Is it possible to function in Nashville’s current music scene and avoid the word “Americana,” or the mention of rock star Jack White, or any number of references to the fast-rising hipness quotient attracting artsy types who appreciate, but don’t exclusively major in, the roots of country music? Here’s the thing, though: this isn’t a new development. Not to diminish any particular individual’s standing among the über-cool, but can you imagine anything more radical than a Ray-Banned Bob Dylan and his shoulder-length ringlets sauntering into politically conservative Nashville in the mid-’60s?
Dylan was at his most controversial when he pulled into town in late 1965 to begin work on what became his still-artistically vital Blonde on Blonde album. Of course, he didn’t sit in on any local government meetings or visit a Church of Christ; he booked time at Columbia’s Studio A and, inside its walls, found the sound he’d been seeking. The musicians here might not have looked hip, but looks aren’t everything. Easily as proficient as the session players found on the Coasts, but loaded with a knowledge of Southern music forms that required more gut-level intuition than conservatory training, Nashville’s A-teamers were ready to give Dylan anything he could ask for, and some things he might not have guessed were possible.
After that, a whole lot of previously unlikely things happened.
You won’t find a more comprehensive or entertaining way to learn about them than the just-opened exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, “Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats.” A combined tribute to the once-obscure but now-celebrated musicians of the era and two cultural icons whose bond of friendship blasted through musical barricades, it’s perhaps the most broadly ranging single event the Hall of Fame has ever staged.
More than half its floor space is devoted to the contributions of gifted session musicians such as bassist (and later, producer) Norbert Putnam, drummer Kenny Buttrey and guitarist Wayne Moss. Buttrey and Moss are now revered for their role in the uniquely genre-bending Nashville band Area Code 615, which was admired by, among many others, Neil Young.
Young could have easily stayed in California, where country-rock had already gotten a running start. Perhaps drawn to the unpretentiousness and relative sobriety of Nashville, he began his landmark 1972 Harvest album at the then-new Nashville studio Quadrafonic, later taking Buttrey and two other core musicians to the West Coast to complete it. This is right about where The Johnny Cash Show enters the story. Cash used his executive privilege, good taste and open mind to bring left-of-center artists like Young to national audiences—not to mention making them available to drop in on local sessions. Young’s first and only national No. 1 hit, the rustic “Heart of Gold,” was cut here, with fellow Cash guests Linda Ronstadt (probably barefoot) and James Taylor singing backups: a veritable California country/folk-rock summit, right here in rhinestone-studded Music City USA.
Paul McCartney would follow suit in ’74, turning the city on its ear and, no doubt, giving a Loveless Cafe customer or three the thrill of their cotton-pickin’ lifetimes. Joan Baez’s commercial breakthrough, “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” was cut under Norbert Putnam’s supervision at his co-owned Quadrafonic. So was Dan Fogelberg’s early salvo of critically acclaimed work. So was “Margaritaville.” Some people claim that there was magic to blame. The Hall of Fame’s wealth of audio and video installations, artifacts, murals and more will allow viewers to draw their own conclusions about this one-of-a-kind convergence of energies.
Creativity attracts creativity, and modern-day Nashville has never lacked it, though it’s become a place where a wider swath of it can find expression, a fact that can perhaps be traced to Dylan’s arrival 50 years earlier. The exhibit also draws a link between what happened back then to the present-day evolution of the Americana genre. While that movement still lacks a figure as anchoring as Cash or Dylan, it may well have been the stone those two first started rolling that ultimately allowed roots music room to unfurl like a wild vine, and Nashville to do the same. Can anyone truly confirm the implied link between those heady days and Nashville’s newest flush of musical notoriety? If anyone can, it would be the deeply knowledgeable team at the Hall of Fame, or its guest co-curator, Pete Finney.
“We like to think that even a quick, casual visit would convey how diverse a musical center Nashville has always been, and the incredible versatility of its best musicians, told through the lens of one particular time in its history,” Finney told Sports and Entertainment Nashville. If there are any lingering questions after witnessing “Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats,” which runs through December of 2016, then the answer is, presumably, blowin’ in the wind.