It was 45 years ago today that Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan began a two-day recording session. While these legendary musicians would be friends and inspire each other for just shy of four decades they would record together only once. The two-day get together began on this day in 1969.
Dylan was completing his work on the platter that would become known as Nashville Skyline. Cash, whom he had originally met at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, joined him. In the book Cash: The Autobiography Cash describes his enjoyment of Dylan’s music and how they first became friends:
“I had a portable record player that I’d take along on the road. And I’d put on ‘(The) Freewheelin’ (Bob Dylan)’ backstage, then go out and do my show, then listen again as soon as I came off. After a while at that, I wrote Bob a letter telling him how much of a fan I was. He wrote back almost immediately, saying he’d been following my music since ‘I Walk the Line,’ and so we began a correspondence.”
When Cash died in 2003 Dylan had to write about his death. He stated: “Johnny was and is the North Star; you could guide your ship by him — the greatest of the greats then and now. Truly he is what the land and country is all about, the heart and soul of it personified and what it means to be here; and he said it all in plain English.”
He added: “I think we can have recollections of him, but we can’t define him any more than we can define a fountain of truth, light and beauty. If we want to know what it means to be mortal, we need look no further than the Man in Black. Blessed with a profound imagination, he used the gift to express all the various lost causes of the human soul.”
The purpose of this musical meet 45 years ago was—according to producer Bob Johnston, to tape enough material to create an album of duets. Johnston had worked with both before on Cash’s At Folsom Prison and on Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. Unfortunately, while they managed to record 15 songs over the two day period, the tapes would have required another day of work to put out a truly viable album.
Cash and Dylan went back and forth a long playlist attempting to connect. The list included such songs as Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country” and “One Too Many Mornings”, Cash cuts such as “Big River”, “Ring of Fire” and “I Walk The Line”. They even tried to jam together on country and blues classics like “That’s Alright Mama”, “Matchbox” and “Careless Love.” Unfortunately, as one critic noted, it sounds as if Cash or Dylan just called out a tune, Johnston started to roll tape and they just went for it.
While critics generally agree that their impromptu jam session is special and has more historical value now than ever, the unrehearsed recordings lack a focus and tightness to them. They missed cues; Dylan doesn’t know all the lyrics and their vocal styles don’t seem to work well initially. Had they given it one more day to work on the specifics it would certainly have resulted in a memorable album.
Sadly, they never managed to get together for that crucial third day. This resulted in the official release of only one song—“Girl From the North Country” which would be included on Nashville Skyline. A little research has revealed that much like a lot of Dylan’s unreleased music; one can still manage to get a hold of this material on various bootlegs. Still, if one reads Cash’s book it is apparent that they had some enjoyable moments.
Cash commented: “There’s nothing on earth I like better than song trading with a friend or a circle of them, except perhaps doing it with my family. As Bruce Springsteen wrote (in his song “Highway Patrolman” once covered by Cash) ‘Nothing feels better than blood on blood.’”
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.