By Grant Maxwell, author of How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Philosophy of Rock and Roll.
When Bob Dylan recorded Nashville Skyline in February 1969, the world was exploding. The Vietnam War raged on and the psychedelic counterculture was nearing its peak, with the Woodstock festival just six months away. But Dylan, always ahead of his time, had already been where the culture was headed in his three mid-sixties records, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde. Nashville Skyline, with its country sound and rural imagery, pointed the way that a lot of music would go in the early seventies, from CSNY, Neil Young, and The Grateful Dead to Gram Parsons, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings.
What made Nashville Skyline so different from Dylan’s mid-sixties work, and even from The Basement Tapes and John Wesley Harding, which served as bridges to Dylan “going country,” was his implicit outlook, both in the lyrics and in the sound of the album, particularly his unexpected croon. Without performing an extended analysis of the record, I would offer that the Dylan of Nashville Skyline adopted a radically new set of philosophical premises, which are embedded not only in the seemingly trivial lyrics, but in the structure of the album.
That the first track is a duet with Johnny Cash on “Girl From the North Country” immediately signals that Dylan is stepping back from being the lone prophetic voice heard on his previous records toward coming into equal and explicit relation with the musical tradition, partially embodied for Dylan in Cash. And this embracing of the “other” is continued on the second track, “Nashville Skyline Rag,” which is an instrumental showcase of a number of soloists rather than of Dylan’s voice and lyrics. With this one-two punch, Dylan seems to be telling his audience to stop obsessing so much about what the lyrics mean, and to start listening to how the music sounds.
The rest of the album, while a somewhat more typical collection of songs if only because they are all new compositions sung solely by Dylan, continues to impel the listener to focus on the feel of the music rather than the words by furnishing apparently conventional, if sublime, love songs like “To Be Alone With You,” “I Threw It All Away,” and “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You,” and one humorously ecstatic ode to rural life in “Country Pie.” However, Dylan, always a paradox, gives us some of his most explicitly philosophical lines masquerading as folksy truisms, which express the deepest significance of the album, as well as the genres of country rock and outlaw country that followed in its wake.
In “To Be Alone with You,” Dylan sings: “Too many thoughts get in the way in the day,” which seems to suggest that rational thought can be counterproductive in an inappropriate context. Attention to bodily knowledge has been systematically repressed in the West since roughly the seventeenth century when Descartes equated thought with human being in general (“I think, therefore I am”). Rock and roll and, by extension, country rock appear to have been a countervalent reaction to this broad cultural tendency, a dialectical return of repressed premodern ways of knowing. Dylan seems to understand that, although critical intellect is a vitally important mode of relation, it should not be privileged beyond its domain of applicability, such as in the essential human activities of playing music or being in love, for which the answer to the question “how does it feel?” is far more relevant.
As he sings in the bridge of “I Threw It All Away”: “Love is all there is, it makes the world go ‘round,” which, though it might seem like an overly sentimental observation, in the context of the music expresses the same turn toward relating to others with compassion and generosity that were indicated nonverbally by the selection of the first two tracks. This moment in 1969 was perhaps the apex of the idea that a new era of human existence would emerge if people could consistently relate to one another with love. Although this heady optimism crashed and burned as the sixties gave way to the seventies, the attempt to birth a novel mode of being does seem to have transformed our culture in profound ways. Based on remarks by Dylan at various points in his career, therefore, the line “why wait any longer for the world to begin?” from “Lay Lady Lay” seems to hold more meaning than a simple appeal to a lover, implying that a “new worldview,” as Dylan puts it in Chronicles, is imminent.
A great deal more could be said about Nashville Skyline, but there are times when “life transcends intellect” as philosopher Henri Bergson puts it. And as Alfred North Whitehead asserts: “The current philosophic doctrines, mostly derived from Hume, are defective by reason of their neglect of bodily reference,” which conveys that there are moments when the understanding that results from attention to “the fact of feeling,” to borrow a phrase from William James, is more profound than logical analysis. There are instances in which the inherently rational medium of words is insufficient for expressing the complexity of lived experience. Or as Dylan sings in “Peggy Day”: “By golly, what more can I say?”