The end of the 1960s sported constant and violent rioting, Nixon, the Vietnam War, and the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. both taking place a year prior to Dylan’s LP- an ungodly way to head into a new era. For Dylan, the turn of the decade brought experimentation with a new voice, which may have been just the voice America needed. Switching it up from his previously narrative structured ballads and topical tunes, Dylan explored the low and sombre tones of his well suited country voice which paved the way for many other country artists and popularised their sound, which Kris Kristofferson commented “our generation owes him our artistic lives… the country scene was so conservative until he arrived” Bringing on board the country soul and Man In Black himself, Johnny Cash featuring in a duet of Dylan’s previously released “Girl From North Country” and a few unreleased tracks for the record. Gaining critical success, Paul Nelson of Rolling Stone wrote that Nashville Skyline achieves the artistically impossible: a deep, humane, and interesting statement about being happy. It could well be… his best album.” Having briefly touched on some country influence on John Wesley Harding Dylan’s full immersion into the country music scene proved successful, if not more suited to his natural singing voice.
The title track of this project as well as the first track (“Girl From North Country”, with Johnny Cash) created the perfect holistic sound for the record, acting as an introduction to both the album and his step forward into the genre change. Taking on his theme, Dylan takes a traditional melancholy turn as opposed to his original folky take shows us his fresh new voice, almost unrecognisable. Appropriately so, the pick to record this as a duet with a country music legend of the time worked in turn with Dylan’s lyrics of longing and heartbreak. Similarly, “Nashville Skyline Rag” brings forth the sound of country origins- Hell, even music origins. Dylan adopts the 1920s-30s ragtime swing to his instrumental track, comparatively to his third track “To Be Alone With You”- a classic 12 bar blues structure and drastically different lyrical density, using simple cliches and rhyme within a 2:08 minute frame. As one of the first tracks recorded on the LP, the minimalist love song was only recorded in eight takes, and was one of the four songs that were written specifically for the album before the session.
The album first single, “I Threw It All Away”, again addresses love and loss with Dylan admitting to his failures. The track has been named #34 on UNCUT’s list of all time Bob Dylan songs, and notably covered by artists such as Cher, Elvis Costello, and George Harrison- whom Dylan allegedly performed the song for prior to recording. The closing track for side one of Nashville Skyline dips into a rock n roll blues style in lyricism and structure. Particular phrases such as “oh golly!” almost sound sarcastic coming from Dylan, as like “To Be Alone With You”, the whole track purposefully lacks lyrical density and complexity however creates a tone and depiction of a particular era’s sound.
Dylan’s low croon “Lay Lady Lay” provides the perfect welcome to side two. Possibly the most popularised song on the record, and one of Dylan’s top US hits, reaching #7 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Madonna even recalled with Q, “I used to listen to that one record, ‘Lay Lady Lay’, in my brother’s bedroom in the basement of our house…. I’d lie on the bed and play that song and cry all the time. I was going through adolescence; I had hormones raging through my body. Don’t ask me why I was crying – it’s not a sad song. But that’s the only record of his that I really listened to.” Most famously, the Byrds, the Everly Brothers, and even Duran Duran had a go at covering Dylan’s (later released) single.
Another jaunty yet longing and playful set of tracks, “One More Night” (“Oh I miss my darling so / I didn’t mean to see her go”), rumour-filled “Tell Me That It Isn’t True”, and “Lady Madonna”-ish “Country Pie” funnel the end of the LP, reaching the ultimate close “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” which peaked #50 on the Billboard Hot 100, and appeared on international top 20 lists. Unlike his previous love songs, “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You” expresses fidelity and a committed and hard working relationship for the long term. This track, as well as the album act as a turning point for Dylan, much like the transition into the new decade, and a cornerstone for the future of his work. Nashville Skyline earned Dylan his fourth number one album in the UK and reached number three in the US the year of its release, topping the bill at the Isle of Wight festival in August 1969 after declining Woodstock the same year.