Anniversary Album: Bob Dylan’s ‘Nashville Skyline’ at 55

Bob Dylan has separated himself from most of his musical peers, not just in terms of his songwriting excellence, but also in the way that he’s willing to make drastic changes to his sound when least expected. Fifty-five years ago this month, he released Nashville Skyline, which at the time was a complete stunner for many of his fans.

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Looking back at the album from a distance now, it seems more of a natural progression than a jarring 180-degree turn. Let’s go back in time to revisit the circumstances that created this beloved part of the Dylan catalog.

A Slower Pace

Like the other severe stylistic shifts in his career, Nashville Skyline wasn’t a premeditated act by Bob Dylan designed to jolt his fans out of complacency. It was simply an artistic reflection of where he was in his life. By that point in his career, he had already served as first a protesting voice of the people and then the perpetrator of an influential new style of shambolic, confessional rock and roll.

Dylan had consciously stepped away from playing such a central role in the cultural conversation in the years following a 1966 motorcycle accident. He instead concentrated on living a quiet existence in Woodstock, New York, and raising a family with his wife Sara.

The music he made in the years immediately preceding Nashville Skyline moved at a slower pace as well. There were the so-called Basement Tapes, a series of publishing demos which he made with members of The Band in Woodstock, mysterious songs that gave off bucolic vibes. Then there was the 1967 album John Wesley Harding, a collection of quasi-parables played in hushed tones that bucked against the psychedelic trends of the Summer of Love.

Nashville Cat

In the context of the music we just mentioned, Nashville Skyline doesn’t seem quite so out of the blue. Not even the setting was unique, as it would make the third straight album Dylan recorded in the country music capital of the world. But the musical backing certainly fell more squarely into a country lane, so to speak.

Dylan also went for a more decidedly direct approach in his lyrics. After John Wesley Harding flirted happily with inscrutability, there’s no issue whatsoever in discerning the meaning of the songs on Nashville Skyline. The fact that Dylan spent a lot of time poring over the lyrics of Hank Williams probably helped push him in this direction.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Nashville Skyline at the time was the voice Dylan utilized to put the album across. It was a far cry clearer than the harsh rasp that could be heard on mid-’60s landmark albums like Bringing It All Back Home and Blonde on Blonde. When heard on the surprise hit single “Lay Lady Lay,” (or at least surprising to Dylan, who wasn’t that fond of the song), that voice sounded positively seductive.

The Legacy

Nashville Skyline might have seemed slight to the critics who weren’t sure of what to make of their favorite wordsmith dialing it back so far. But fans gravitated to it, making it one of Dylan’s biggest commercial successes.

When you listen back, it might feel more substantial than what its reputation suggests. With “Lay Lady Lay” and “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here with You,” Dylan seemed at romantic ease, exuding a sultry comfort level that was new to his repertoire. But he also proved to be adept at the weepers that were so necessary for country credibility. “I Threw It All Away” and “Tell Me That It Isn’t True” can rend hearts to this day.

The perspective of time also shows us that Nashville Skyline helped to kick off a trend where artists embraced country sounds, this after years when rock fans looked at the Nashville scene as backwards and out of step with the times. “Country rock” would soon become a go-to genre.

By then, of course, Bob Dylan had moved on to something else. Nashville Skyline was only a brief stopover for him on his artistic journey, but it’s a charming one that’s always fun to revisit.

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Photo by William Lovelace/Express/Getty Images

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