Looking back on Bob Dylan's Blonde on Blonde, the record that changed Nashville 

Blonde Ambition

Blonde Ambition
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illustration by Sam Smith

Whether you drop the needle on the first side of the crackling vinyl LP, cue up track one of a gleaming aluminum disc, or pop in your earbuds and click the wheel, the first thing you hear retains the shock of newness: a marching-band drumbeat, then the yawp of a trombone like a huge intake of breath, followed by a carnivalesque riot of woozy horns and whoops and shouts. In some ways, it sounds outside time, like a Salvation Army parade stomping and hollering past a far-off grandstand. And yet it still sounds fresh and spontaneous, as if it could have been recorded last week.

But it wasn't. Forty-five years ago this month, Columbia Records released Bob Dylan's landmark double album Blonde on Blonde, an album recorded almost entirely in Nashville. Not only is it widely regarded as one of Dylan's best records, but it routinely shows up whenever artists, critics and rock historians list the 10 greatest rock albums ever made. For Music City, the album was nothing less than transformative, elevating Nashville as a recording center on par with New York and Los Angeles.

In 1966, Nashville was well-established as a songwriter's town, but not yet the haven for artist-writers it would become. It was old-school, like Tin Pan Alley, where songwriters wrote songs for recording artists to record. And even though it was good enough for Elvis, as far as rock 'n' roll went, it wasn't somewhere the longhairs, moptops and poets arriving on the scene would go to make "art." But after the release of Blonde on Blonde, Nashville became a destination for singer-songwriters who performed their own material, from Leonard Cohen and Neil Young to Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt.

Dylan didn't make Nashville's music community cool, any more than Jack White would four decades later. But like White, he sent a resounding message to anyone following his career: Cool was exactly what Nashville was. It wasn't long before the emerging music mecca was attracting a variety of folk and rock pilgrims to its studios, including Young, Cohen, The Byrds, Joan Baez, Johnny Winter, Linda Ronstadt, Steve Miller, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Moby Grape, to name only a few. As Charlie McCoy, who led the Blonde on Blonde sessions, said of Dylan's decision to record here, "That's when the floodgates opened."

To some, Dylan's historic collaboration with the Nashville cats undoubtedly looked like a case of vision overcoming culture clash — New York hipster meets good ol' boys, makes hay anyway. But musically as well as lyrically, Blonde on Blonde brings to a climax the staggering creative streak Dylan began when he went electric, infuriated folk purists and freed his muse.

That's because it's the Dylan album where the inspiration in the playing and arrangements matches the words on the page. The Music City session pros were so skilled, they could let Dylan reach for sounds and ideas only in his head. In turn, he challenged them to follow his lead, no matter where it went. That could be a raucous rocker, a beautiful ballad, or something completely off-the-wall like "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35" — the album opener whose title draws blank stares, until you add, "You know, the 'Everybody Must Get Stoned' song."

In honor of an album that still baffles, entrances, engages and elates almost five decades since it was recorded, we spoke to all but one of the Nashville session players still living who performed on the record, to find out what it was like to be part of history in the making. And to a man, they said the last thing they thought they were doing was making history. "If I had known that somebody would be interested in this, I would have kept records back then," says producer Jerry Kennedy, who played guitar on one session for the album. "But I just didn't do it."

The story of how Blonde on Blonde came to be recorded in Nashville began in Columbia Records' New York studios in the fall and winter of 1965, as Dylan worked on the follow-up to his highly successful album Highway 61 Revisited.

Dylan was still transitioning from folk singer to rocker. Back then, as he told Playboy interviewer Ron Rosenbaum in 1978, he was searching for "that thin, that wild mercury sound ... metallic and bright gold" — a special blend of guitar, organ and harmonica he could hear in his head. He felt he had captured it on his hit "Like a Rolling Stone" earlier that year, but during later sessions that fall and winter, it eluded him.

On most of those sessions, he was backed by members of The Band (then called The Hawks), who had recently become his backing group for live performances. But the electricity they generated with him live had failed to materialize in the studio — something he admitted to critic and biographer Robert Shelton.

"Oh, I was really down," Dylan told Shelton. "I mean, in 10 recording sessions, man, we didn't get one song. ... It was the band. But you see, I didn't know that. I didn't want to think that."

Producer Bob Johnston, then a recent transplant to New York from Music City, knew of the headaches Dylan was having in the studio and encouraged him to record in Nashville. A former rockabilly artist turned songwriter and behind-the-board hitmaker, Johnston was tight with many of the city's session players. If anybody could find that sound, he thought, it was one group of younger musicians he'd worked with who were well-versed in rock and R&B.

In early August of 1965, one of those musicians made a trip with his wife to New York City for the World's Fair. Multi-instrumentalist Charlie McCoy may be one of the most important musicians in Nashville's history, but you wouldn't know it from talking with him: Even today, he's as soft-spoken and humble in conversation as he is accomplished. Only 25 at the time, he already had an impressive studio vitae, including recordings with Elvis, Roy Orbison, Patsy Cline, Quincy Jones, Bobby Bare, Johnny Cash and Perry Como.

Johnston had told McCoy he would get him tickets to a Broadway show if he were ever in the city. On the morning of Aug. 4, the day after he and his wife arrived in New York, McCoy gave Johnston a call about the tickets. The timing was great.

"Are you free this afternoon?" the producer asked. "I'm recording Bob Dylan and I'd like you to meet him."

McCoy went to the studio, where he met Dylan and bassist Russ Savakus. After the introductions, Dylan told him he had one of his records. "I really like your 'Harpoon Man,' " he said, referring to one of the rock singles McCoy recorded for Monument Records in the '60s. McCoy was floored. Released the previous year, the record featured accompaniment by McCoy's band The Escorts, which included several of the other musicians Johnston had worked with in Music City; the single had not sold well or garnered much airplay. McCoy was surprised Dylan had even heard it, much less liked it.

As McCoy prepared to leave, he remembers, Dylan said, "Listen, I'm getting ready to do this song, why don't you sit in?" McCoy was game, but didn't have any of his instruments with him. Undeterred, Dylan said, "There's an acoustic guitar over there, just grab that."

The song they recorded was "Desolation Row," which would be the closing track on Highway 61 Revisited. Dylan had recorded an electric version two days earlier, but decided he wanted an acoustic treatment instead. They knocked out the track in under an hour, with McCoy adding some Grady Martin-inspired guitar fills — the recording's musical highlight, as it turned out. Then he left the studio, as low-key as he'd entered.

"Now you see how easy that was," Johnston told Dylan. "Now that's how it would be in Nashville." As the producer remembers it, Dylan put his hand to his chin in a thoughtful pose and said, "Hmmmm."

When the artist began working on the follow-up to Highway 61 Revisited, a Nashville session was initially scheduled for November. But Dylan's mercurial manager, Albert Grossman, and label boss Bill Gallagher wanted no part of that idea. They felt Dylan had a good thing going in New York — so much so that they told Johnston if he ever broached the subject again, he was canned.

But that was fall of 1965, and everyone expected Dylan's upcoming sessions to bear fruit. By late January of 1966, he had a real problem. He was scheduled to begin the North American leg of a world tour in just a few days, but after more than 10 sessions, he had only one track he considered acceptable for release — a beauty, "One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)," that made it onto the finished Blonde on Blonde album. Johnston's suggestion about Nashville now sounded much more promising. Dylan had a break in his tour schedule between a show in Norfolk, Va., on Feb. 12 and a concert in Ottawa, Canada on Feb. 19, so Johnston block-booked Studio A at Columbia's Nashville facility for Dylan from Feb. 14 to the morning of Feb. 17.

That proved to be a mixed blessing. Unlike the world-famous Quonset Hut (then known as Columbia Studio B), Studio A featured permanent baffles to better isolate the sounds and eliminate audio bleed. This was good for producing a cleaner sound. But it stifled interaction between the musicians, and Dylan wanted all the musicians to be able to see one another and respond as they played.

So Johnston and security guard Ed Grizzard ripped out the baffles — an action that infuriated Columbia's Nashville studio managers. They raised a stink with Johnston's bosses in New York, expecting a sympathetic ear. But as Johnston later told author Michael Kosser, that wasn't what happened when Gallagher flew into town.

"The only thing I got to say is this," the Columbia honcho told the offended managers. "I'm gonna go have lunch with Johnston, and I want to tell you if he wants a microphone on the ceiling, I'd advise you to get the tallest damn ladder you can find and start climbing, or I'll shut this motherfucker down."

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