The Country Music Hall of Fame front door greeter was trying to sell my wife and I on all the big attractions inside the massive concrete and glass music cathedral in downtown Nashville earlier this month.
“We’ve got a career spanning exhibit on Eric Church,” she said. “Trisha Yearwood’s “The Song Remembers When” is excellent…”
She rattled off a couple of other highlights, including a recording studio tour, when I cut her off: “We’re here to see the Bob Dylan exhibit,” I said. “We’re from Minnesota, so it’s something we have to do.”
I’m not sure if the woman knew Dylan was born in Duluth, Minnesota or had any idea he grew up in Hibbing, but she was pleased to hear our plans and strayed from her routine. “That’s just wonderful,” she said, in a sweet but stunned southern drawl. “Ya know, we don’t get that many people coming here for Bob Dylan.”
Maybe that’s because few people think of Dylan as a country music artist.
Folk music wunderkind, the first singer-songwriter, rock music revolutionary and aging blues man are just some of the many labels applied to Dylan during his storied recording career now into its sixth decade. Nowadays it seems American music and cultural historians are looking hard for Dylan connections to celebrate his influential body of work. Afterall, a large part of his music served as a soundtrack to the dramatic social changes of the 1960s.
With “Dylan, Cash & the Nashville Cats: A New Music City” the Country Music Hall of Fame casts Dylan as an innovative traditionalist who reshaped Nashville for a new generation. In 1966, at the height of his rock n’ roll stardom, Dylan recorded in Nashville using local country musicians as a backing band. The move startled the music world. Nashville had a long reputation as a conservative and cultural backwater – no place for long-haired hippies like the 25-year-old Dylan and his loud “protest” music.
But Hall of Fame curators say Dylan’s resulting album, “Blonde on Blonde,” regarded as one of his greatest, showcased Nashville talent to the world. Soon dozens of rock and pop stars landed in the city ready to record and reshape country music.
The exhibit, built into a wing off the third floor, features two mini-theaters, more than a dozen picture window display cases and towering biographical kiosks. At the center of it all are 16 listening stations which allow visitors to hear examples of Nashville-recorded music made by rock artists like Paul McCartney, Simon & Garfunkel, Linda Ronstadt and Neil Young.
County music legend and Columbia Records label mate Johnny Cash also plays a big role in the exhibit. Already an established star, Cash turned an early Dylan song “It Ain’t Me Babe” into a 1964 hit. The two became fast friends.
“I got a letter from him sayin’ something like, he was from Hibbing, Minnesota and there was nobody out there but me and Hank Williams and he was glad to hear about that part of the world that was out there,” says Cash in one of three exhibit video features.
I enjoyed seeing the hand written lyrics for the 1969 song “Wanted Man.” On stationery from the “House of Cash,” Dylan writes the first two verses then handed over the song to Cash, who writes the final verse at the bottom. The document is displayed like a country music Rosetta Stone.
Another highlight of our three-hour exhibit tour included watching producer Bob Johnston discuss making “Blonde on Blonde.” Johnston positively gushes over steering Dylan to Nashville and connecting him with the city’s musicians.
“History was happening. The evolution of social structure was being changed,” he says. “When Cash was combined with Dylan each of them got shares of a different audience and all of sudden it was fashionable for radio to play different things.”
Songs like “The Boxer,” by Simon & Garfunkel and “Heart of Gold” by Neil Young
play wonderfully in the listening booths which highlight the work of musicians like Charlie McCoy, Pete Drake and Fred Carter Jr., normally faceless but highly sought after “Nashville Cats.” Sadly, the exhibit overlooks any female background singers that played roles in the hit making.
Another exhibit flaw was the lack of any on-camera Dylan interviews. Hearing Dylan discuss Nashville and his work with Cash would have added another voice to the historic record. But, alas, Dylan has long limited his time for such projects.
A 1966 Columbia Records promotional poster for the song “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” enlarged on a museum wall, helps explain the Dylan legend. It warns listeners not to “try to pin him down, because just when you think you’ve got him pegged and neatly classified…he’s off in a new direction.”
The Country Music Hall of Fame features two large gift shops loaded with music, books, t-shirts and trinkets. I looked for a reproduction of the “Rainy Day Women” promotional poster but came out empty-handed.
Maybe our greeter knows where to find one.