“Travelin’ Thru,” the new 15th volume in Columbia/Legacy’s “Bootleg Series” devoted to Bob Dylan’s back catalog, is the slimmest of three retrospective Dylan packages issued by the label in the last 12 months.
“More Blood, More Tracks,” released one day shy of a year ago, was a long-awaited five-CD dive into the sessions for Dylan’s searing 1975 classic “Blood on the Tracks.” In June, a 14-CD sampling of live recordings prefaced Netflix’s airing of Martin Scorsese’s feature “Rolling Thunder Revue,” about the starry, like-named 1975 tour.
While it surveys studio recordings cut over a nearly four-year period (oddly, the set’s “1967-1969” subtitle ignores the presence of several tracks recorded by Dylan and banjo titan Earl Scruggs in May 1970), “Travelin’ Thru” is the humblest “Bootleg” offering since “Another Self Portrait,” released in two- and three-CD editions in 2013.
The present three-disc title is devoted (for the most part) to Dylan’s ongoing work in Nashville, where he first ventured, on the advice of his producer Bob Johnston, to work on 1966’s “Blonde On Blonde.” After a layoff following a serious motorcycle accident that year and his “Basement Tapes” woodshedding in Woodstock, NY, with the Hawks (later the Band), the musician returned with Johnston to Music City, where he swiftly recorded the spare, cryptic “John Wesley Harding” (1967) and the laid-back country-rock excursion “Nashville Skyline” (1969) with some of the same local session players who had backed him on the ’66 opus.
On the heels of the “Skyline” dates in February 1969, Dylan settled in with Johnny Cash (who receives featured billing on the box) and his band for two days of loose sessions, which ultimately produced just one released track, on “Nashville Skyline.” Half the contents of “Travelin’ Thru” are devoted to selected fruits of those soft-focused dates, with another three tracks devoted to Dylan’s three-song appearance on the debut June 7, 1969 episode of Cash’s ABC variety show.
If truth be told, the “John Wesley Harding” material is the most interesting and revelatory stuff on the new package. Seven of that mysterious LP’s 12 songs — seared, elusive numbers filled with dark humor and sleight-of-hand allusions to American history and the Bible — are heard in alternate versions, on which Dylan is backed only by bassist Charlie McCoy, the secret hero of both “Highway 61 Revisited” (on which he played the Spanish guitar that underpinned “Desolation Row”) and “Blonde On Blonde,” and drummer Kenny Buttrey, another vet of the latter album.
The “Bootleg” volumes have always been most valuable when they showed Dylan toying with different arrangements and lyrics for his now-canonical works. While the words are seldom dramatically altered on the “Harding” tracks, the frames are sometimes radically different. “As I Went Out One Morning,” taken at a fast 4/4 clip in its released version, was essayed in its first take as a slow waltz. “I Pity the Poor Immigrant,” ultimately cut at a musing pace, received an up-tempo rendition at one point, and sported a totally different melody. “I Am a Lonesone Hobo” was swung as a bluesy shuffle.
It’s possible that Dylan may have engaged in even more fine tuning with the numbers on “Nashville Skyline,” but we may never know: In a passage that may bring veteran Dylanologists to tears, Colin Escott’s liner notes indicate that many of the session tapes for the album vanished after Columbia failed to pay some storage fees.
However, the eight alternates we do get still find Dylan and his session band — which included McCoy, Buttrey, pedal steel guitarist Pete Drake (who had appeared on two “Harding” tracks), keyboardist Bob Wilson, and four guitarists (including producer Johnston’s buddy Charlie Daniels, then still new in Nashville) — weighing several variant approaches to the countrified bedroom ballads and bucolic, up-tempo two-steps that made up the collection.
“Lay Lady Lay” was initially essayed largely minus Wilson’s prominent organ playing and, most notably, without the unforgettable bongo drums (which, Escott tells us, Buttrey played with sticks while they were held by Kris Kristofferson, then a go-fer at Columbia’s Studio A). The busy dobro playing on an early take of “One More Night” was dialed down for the released version. Wisely, Dylan discarded a chipper up-tempo version of “Tell Me That It Isn’t True,” a song so bleak that George Jones could have cut it convincingly. The lone extant “Skyline” outtake, “Western Road,” is a straight blues wrought from various traditional sources, on which Dylan downshifts the plummy, crooning voice he affected briefly in 1969 before returning to a harder singing style.
The main event on “Travelin’ Thru” is definitely a generous and finally authorized sampling of Dylan and Cash’s joint sessions of Feb. 17-18, 1969. The less than monumental results of these get-togethers will not surprise any of the hardcore Dylan fans who have heard various bootlegs drawn from these dates, which have appeared for the last several decades.
It is apparent from the get-go that Johnston — who, thanks to his outspoken, maverick style, had recently been demoted by Columbia from head of the label’s Nashville operations to producer-at-large, working with both Cash and Dylan — took a hands-off approach to what might have been a real summit meeting with some actual in-studio direction and something resembling a prepared repertoire.
In Scorsese’s 2005 documentary “No Direction Home,” the producer opines, “Bob Dylan can do whatever the f— he wants to,” and that was the way things rolled here. This laissez-faire style may have been dictated somewhat by the decision to use Cash’s touring unit, which at that time included the singer’s old Sun labelmate Carl Perkins on guitar, instead of the resourceful and highly flexible sessionmen who usually backed Dylan when he recorded in town. In the end, only the Dylan-Cash remake of the former’s 1963 tune “Girl From the North Country” reached anything like completion, and it was used to lead off “Nashville Skyline.”
If you have ever been fortunate enough to sit around in a living room while some talented musicians kicked around some songs they all know, you have an idea of what the rest of the Dylan-Cash collaborations sound like. The only difference is that in this case, tape was kept rolling. Nothing is ever truly finished; lyrics are forgotten, fumbled, or (cf. the interminable “Careless Love”) sometimes made up on the spot. Cash, who appears to be in the driver’s seat in terms of song selection and musical direction, often calls out to Johnston for a copy of the lyrics to a tune; it would appear they were seldom delivered.
The material is not entirely devoid of interest. One track familiar from the bootlegs remains revealing: a simultaneous reading, with each man singing his own song, of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and Cash’s “Understand Your Man,” both first recorded in 1963 and both lifted wholesale from folksinger Paul Clayton’s “Who Gonna Buy You Ribbons When I’m Gone.” After the track breaks down, Cash notes, “The phrasing comes out just right ‘cause we both stole it from the same song.” A version of Cash’s beautiful “I Still Miss Someone,” while not entirely successful, shows what might have been possible if arrangements had been crafted to accommodate the singers’ very different ranges.
But for the most part, the recordings veer uncertainly and incompletely through busted-up renditions of Dylan and Cash hits; hillbilly standards like Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s “Mountain Dew” and medleys of old Jimmie Rodgers hits; Sun-era material like Perkins’ “Matchbox” and Elvis’ “Mystery Train” and “That’s All Right, Mama”; and Cash-mooted gospel material (“Amen,” “Just a Closer Walk With Thee”). In the end, this musical meeting must be chalked up as a missed opportunity of historic proportions.
In May 1969, Dylan recorded in Nashville for what is, to date, the last time. Two days after he taped his three songs for Cash’s TV show (two solo numbers and a “Girl From the North Country” duet), he re-entered the studio to cut a pair of Cash songs that ultimately went unused on the 1970 grab bag “Self Portrait”: a slinky funk version of “Ring of Fire” and a country blues-inspired stab at “Folsom Prison Blues.”
The last five tracks on “Travelin’ Thru” were cut far from Nashville. A year after Dylan’s final Music City date, he repaired to Carmel, NY, to record a handful of songs, including two tunes from “Nashville Skyline,” for a public TV special about bluegrass elder Earl Scruggs and his sons.
The music is engaging enough, but the best and most charming moment comes when Thomas B. Allen, who served as host for the location recording, asks Scruggs if he’s nervous about recording with Dylan for the first time. “No,” the banjo player replies, with a note of uncertainty in his voice. After a beat, he repeats, “No,” punctuated with a burst of nervous laughter.
Even titans like Cash and Scruggs found themselves thrown a little off balance by the proposition of recording with the unpredictable and ever-gnomic Dylan, and “Travelin’ Thru” may be the best proof of the challenge.
Bob Dylan (Featuring Johnny Cash)
“Travelin’ Thru: The Bootleg Series Vol. 15, 1967-1969”