Nashville Skyline (My Dad Can't Help You)
Bob Dylan has a terrible singing voice, but then again that’s not really the point. As my dad said to his students after a much-anticipated Dylan performance in Charlottesville – so many times, in fact, that he claims he wrote it on a sign and taped it to his chest – “if you don’t get it, I can’t help you.” I’m not quite so dramatic, but there is something about Bob that either works for you or it doesn’t.
My dad is the biggest Bob Dylan fan I’ve ever encountered. He owns (as far as I’m aware) everything Bob Dylan has ever released in at least one medium (CD, tape, or vinyl), took the whole family to see I’m Not There when it came out in theaters, and would not allow a child of his to graduate high school without seeing the great man in concert (I saw him at John Paul Jones Arena with Elvis Costello and Amos Lee).
The gravelly howl of Bob Dylan was omnipresent in our house. Not just “Like a Rolling Stone,” but serious deep tracks. “Pretty Saro,” “Silvio,” Rolling Thunder Revue, “Love Sick,” “Jokerman,” Love and Theft, and “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine.” It drove my sisters and me a little crazy. Every now and again my dad would stumble onto something new or my mom would wrest control of the stereo for a while, but it always came back to Bob’s nasal voice and the metallic sawing of his harmonica.
Bob Dylan is something like a third sibling to me. He drove me absolutely insane for most of my childhood but absence makes the heart grow fonder. A little personal space nurtures appreciation. I appreciate Bob Dylan more than ever now that we encounter each other on our own terms, but still I rebel in my own small way against his towering presence in my childhood.
My favorite Dylan album – far and away – is Nashville Skyline. It was recorded in Nashville in 1969, and I listen to it twice as often as the rest of the discography combined. Nashville Skyline also happens to have been recorded in a brief spell during which Dylan had quit smoking.
Dylan’s voice is young and fresh and has an odd burpy sort of “Kermit-the-frog” quality. The songs are short, consonant, simple, and have only short bursts of his signature enigmatic rapid-fire word scrambles. In short, one could be forgiven for hearing Nashville Skyline and being unaware that they were listening to Bob Dylan at all. I’d be lying if I claimed that weren’t part of the appeal, but it’s a truly great album.
Johnny Cash appears on “Girl From the North Country.” “Nashville Skyline Rag” bounces along wordless. Dylan renders simple lyrics in a charming boyish tenor on “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You.” “Lay Lady Lay” drips with pedal steel and lopes along over a muted metallic percussion, with a hokey sort of faux calypso vibe about it. That last, in particular, is my favorite song in the Dylan canon.
Bob is an acquired taste, but Nashville Skyline is beautiful, in part, because it’s so easy to get. I do love him in his uncut form, but part of the appeal of the album is that it’s just a bit less Bob. A little more polished. There’s something about knowing what lies underneath the hard edges and dusty exterior that makes one appreciate Bob Dylan more fully. I sometimes think my dad should have been more understanding with his students. Bob is an acquired taste but “if you don’t get it,” a listen to Nashville Skyline might actually help quite a lot.