Bob Dylan´s love for country music is well known and started early, as he was listening to the country radio stations already as a child, getting «Grand Ole Opry», «Louisiana Hayride» and lots of other programs conveying the genre, and this music has been following him through all his career.
One of his heroes was Jimmie Rodgers: «The most inspiring type of entertainer for me has always been somebody like Jimmie Rodgers, somebody who could do it alone and was totally original. He was combining elements of blues and hillbilly sounds before anyone else had thought of it. He recorded at the same time as Blind Willie McTell but he wasn’t just another white boy singing black. That was his great genius and he was there first… he sang in a plaintive voice and style and he’s outlasted them all.» (1985)
Even Louis Armstrong played with Jimmie Rodgers in studio. Johnny Cash knew that.
Dylan was the architect behind the tribute record made in 1997: The Songs of Jimmie Rodgers – A tribute. Lots of great artists participated, Dylan´s contribution in song was «My Blue Eyed Jane», one of the few songs where «The Singing Brakeman» did not yodel. Bob Dylan established his own record label for this record, Egyptian.
Dylan also released a very vell known song by Jimmie Rodgers on Tell Tale Signs, Miss The Mississippi And You.
Hank Williams, of course, was his first idol.
«But I learned t´chose my idols well
T´be my voice and tell my tale
An´help me fight my phantom brawl
An´my first idol was Hank Williams
For he sang about the railroad lines
An´the iron bars an´rattlin´wheels
Left no doubt that they were real´.»
(Liner notes to Joan Baez in concert, Part 2, 1963)
«Every time I hear Hank sing, all movement ceases. The slightest whisper seems sacrilege.» “I became aware that in Hank’s recorded songs were the archetype rules of poetic songwriting. The architectural forms are like marble pillars.” «His voice went through me like an electric rod.» (Chronicles, 2004)
In 2001, Bob Dylan started of the tribute record «Timeless» to the memory of Hank Williams, playing a swinging version of «I Can´t Get You Off Of My Mind»:
In 2008, Bob Dylan was handed a box of unfinished songs from Hank Williams hand, asked to complete them for release. Dylan finished one of them, and hand-picked again a beautiful team of artists to make their contribution to the album «The Lost Notebooks of Hank Williams». This was the second album on the label, «Egyptian».
Already in 1965, while he on stage already was revolutionizing what a song could be, on the hotelroom he played songs of or associated with Hank Williams. «Lost Highway» is a Leon Payne original, «I´m So Lonesome I Could Cry» is an Hank Williams original:
At the same time he also played «Remember Me (When the Candle Lights Are Gleaming)» by Scotty Wiseman.
His teaming up with Johnny Cash for a recording of «Girl From The North Country» for «Nashville Skyline» is well known, which is also Johnny Cash´strong support for Bob Dylan in his early years – the «shut up and let him sing»-incident. Dylan and Cash had a good time in studio in 1969, jamming a lot more than what was released, let´s hope for at Bootleg Release of this material some time:
In 1966 they had a brief back stage moment with Johnny Cash´s beautiful ballad, «I Still Miss Someone», in what is not the most beautiful version, but an interesting view from the time were Bob Dylan really entered the rock throne with his going-electric-tour of 1966:
Their common admiration for Hank Williams even made them make a try at «I´m So Lonesome I Could Cry»:
Later in life, Dylan recorded a great version of «Ring of Fire», a song made known by Johnny Cash, but written by June Carter and Merle Kilgore.
Dylan did also participate in the all-star tribute to Johnny Cash in 1999, though without showing up were the tribute concert were hold. Dylan´s performance were made as a tv transmission from wherever he were touring this day. In Dylan´s touching spoken intro he thanked Johnny for standing up for him «way back when», before his heartfelt version of Cash´s «Train of Love».
«John Wesley Harding», recorded in Nashville, Bob Dylan fresh out of the basement, making a completely different sound from what he was doing in Woodstock, nevertheless made a perfect country classic with the closer of the album, «I´ll Be Your Baby Tonight»:
«Nashville Skyline» was in many ways a country album. The little gem «Tell Me That It Isn´t True» is soaked in the spirit of Hank Williams´»You Win Again».
His love for this music was also part of «Self Portrait», even if it made lots of his fans look another way in disgust. They really didn´t get the irony in songs like «Take Me As I Am (Or Let Me Go)», originally released by Little Jimmy Dickens:
In the complete version of the Basement Tapes recordings, Dylan took the members of The Band for a complete tour of american music, as he also made his first version of «A Fool Such As I», originally released by Hank Snow, one of the Hanks Bob loved from his younger years.
They also recorded «Be Careful of Stones That You Throw», made famous by Hank Williams, or, more correctly, his alter ego, Luke The Drifter – and Bob was even copying the recitation. If you listen closely it would not be lost on you that here also lies an important inspiration for «Sign On The Cross» from the same period.
Even in 1983, struggling with finding his way into the new sounds and productions of the eighties, when he released «Infidels», hidden on a B-side of a single, his love for country music was exemplified once more, this time with the stunningly touching «Angels Flying Too Close To The Ground», I really hope that one of the volumes of Bob Dylan´s collected works will include also masterpieces like this. Already a beautiful song from Willie Nelson´s hand, Dylan brings it further with his unique ability to strengthen the dramatic effect of the simplest words, by infusing it with his very own take on sweet soul music, here perfectly supported by Clydie King´s back up vocal.
Exactly the same effect you can find when he, accompanied only of his own guitar, uses his extraordinary King Midas abilities and makes gold of the sweet «You Belong To Me», originally by Sue Thompson, but also released in a long string of versions by other artists, among others Jo Stafford, Jerry Lee Lewis and Patsy Cline. With all respect of the former versions, mr Dylan cuts right to the core of the sentiments in it and makes it an unforgettable performance that you always can go back to and it will bring tears to your eyes. The song were recorded for «Good As I Been To You», but ended up on the soundtrack for «Natural Born Killers».
From time to time Bob Dylan also plays a country song live, some times his own take on a country ballad or some country rock. At the first Farm Aid, in 1985, the first show he played backed by Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, he is really on fire, seemingly both happy and joyful – and here you can see some of the songs he played – his own country ballad «I´ll Remember You», the rockier «Trust Yourself» and then the finale, the best version of «Maggie´s Farm» ever. And who is that man with the bandana on the guitar behind him? Willie Nelson, of course.
Next year Dylan participated via satellite at the Farm Aid show, this time with the great tex mex country ballad «Across The Borderline», originally a Ry Cooder composition.
This was also the year when Dylan was casted as Billy Parker in the soon to be forgotten movie «Hearts On Fire». The memorable moments in the movie is not so many, but when Bob plays the ultimate country ballad «A Couple More Years», penned by Shel Silverstein, made famous by Dr Hook in the seventies, you should watch out, even if Billy Parker, to win the girl, claims that he wrote it himself. Dylan also played beautiful versions of this song live in the fall of 1980.
We don´t know if Bob Dylan read James Joyce at this time, but he certainly listened to Billy Joe Shaver. The proof is in this heartbreaking version of «Old Five And Dimers Like Me», recorded as part of the «Heart of Fire»-sessions.
In 1993 surprisingly showed up on the TV Special, Willie Nelson – The Big Six-0, duetting with Willie on a gorgeous version of the late great Townes Van Zandts masterpiece «Pancho And Lefty».
At the same show he takes the old Stephen Foster song, «Hard Times», and makes it completely his own.
In 2015, Bob Dylan surprisingly accepts to participate in a swedish TV productions, about doing things alone as opposed to together with other people. This person wants to see a Bob Dylan concert alone, and Bob makes it happen. He plays four songs, among them «Heartbeat» from the old country boy, Buddy Holly, a very fine version of «Blueberry Hill», but the highlight for me is when he starts singing the old Lefty Frizzell song, «You´re Too Late» – actually a song written by Lefty and Hank Williams together. My wish is that Bob´s next phase would be a really dive into this kind of music – his recordings of the great country ballads could match his voice and life experience most perfectly these days.
Even in the opening of his summer tour in Europe of 2015, in the middle of his great work with another part of the american songbook, he plays a perfect version of Willie Nelson´s beautiful «Sad Songs & Waltzes»:
«I’m writing a song all about you
A true song as real as my tears
But you’ve no need to fear it
‘Cause no one will hear it
Sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year»
Maybe he was just returning the favor of Willie Nelson covering his «What Was It You Wanted»?
On their last project together, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard made their country version of «Don´t Think Twice, It´s Alright». For Merle Haggard is was kind of proof of that he loved Bob from the time he heard this song. As Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, Dylan and Haggard had several tours together.
It might have come as a suprise for Merle Haggard, when Bob Dylan in his Musicares Person of the Year Speech in 2015, mentioned that Merle Haggard first didn´t like his stuff, contrary of Buck Owens, and that Bob was very satisfied being liked by the author of songs as «Crying Time» and «Together Again». «He even recorded some of my songs», he told the audience.
Bob Dylan were speaking of the times and environment he and his songs were thrown into in the sixties, and there is no doubt about the distance and conflicts between genres at that time, conflicts that are more difficult to understand these days. As a young artist this obviously got to Dylan, one would think it hurt most when people he admired didn´t like his songs. Nevertheless, Bob Dylan´s admiration for Merle Haggard are well documented – in 2009 he told Rolling Stone this: “Merle Haggard has always been as deep as deep gets. Totally himself. Herculean. Even too big for Mount Rushmore. No superficiality about him whatsoever. He definitely transcends the country genre. If Merle had been around Sun Studio in Memphis in the Fifties, Sam Phillips would have turned him into a rock & roll star, one of the best.” Even more, he sang his song, «Sing Me Back Home» on several occations, like here.
In the phenomenal radio series, Theme Time Radio Hour, where Bob Dylan hosts as DJ, he is hunting high and low in his archives and record collections, and country music is represented in all the great shows, showing us what he always tried to tell us, that «when it comes to music, there is no need for border patrol.» Truer words were never spoken.