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From the protest folk of Woody Guthrie to the Delta Blues of Robert Johnson, the early output of Bob Dylan was inspired by a number of traditions in American song. But while it might not have always been apparent, the country sounds of the 40s/50s was just as instrumental in shaping his career.
While growing up as Robert Zimmerman in the Minnesota cities of Duluth and then Hibbing, a young Dylan spent much of his youth listening to country stations broadcasting from Shreveport, Louisiana and also The Grand Ole Opry, a WSM Nashville live radio show which he would later appear on with Johnny Cash in 1969, a fact which was alluded to in a New York interview in 1965:
“All the music I heard up until I left Minnesota was… I didn’t hear any folk music… I just heard Country and Western, rock and roll and polka music.”
According to his 2004 autobiography, The Chronicles: Volume One, The Man In Black himself was a particular favorite alongside the likes of George Jones, Slim Whitman, Kitty Wells, Jimmie Rodgers, Webb Pierce and The Carter Family, the latter of whom Dylan regularly covered as a fledgling musician including “Wayworn Traveller” which was reworked as “Paths of Victory.”
But it was Hank Williams who Dylan appeared to admire the most. In the same memoirs, he stated: “I became aware that in Hank’s recorded songs were the archetype rules of poetic song-writing. The architectural forms are like marble pillars.” While he also added that the news of his death at the age of 29 in 1953 “hit me squarely on the shoulder.”
Dylan’s fascination with ‘The Hillbilly Shakespeare’ certainly didn’t fade once he became a star in his own right. In 2001, he covered “I Can’t Get You Off My Mind” for a tribute album released by the Lost Highway label, while as recently as 2011, he assembled an array of contemporary acts (Sheryl Crow, Jack White, Norah Jones) to record dozens of unrecorded songs set to new melodies under a project named The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams.
However, Dylan took his time infusing his love of country music into his own studio fare. His seminal 1966 seventh studio album, Blonde On Blonde, was recorded in Nashville with notable country musicians such as Charlie McCoy, but it wasn’t until 1967 follow-up John Wesley Harding that he truly began to develop his own take on the genre.
Home to such iconic tracks as “All Along The Watchtower” (later made famous by Jimi Hendrix), the much-covered “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight” (Robert Palmer, The Hollies) and riches-to-rags tale “I Am A Lonesome Hobo,” the record was a pivotal moment in the country-folk sound, a mellower form of country music which placed more emphasis on song-writing than vocals.
As its title suggests, 1969’s Nashville Skyline saw Dylan further explore his country tendencies on ten tracks which introduced a new softer crooning and less nasal style of singing as displayed on the Johnny Cash duet “Girl From The North Country,” the romantic “Lay Lady Lay” and “I Threw It All Away” (speculated to be about a number of women including Joan Baez and Edie Sedgwick).
1970’s Self Portrait, widely regarded as the birthplace of alt-country, was the last time Dylan really embraced his country leanings in such an obvious manner, although he did go on to pen the score to Sam Peckinpah’s 1973 Western drama Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, while there have been hints of his Nashville leanings during his later work such as “Standing In The Doorway” (1997’s Time Out Of Mind), “Mississippi” (2001’s Love and Theft) and “Workingman’s Blues #2” (2006’s Modern Times).
However, a number of folk artists in the late 60s such as Buffy Sainte-Marie and Ian & Sylvia followed his ‘going country’ path, the likes of Emmylou Harris and John Denver’s careers were indebted to Dylan’s fusion of the two genres, while alongside the likes of The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield, he paved the way for the explosion of country-rock outfits in the 70s. His innovative sound, therefore, undeniably inspired a whole generation of country singers in a similar way that the likes of Hank Williams had done for him a decade before.
Jon O'Brien writes for ConcertTour.org. Bob Dylan's AmericanaramA Festival of Music Tour kicks off this week with Wilco and My Morning Jacket. For dates and tour news, visit ConcertTour.org.