The Lowdown: Bob Dylan’s magnum opus, 1966’s Blonde on Blonde, was recorded primarily in Nashville, initiating a tight connection with the country music capital that would last the rest of the decade. Following sessions (eventually released as The Basement Tapes) at the house known as Big Pink in upstate New York, Dylan returned to Music City in 1967 to make John Wesley Harding and again in 1969 for Nashville Skyline. During the latter visit, he also recorded extensively with pal Johnny Cash, though the results of that encounter were largely shelved at the time.
Travelin’ Thru, 1967-1969: The Bootleg Series Vol. 15 finally reveals a slew of that previously unreleased material. It further charts Dylan’s always intriguing, and often puzzling, odyssey during this mercurial period, adding in a 1970 session with bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs for good measure.
The Good: Any newly unearthed Dylan from the ‘60s demands to be investigated. Embracing simplicity, John Wesley Harding marked a radical departure from the dense, wild sound and tangled wordplay of Blonde on Blonde. Featuring only Dylan’s harmonica and guitar, along with drums and bass, bare-bones songs like “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” and “Drifter’s Escape” use fewer words than before, yet still cast an air of mystery. The outtakes included on Travelin’ Thru are less urgent than the official versions; an oddly uptempo reading of “I Pity the Poor Immigrant” indicates a path wisely left untraveled, given the song’s gloomy outlook. Dylan still sings like Dylan, but the nasal sneering has softened, hinting at what is to come.
If John Wesley Harding was startling, Nashville Skyline is a shocker. Dylan assumes a higher, sweeter voice like nothing he’d used before, performing uncomplicated country pop. The Travelin’ Thru outtakes suggest Nashville Skyline could have been a more complex and diverse album. An alternate “To Be Alone with You” sports a tougher edge, and the heretofore-unknown “Western Road” finds him having fun on a bluesy shuffle.
Nashville Skyline opens with a duet of Dylan and Johnny Cash on “Girl from the North Country”. Their recordings that didn’t make the cut form the core of the three-disc Travelin’ Thru, which is credited to Bob Dylan (Featuring Johnny Cash). These 25 mesmerizing tracks of freewheeling music and studio chatter are tentative first steps for an album that never happened. Clearly enjoying each other’s company, Dylan and Cash sing in unison without attempting to harmonize, trade lines and verses, and seem torn between working and fooling around. Cash standards like “I Walk the Line”, “Ring of Fire”, and, most successfully, “Big River”, get a casual revisit, as do traditional and gospel tunes.
The high point is a medley of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and Cash’s “Understand Your Man”, where The Man in Black applies new lyrics to Dylan’s melody. The two warble their songs simultaneously, then switch tunes and do it again. “You know, the phrasing comes out just right, ‘cause we both stole it from the same song,” comments Cash; Dylan’s response is an awkward laugh.
The Bad: It’s disappointing that Dylan and Cash didn’t spend more than two days in the studio to see what they could accomplish together beyond these rough first drafts, although two ramshackle Jimmie Rodgers medleys may have told them that a true collaboration was impossible. However strong their friendship and mutual respect, Cash’s deep croaks and Dylan’s odd trills mix like oil and water.
The Verdict: While longtime Dylan students will discover much to enjoy and ponder on Travelin’ Thru, casual observers should have no trouble resisting these abandoned experiments. Still, it’s enticing extra-credit listening for those who care.
Essential Tracks: “Western Road”, “Big River”, “Wanted Man”, and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”/“Understand Your Man”