all, once you're in with country fans, you're in for life - and how his career might have been altered if Nashville Skyline had hit big.

And one has to wonder whether there was any chance of this album gaining acceptance, given both the timing of its release and its very nature. Proehl, in another great line, suggested that Dylan was the first artist of the sixties who had totally given up on the sixties itself, preferring to retreat into his family life and turn away the hippies begging him to be their sunglass-wearing hero once again. Hindsight makes it clear why Dylan would want to retreat from that kind of overwhelming neediness, and Chronicles gives us some insight into the insane world Dylan lived in even AFTER he retreated from the public eye. And this ugly dynamic - Dylan wanting to stay out of the limelight, and an increasingly desperate fanbase trying to drag him back in - would define his career for the better part of a decade, culminating in his Tour '74, where he more or less bent that nostalgia into a means of profiting (I love Tour '74, but let's call a spade a spade). Nashville Skyline is a very important milestone in that dynamic.

With all that being said about Nashville Skyline as defining moment in Dylan's career (and one of his true outliers), it would probably do to take a moment and talk about Nashville Skyline as an actual musical piece of work. And, now that all the fussin' and the feudin' about the album has kind of melted away (along with all the rubbish about the 1960s cultural wars), we can see what this album is and was probably meant to be - a good old time, through and through. The brevity of the album (27 minutes - sitcom-length!), IMO, works to the album's advantage, as the songs hit and run before you get too discombobulated with the whole deal and last just long enough for you to go "wow, these are pretty darn good tunes!" Now, I think you'd agree with me when I say that there are some cliches and easy rhymes on the album, and that "Peggy Day" might not exactly stand up when compared to "Gates of Eden" or something like that. But if Dylan had wanted to write another "Gates of Eden", he surely would have done so, and it would have sounded absolutely atrocious in the aesthetic of this album. Dylan chose to write an album that sounded like the country music of the time - which should make post writing difficult; we're talking a very limited emotional and subject range here - and on that level, it works very well. And with his usual nifty studio band behind him, the music was always going to sound great.

I'm not going to suggest that Dylan KNEW this was going to happen, like he was recording an album of country music in an era of roiling cultural torment because he knew it would sound better to listeners forty years in the future. But an album that clearly skirts any political or cultural agenda will almost always sound better removed from the context of its time, and Nashville Skyline is that sort of album. Is it a classic of the highest order? Probably not. Does it set out to do what Dylan wanted to do - pay homage to a style of music Dylan had listened to and appreciated for a long time, and wanted to emulate at least once in his career (and maybe more, as almost happened before the Self Portrait sessions took over)? I would say so, yes. And is this an album that rewards repeat listening, maybe not because it's a deeply intellectual experience, but certainly because it's just so darn fun? Again, I would say yes to that. Dylan has done enough stimulation of our minds and hearts to last a lifetime. Sometimes we want something to stimulate our feet, as we tap them (or maybe even use them to dance) to "Country Pie". Ain't nothin' wrong with that.


In my post for "Fourth Time Around" I wrote a brief account of the meeting between Bob Dylan and The Beatles, where Dylan introduced the boys to weed, the earth moved or something, and a beautiful legend was born. Now, we all love a good legend (Kris Kristofferson, for one, appears to have a treasure chest full of them), since they carry a ring of glory and excitement about them that our real lives can very rarely provide, but they're also aggravating because they're almost always untrue and really deflating when you do find out how untrue they are. Lucky for us, many legends aren't always so easy to prove or disprove - certainly has a lot of those old wives' tales and urban legends locked down, but there are still some stories of legendary meetings or jam sessions or "(x) director was gonna team up with (x) actor to make the greatest movie EVER!!!!" type deals to freak us out and make us go "if only...". Our world is becoming increasingly devoid of mystery, for better or for worse, and to have mysteries in our lives is a good thing.

Of course, it's also nice to actually know that some crazy jam session or meeting of iconic minds actually did happen, if only because it makes all the other stories that much more plausible. And when it comes to icons, they don't come much bigger than Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. Which is what makes their sessions in 1969 all the more fascinating - mainly because they take a big, shiny tack and pop the balloon full of hot air and speculation that usually surround these sorts of things. I've been lucky enough to hear those sessions, and they're basically what you might expect those meetups to be in real life - a loose session of cover songs and extended takes on whatever songs they care to play (the "Careless Love" pisstake is particularly amusing), the occasional flash of genius buried under the playfulness of two men not giving a shit if there are any flashes of genius. I don't think a full album of this stuff would've had any commercial viability (or even that they meshed all that well), but the good stuff is pretty darn good, as you might expect. And, best of all, you have that simpatico instinct between two friends that helps take the good stuff to that extra level, where there's a level of good feeling that a musician and a studio band simply cannot replicate.

Which brings me to "Girl of the North Country" as performed by Dylan and Cash, the leadoff song to Nashville Skyline and one of the few (and best) examples of Dylan collaborating with another famous musician. Always a highlight of the Dylan/Cash sessions, one figures that this made the album both because those sessions were clearly picked over to find something salvageable for vinyl release, and because it would help country fans unsure if they could trust the quintessential New York singer-songwriter's dip into their favorite genre get over their worries, if just for a little bit. As a calculated move, it's pretty darn smart. As a musical choice, it's equally smart. Not only is it a good introduction to what the album is all about (by way of Dylan's croon and the gentle arrangement), but it helps offer a touch of the familiar (by way of a previous Dylan song being rearranged). Consider any of the other songs on the album - would any of them have worked as opener to the album? I don't believe so.

Aside from the obviously jarring notion of a well-known song now being sung by two well-known musicians, it's interesting to see how the tone of the song has been altered by having it as a duet. The melancholy emotion, which made the original version so stirring, is still there; one of the great things about Cash is that he could sound both like the manliest of men and the saddest baritone-voiced poet you could imagine, and he summons up a great deal of regret and longing on the verse he gets for himself as well as the choruses. But the dynamic of the song itself is different - rather than one man telling his tale of woe about the girl that got away, instead you have two men telling that same tale, almost commiserating with each other about their own separate girls of the North Country, maybe about to take pulls off their beers in some bar somewhere. I'm not about to say that it makes the song better per se (that is up to the listener to decide), but it makes the song different, and I think that's a good thing. It always benefits a tune, even a classic one, if it can be heard in more than one way.

Even in a take as good as this, you can sort of hear why the Dylan/Cash teamup never quite worked out - the two never mesh together as well as we would hope, and the looseness (even here) means that you never get the total commitment that makes these one-offs something special. All the same, a song as good as this take on "Girl of the North Country" makes up for a lot of the indulgences, offering us a tantalizing glimpse at the heights this combo could have reached. Sometimes a pairing as gigantic as this one doesn't have to shake the earth. Sometimes it just has to be good enough to make you close your eyes and smile as the music plays on.

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Anonymous said...

"But if Dylan had wanted to write another 'Gates of Eden', he surely would have done so, and it would have sounded absolutely atrocious in the aesthetic of this album."

There's actually a New Morning rehearsal bootleg where Dylan breaks out "Gates Of Eden" in the "Skyline" voice. It's not at all polished but comes off a lot better than you would think.

(By the way, I've been reading the blog a while now and very much anticipate following it to "It's All Good" or whatever Dylan/McCartney come up with -- another "dream team"! Though I don't think they should kick off THAT album with a "North Country" duet!

Rob said...

Oh dear, am i really alone in despising this version?! First off, Dylan's disgusting chewing of his gum at the beginning, once it was pointed out to me I can't ignore it ! Then when he gets the line wrong, obviously not the first time he's done that but, sorry, time for another take please ! Then there's the totally uncharming combination of two would-be good ol' boys in a bar ... out of sync, ugly combo ... all in all a mess. Dylan's earlier solo version is wonderful, and on Spotify I see versions by a group called Altan and a dude called John Gorka, both of which are very good. And if you want something really different, how about Howard Tate's cover, gotta whole lotta soul, brother.

Rob said...

To qualify the above comment, I actually think Dylan's voice on this version / album is pretty special, I just wish he had done a professional take and done it solo.

Pete said...

True exchange from a couple of days after the release of Nashville Skyline:
Long-time fan 1: This is lousy.
Long-time fan 2: So why are you putting it on AGAIN?
In historical fact, I was #2; in deeper reality, we both were both. It really was a shock and disappointment, and it really was that seductive. Nowadays it fits beautifully in his overall oeuvre, a nice little corner of his musical world, a side excursion maybe but now clearly attached to the main highway.

Moose said...

I love this version and think it's a great match. I would love to hear the rest of them