Next week (April 8) marks the 50th anniversary of the release of Bob Dylan‘s Nashville Skyline album. At the time, the album was viewed as yet another new direction for Dylan, whose previous album had been the spare, rustic, lyrically opaque, acoustic guitar-based John Wesley Harding (1967); itself a departure from the mostly electric sound of Highway 61 Revisited (1965) and Blonde on Blonde (1966). Both Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding were recorded in Nashville, the latter using three local musicians exclusively, but when he returned to Nashville in February 1969 to record Nashville Skyline (released in April ’69), he embraced country music more than he ever had before—penning simpler, more straightforward lyrics, doing a deeper dive into country instrumentation as accompaniment, and also singing with a much warmer, sweeter tone than he had shown before. “Lay Lady Lay,” the Top Ten hit from Nashville Skyline, was emblematic of the “new” Dylan: Could this honey-voiced crooner be the same singer whose distinctive nasal delivery had become famous all over the world? And what was up with all that pedal steel guitar (courtesy of Nashville steel master Pete Drake, who had also been on John Wesley Harding)?
The first track on the album was a retooling of a tune Dylan originally wrote and recorded in 1963 for The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (his second album), called “Girl from the North Country.” On Nashville Skyline it was sung as a duet with Johnny Cash, which might sound like an unusual pairing, but the two had actually been friends dating back a few years when both lived in Woodstock, New York. Cash even wrote an evocative liner notes poem for the Nashville Skyline package. As fate would have it, too, 1969 is also when Cash began his three-year run as host of a popular—and excellent!—summer TV series, The Johnny Cash Show, which was shot at Nashville’s famed Ryman Auditorium and each week featured various country and country-leaning artists. Dylan, who had barely been seen in public since early 1966, agreed to appear on the June 7 episode of Cash’s show, and they sang this version of “Girl from the North Country,” no doubt baffling some of his old fans, while introducing himself to many, many new ones. —Blair Jackson