The link between Bob Dylan and bluegrass goes way back. This is some of the music he grew up with, and he describes from his childhood a near religious experience when he first listened to the recording of «Drifting Too Far From The Shore»:
«I found something else in there, it was kind of mystical overtones. There was a great big mahogany radio, that had a 78 turntable–when you opened up the top. And I opened it up one day and there was a record on there–country record–a song called “Drifting Too Far From The Shore.” The sound of the record made me feel like I was somebody else… and er, then, uh, you know, that I, I was maybe not even born to the right parents or something.” (Bob Dylan, No Direction Home)
The story doesn´t really tell us which version of the song he heard. There´s a few to choose between, but my bet is on The Monroe Brothers´version, recorded in time for the young Robert to listen to it, and surely an act that Dylan later would be giving the high praises.
The stuff that I grew up on never grows old. I was just fortunate enough to get it and understand it at that early age, and it still rings true for me… I’d still rather listen to Bill and Charlie Monroe than any current record. That’s what America’s all about to me. I mean, they don’t have to make any more new records — there’s enough old ones, you know? (Rolling Stone, 1987)
When Bob Dylan made his first recording, one of the songs were «Man of Constant Sorrow», and old folk song, probably first named «Farewell Song», but the name was later changed to the more familiar one. Dylan didn´t play it as a bluegrass song, only him and his guitar, but it was probably the Stanley Brothers version that was his inspiration.
In 1997 Bob Dylan got to sing with Ralph Stanley himself, on a song that Ralph originally sang with his brother, Carter. He characterized the duet of «The Lonesome River» as «the higlight of my career». Ralph himself told us that the duet with Bob was his wife´s favorite of the project, a double-cd of duets only. And it really is beautiful, and it is touching that those two giants finally should meet and sing together.
Bluegrass got it´s revival all over the world when Coen Brothers made their truly great movie picture «Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou», and T-Bone Burnetts soundtrack was honored by Grammy´s the year after – a really terrific soundtrack. «Man of Constant Sorrow» by The Soggy Bottom Boys were surely the most played track, with the face of George Clooney and the voice of Dan Tyminski from Union Station it worked perfect as an ad for both the movie and the music.
I guess Dylan was happy for both Coen Brothers and T-Bone Burnett about the reception of the movie and the music. Still, in 2002 Bob included the song in his live set, and treated it like he would once again remind the world that this really was «his» song, making the most rocking and funky version of it ever.
The inspiration between Dylan and bluegrass went both ways. The old bluegrass heroes Flatt & Scruggs recorded a whole lot of his songs, among them a great version of «Down In The Flood» in 1968, on an album fittingly name called «Changin´Times».
Dylan also visited Earl Scruggs and Family and participated in a documentary about mr Scruggs in 1971.
The inspiration can be heard through many phases of Bob Dylan´s live career, but never more than in the late nineties and early 2000´s, a career where Larry Campbell was central a multi-instrumentalist and, at times, back up vocal, with the lonesome bluegrass sound as something he could do in his sleep.
Of the songs they did was among many another Stanley Brothers song, the beautiful «White Dove»:
Another highlight from this period, was «Searching For A Soldier´s Grave», originally by Bailes Brothers, but also recorded by Kitty Wells, Louvin Brothers and more. The Dylan arrangement is unmistakably bluegrass.
In this period there also was a lot of religious songs and hymns, actually with sources in New Testament. This is for instance the case with «I Am The Man, Thomas»:
The theme of the apocalypse has always been on Bob Dylan´s mind, as in the old song, «This World Can´t Stand Long», originally with King´s Sacred Quartette, more known in Roy Acuff´s version.
Related to the songs above was also «Rock of Ages», the known psalm, but here, too, in a classic bluegrass version:
But, as I said, the inspiration has flowed freely both ways. As Dylan has sung the classic bluegrass songs, many of the great bluegrass artists and bands has shaped classic Dylan songs in to a bluegrass landscape. As did Tim O´Brien, a whole albums worth of interesting choices, among them «Senór»:
One of the greatest bluegrass guitarists ever, Tony Rice, has made many Bob Dylan covers, among them «Sweetheart Like You», a song not so often covered. Not a typical bluegrass arrangement, that one, but his take on «Girl From The North Country» is another story:
In the same way, the great hero, Doc Watson, made his bluegrass version of «Don´t Think Twice, It´s All Right»:
The queen of bluegrass music, the wonderful Alison Krauss, sings like an angel. This is also true when she sings one of Bob Dylan´s gospel songs in an bluegrass environment, «I believe in you»:
The great bluegrass band, Seldom Scene, has made a long string of beautiful bluegrass albums, on one of those they also make a really fine cover of «Boots Of Spanish Leather»:
And who should have known, after hearing Johnson Mountain Boys´version of «Only A Hobo», that this really wasn´t a bluegrass original?
«The Country Gentlemen» is a classy bluegrass band with several Dylan covers. Among them is «It´s All Over Now, Baby Blue»:
The Hillmen, named after later to be Byrds member and mandolinist Chris Hillman, and with the great voices of the Gosdin Brothers, Vern and Rex, recorded some nice bluegrass in the early sixties, among other Bob Dylan´s «When The Ship Comes In»:
Bob Dylan once said that his favorite of all cover versions, was Elvis Presley´s cover of «Tomorrow Is A Long Time». I am not going to deny that, but Nickel Creek´s version is also worth listening to:
Del McCoury Band is one of the most known ambassadors of bluegrass music the latest years, and they also made a nice bluegrass version of Dylan´s «Man Gave Names To All The Animals»:
Darius Rucker made a finished song of Bob Dylan´s rough sketches «Rock Me, Mama», and named it «Wagon Wheel». Old Crow Medicine Show made a wonderful version and a wonderful video of the song:
Even more, the complete coronation of both the relations between Bob Dylan and bluegrass, Bob Dylan and the time we´re living in, and at the same time the strength of both the songs, the melodies and the lyrics, is greatly underlined by Old Crow Medicine Show´s beautiful and enthusiastic take on «Blonde On Blonde» – a complete live show of all the diversity, variety, the complexity and simple truths that are enclosed in the world of one of the best albums ever made. It works just fine in a complete bluegrassy environment, too.
Gillian Welch and her partner, David Rawlings, are like som aliens from another lifetime, like from a world of only music, and even if they´re not a classic bluegrass setup, they´re spirit and music digs deeply also in bluegrass elements, and in many ways represents the spirit and soul of bluegrass music – I therefore decide that this is their spot. «Billy» from the Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid soundtrack is just plain beautiful, both singing and playing:
Bluegrass is all about extending the lines from old times music, and music from the appalachian mountains, but also from music brought to America by slaves, as was the banjo, with ingredients of jazz, gospel and country music. Some of the purists would make borders between the real bluegrass and the newgrass, but for me, that´s not so important. Bob Dylan is a melting pot, and so is the music, if you know it or not, it´s like languages that´s infects each other when they live together long enough, so also the music. I love the strictly defined bluegrass from Bill Monroe, but also the many seedlings you can see from this music all over the place, and most of all the love of true feelings conveyed by the melodies and the strong vocals, often in a certain way of getting the message a cross – from the heart and through the nose.
I´m ending this piece with Bob Dylan´s very wonderful and strong song, «Ain´t Talkin´». I wouldn´t think that many would categorize this song as bluegrass. Neither would I. But if you listen to the chorus, you´ll find the words:
Ain’t talking, just walking
Down that highway of regret
Heart’s burning, still yearning
For the best girl this poor boy’s ever met
Or do you? No. Sorry, but this is the chorus of the Stanley Brothers´song «Highway of Regret». Bob´s chorus is this:
Ain’t talkin’, just walkin’
Through this weary world of woe
Heart burnin’, still yearnin’
No one on earth would ever know
So, no highway of regret there. If you think you have heard also that expression in a Dylan song, you´re still right.
In «Make You Feel My Love» «the storms are raging on the rolling sea/And on the highway of regret». And Bob is always beautifully extending the lines.