By the end of 1967, Bob Dylan was ready to return to making music. He’d spent a few weeks in the basement with The Band, getting rock and roll out of his system and simply playing music again as a sort of physical therapy after his hiatus following a motorcycle accident the year before. As great as the collaboration was, Dylan didn’t sit still long enough for it to grow further, for he was quickly off to Nashville to reinvent himself once again. Travelin’ Thru, 1967-1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 15 takes a look at this era when Dylan put down his electric guitar and went country.
While Bob Dylan pre-motorcycle accident had shocked the music world by “going electric” and pushing folk rock into a louder and more intense direction, he equally shocked when he released the album John Wesley Harding at the very end of 1967. Considering the baroque, psychedelic nature of the music of that year, this was a reaction to that. Stripped-down, minimalist arrangements that weren’t folk and weren’t rock, and nearly half of them under three minutes long—this was Dylan going country, recording in Nashville and working with some of the best musicians the city had to offer.
Disc One of Travelin’ Thru offers up a handful of demos and alternate recording from John Wesley Harding, as well as its follow-up, 1969’s Nashville Skyline. That these songs don’t really differ that radically from the finished versions shows that Dylan was spending more time getting very specific with how he wanted his music to sound. While it’s always a joy to hear these songs, especially “All Along The Watchtower,” “John Wesley Harding,” and “I Threw It All Away.” Occasionally, such as on “Lay Lady Lay” and “Country Pie,” Dylan sounds a bit bored and distracted, with the final versions being far superior. One song, “Western Road,” is a blues rocker that went unreleased, and it’s easy to understand why; it’s not a bad number by any means, but it just wouldn’t have fit with the rest of Nashville Skyline.
The highlight of this set, though, appears on Disc Two and part of Disc Three. A long-rumored and fabled recording session between Dylan and Johnny Cash has been the stuff of legend, with only a handful of songs ever appearing in the bootleg circuit. The sessions, which took place in February 1969, resulted in a rerecording of “Girl From The North Country” that kicked off Dylan’s 1969 album, Nashville Skyline. Yet the sessions were much more prolific than that, as the one hour of recordings offered here find the two jamming and working out a handful of songs. When one considers the history of both musicians, it’s not hard to think of these recordings as a mixture of The Basement Tapes and Cash’s own Million Dollar Quartet recordings.
As the recordings show, Dylan and Cash had a mutual admiration for each other; they sing each other’s songs, and mostly know the lyrics; flubbing is at a minimum, and the sessions are simply a fun time between two well-known musicians who happen to be fans of each other. They do a few Dylan songs (“One Too Many Mornings,” “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” “Girl From The North Country”), quite a few Cash songs (“Ring Of Fire,” “I Walk The Line,” “I Still Miss Someone,” “Big River”), and a handful of gospel hymns (“Amen,” “Just A Closer Walk With Thee”), and some country and rock standards (“Matchbox,” “That’s All Right, Mama,” “Wanted Man,” and a run-through of Jimmy Rodgers songs). Almost all of these songs are nearly complete, leading one to wonder what might have happened had they gotten back together for a duets album.
Of course, the climax of their collaboration came the following May, when Dylan appeared on Cash’s television show, where he performed two songs by himself and was joined by Cash on the third. Those three songs are featured here, and only show just how great the collaboration might have been. Yet the Cash love didn’t end there; two days after the broadcast recording, Dylan and the show’s backing band entered into the studios again. Offered here are two heretofore-unknown outtakes, wherein Dylan covers two of Cash’s greatest hits, “Ring Of Fire” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” Both songs demonstrate what was to become one of Dylan’s most confounding and frustrating tricks: the radical rearrangement. The former is transformed to a country/blues rock hybrid that mostly removes all trace of the original melody, while the latter is transformed into a brisk country rocker performed with the insane, almost dismissive swiftness of Elvis Presley’s live performances toward the end of his career. In both cases, the covers are…interesting. Are they good? Well, your results may vary. Considering that Dylan has completely removed all semblances of the original melodies, it foreshadows the Dylan era where he would so radically change the arrangements to some of his most beloved songs, one wouldn’t even realize he was performing a classic Dylan tune. (In spite of this collection’s title, a 1970 recording of Dylan visiting and play with bluegrass master Earl Scruggs concludes disc three; ostensibly for a documentary, the recordings are interesting but feel somewhat incongruous with the rest of Travelin’ Thru.)
Travelin’ Thru is easily one of the more satisfying and interesting volumes of the Bootleg Series, thanks in part to its conciseness and relative brevity. It also documents the morphing of Dylan—and Cash, to a lesser extent—into something new and exciting. Furthermore, almost everything here is fun. Dylan is allowing himself to have a good time with the music he’s playing, a rare occurrence in Dylan’s long history—and one that would only become rarer in the decades after.