Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City
A companion to the 2015-2016 Country Music Hall of Fame exhibit of the same name, Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City is a double-disc history of the moment when country met rock -- or when rock met country, as the case might be. In this particular reading of country-rock history, the movement begins in 1966, when Bob Dylan headed down to Nashville to cut Blonde on Blonde with a crew of the city's renowned studio musicians. Prior to that, country could be heard in rock & roll mainly through rockabilly, a music that functions as prehistory on this collection, present through the presence of Sun veteran Johnny Cash but not much else. Rockabilly's absence isn't surprising -- it was a hillbilly music that belonged to the '50s and seemed nearly ancient in 1966 -- but by starting country-rock history in 1966, Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats circumvents the conventional narrative of how the fusion allegedly sprang fully formed from the imagination of Californian cosmic cowboy Gram Parsons. He shows up here with the Byrds, singing "Hickory Wind," but that arrives 15 cuts deep into the first disc, by which time the Monkees have been heard playing a lean country shuffle on "Some of Shelly's Blues," John Hartford eased into "Gentle on My Mind," Gordon Lightfoot etched some roots-psychedelia on "The Way I Feel," and Flatt & Scruggs, Ian & Sylvia, and Johnny Cash have all sung a Bob Dylan song. Cash's cut dates from 1964, underscoring how this compilation doesn't follow a strict chronological order; rather, it skips through two specific eras, concentrating on the '60s on the first disc and the '70s on the second. This divide also slightly skews toward showcasing Dylan on the initial disc and his influence on the latter, with the second disc filled with progressive folk singer/songwriters (Steve Goodman, Eric Andersen, Jerry Jeff Walker) and rockers who made a Music City pilgrimage not dissimilar to Bob's (Neil Young, J.J. Cale, Steve Miller, Paul McCartney). Certainly, the songs do matter -- country musicians were attracted to Dylan's songs, with several discovering elements in their own voices after hearing his songs -- but so do those Nashville Cats, the then-faceless pros who are placed on equal billing with Dylan and Cash in this exhibit and compilation. Sometimes, they get their own showcase -- Charlie McCoy rocks hard on "Harpoon Man," the supergroup Area Code 615 lays it down on "Stone Fox Chase," which some listeners may know better as the theme to The Old Grey Whistle Test -- but they're always felt throughout the performances here, lending soul and surprise to familiar tunes and grounding flights of fancy through down-home licks. Throughout it all, that conscious cultural collision of city and country still feels kinetic: these musicians opened up fresh, unpaved roads begging to be explored and still offer plenty of tantalizing sights and detours.