The latest entry in the Bootleg Series finds the Bard sharing country comforts with Earl Scruggs and Johnny Cash
Few artists can claim to have changed the course of modern music once, much less multiple times, like Bob Dylan.
The Beatles managed to do so on their arrival, and then later with the release of Revolver, Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road. The Who, The Stones and the Byrds did much the same.
And then, of course, there’s Dylan.
He did so initially by reinventing protest music and morphing a traditional folk template into rock & roll to create that “Thin, Wild Mercury” sound. But by creating his own brand of country music and encouraging the crossover to a younger market, he helped lay the foundation for present day Americana and pave a new path forward that’s still being followed today.
The album that initiated that secured that stance was Nashville Skyline although Dylan’s flirtation with Nashville began with the recordings that culminated with Blonde on Blonde and John Wesley Harding earlier on. The sepia hues of the latter in particular all but assured the fact that an actual fusion would evolve later. In the meantime however, the studio sessions and growing connection with Johnny Cash and his colleagues ensured that for the time being anyway — that period between 1967 and 1969 specifically — would find Dylan as dogged and determined as any time in his career.
For that reason alone, Travelin’ Thru, 1967 – 1969, the 15th volume in Legacy’s remarkably revealing Bootleg Series, may be its most insightful offering yet. Over the course of three discs, it presents outtakes and alternate versions spawned from John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline and later, Self Portrait, as well as songs recorded during the full day, February 18, 1969 session that took place between Dylan and Cash as well as songs included on the debut of Johnny Cash’s ABC TV series and an Earl Scruggs Family and Friends album and documentary It’s a generous sampling of the Bard’s infatuation with Nashville, and a sound that still resonates with fans and admirers even now.
The first disc consists mainly of material from JWH, primarily early takes and in some cases, the difference between the seminal versions and the songs that would eventually emerge on their respective albums are negligible. A throwaway track, “Western Road,” is an unexceptional stab at country blues that makes it evident why it was ultimately rejected in the first place. Discs two and three provide the bulk of the jams shared by Dylan and Cash, with most of the material consisting of Cash compositions — “I Still Miss Someone,” “Understand Your Man,” “I Walk the Line,” “Big River,” and “Ring of Fire” — as well as other standards the two shared in common — “Mountain Dew,” “Mystery Train, “That’s All Right, Mama,” and “You Are My Sunshine” in particular. Given the impromptu, yet enthusiastic, nature of these run-throughs there’s nothing that’s particularly revelatory, but it does give the listener the feeling of being a fly on the wall while witnessing the mutual respect and obvious enjoyment that was shared. If either was awed by the. other, it’s not obvious at all.
Things get more interesting with the three tracks recorded at the Ryman Auditorium for the Cash show — “I Threw It All Away,” “Living the Blues” and “Girl from the North Country,” the latter a reprise of the Dylan-Cash duet that jump-started Nashville Skyline. Likewise, the two rehearsals of the song that appear earlier in the set provide a fascinating glimpse into the genesis of that collaboration. Other offerings of special interest include Dylan’s performances of “Ring of Fire” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” two choice nuggets from the Cash catalog that were destined for Self Portrait but ultimately rejected. Not to mention the last five tracks comprising of a jam session between Dylan and Earl Scruggs at a private residence in Carmel, NY circa 1970.
As is Dylan’s MO, he would eventually move on from his flirtation with Cash and country and return to the preternatural pursuits that have kept him on an unpredictable path ever since. The exceptional liner notes written by Colin Escott and Rosanne Cash add further illumination, but ultimately the greater joy is garnered by simply laying back and listening. Suffice it to say this is an essential acquisition for any Dylan devotee.
VIDEO: The Story of Travelin’ Thru