In 1967, when everyone from the Beatles to the Velvet Underground was going psychedelic, Bob Dylan went the opposite direction. He headed straight to Nashville, where he would make such inoffensively traditional country music that it managed to offend even those who had stuck by his side through his prior conversion to rock ’n’ roll. And while the songs of Nashville Skyline (1969) remain worthy entries in his canon — especially “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You,” one of the most straightforwardly satisfying songs the man ever wrote — its merits seem to be largely aesthetic rather than substantive. A more textually rich example of Dylan’s return to traditionalism is John Wesley Harding, released two years earlier, an album that sounds folksier than anything Dylan has done post-‘64 and yet, behind its stripped-down veneer, contains new depths of meaning; in fact, it’s one of Dylan’s most tightly structured and thematically disciplined pieces of work.
For 38 minutes and 24 seconds (or about half the length of Blonde on Blonde), backed only by drums and bass and the occasional flourish of pedal steel or harmonica, Dylan presents a vision of the apocalypse so immediate and so intimate that he need not even name the thing itself. The night-and-day metaphor of earlier works like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Hard Rain” gives way to even more cryptic expressions of dread and disillusionment: on “Along the Watchtower,” only such a pair of misfits as the joker and the thief can read the fatal signs — their prescience akin to that of the Fool in King Lear — while society itself remains oblivious to the wildcat prowling in the cold distance and the riders heralded by the howling of the wind, like the horsemen of the Apocalypse. These lyrics make no explicit reference to war and yet, when Jimi Hendrix covered the song in ’68, many came to see it as a protest against Vietnam, an interpretation that has as much to do with Hendrix’s explosive arrangement and impassioned guitar solos as it does Dylan’s unnerving imagery.
The rest of the songs on John Wesley Harding function as parables, cautionary tales, stories that revolve around moral lessons and depict characters learning those lessons the hard way: the outlaw, the slave, the drifter, the tenant who cannot afford his rent, the gambler who dies in a cathouse; those whose lives end where others’ begin. Experience has taught these poor souls to sin — they know only hate, lust, and pride — and so life itself has made them unfit to live; they are their own antitheses. With terrible circumstance and even worse consequence comes a fatal self-awareness, as these hopeless sinners only realize the folly of their ways after they have paid the according price. Take the narrator of “I Am a Lonesome Hobo.” He wasn’t born into poverty. He once had money and means but his mistrust of his brother — his fellow man — led him to his “fatal door,” beyond which lay bribery and blackmail and deceit and a nameless death. Now all he can do is ask those who hear his tale to “hold your judgment for yourself lest ye wind up on this road.” Similarly, “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” tells of an outsider whose misfortunes compel him toward vice; like the hobo, the titular immigrant “falls in love with wealth” but turns his back on his fellow man; he “fills his mouth with laughter but fills his town with blood” until finally his very existence becomes so miserable that he can only wish he had stayed home. Each of these lessons brings greater narrative scope to the vision expressed in “All Along the Watchtower” and ultimately serves the same conclusion: that the world is crumbling and only those who suffer — the misfits and the outcasts and the eternally downtrodden — have seen enough to know.
And yet, for all its doom and gloom, John Wesley Harding culminates in a pair of love songs: “Down Along the Cove” and “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” the first a straight-ahead blues number, the second a laid-back country shuffle that prefigures Nashville Skyline. At first listen, these songs seem far too slight to be anything more than tacked-on concessions to populist taste — a last-ditch effort not to bum everyone out — but to designate them as such would constitute a severe underestimation of Dylan as an artist; his outward decorum belies his true intent. Together, these songs provide a welcome respite from the universal woe that suffuses the rest of the album. While the hobo and the immigrant wrestle with their demons, an everyman ventures into a cove (a sheltered recess formed by a mountain or a bay) and comes upon his “true love,” “a bundle of joy,” a distraction from whatever hardships he has experienced prior to this encounter. This low-stakes meet-cute sets the stage for “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” and the humble pleas for connection therein: the everyman yearns to stay, if only for a night, in the shelter of his true love’s embrace. When viewed in direct opposition to all the pain that led here, their relationship becomes something far greater than the sum of its sexual and emotional parts — a port in the relentless storm of existence — and thereby justifies the blatant escapism of the album’s conclusion. If man suffers daily so that he may experience bliss but once in a lifetime, then Dylan, as both artist and narrator, has earned a moment of sentimentality.
Dylan returned to this theme on Nashville Skyline, albeit without much of the contextual foreboding that made John Wesley Harding so effective. Instead, he made a collection of love songs in the tradition of Patsy Cline and Lefty Frizzell, whose mellifluous croon Dylan convincingly emulates throughout the album. Some of the results are happy-go-lucky, some down-at-the-mouth, but the best of the bunch have the clearest stakes. On “To Be Alone with You,” Dylan sings from the perspective of a workingman who cannot see his lover until the end of each day, turning what could have felt flatly celebratory into an expression of plaintive yearning. Only in the context of such unimpeachable truths as “life’s pleasures be few” does this character recognize how much her company means to him — a respite, a shelter, a moment of bliss in a lifetime of hardship. The dark side of this sentiment comes on the next track, “I Threw It All Away,” where the narrator does not come to the same realization until it’s too late. He recognizes his own cruelty and yet lacks the power to remedy its consequences; the emotional bind here perfectly correlates with the portraits of reflexive resentment painted on John Wesley Harding. This love/loss contrast echoes throughout the rest of the album — “One More Night” indulges in more post-breakup navel gazing and “Tell Me That Isn’t True” tackles the subject of infidelity — but its expression remains firmly constrained by genre conventions.
That said, Dylan has always known how to make conventions work in his favor, and as with his electric trilogy a few years prior, the band was key. The session ensemble here included the very same “Nashville A-Team” players from John Wesley Harding — Kenny Buttrey on drums, Charlie McCoy on bass/guitar, and Pete Drake on pedal steel — plus a pre-fame Charlie Daniels and, on “Girl from the North Country,” the Man in Black himself: Johnny Cash. Backed by the Tennessee Three, Dylan and Cash reinvent the song — first recorded on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan — as a leisurely duet, trading verses and harmonizing with charming imperfection on the refrain: “She once was / A true love of mine.” Just hearing these two legends in the same room, followed by the full-band pickathon on “Nashville Skyline Rag,” removes any doubt as to whether or not Dylan succeeded in his experimentation with country music; the record ranks alongside the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo and Cash’s At Folsom Prison as an exemplar of the genre’s revitalization at the end of the 1960s.