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How Nashville cats set off the big bang when country met rock, in the Country Music Hall of Fame's eye-opening new exhibit

Bringing It All Back Home

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Forty-nine years ago on a slightly chilly March evening, Bob Dylan and a small group of musicians were sequestered in Columbia Recording Studios on 16th Avenue South in Nashville. They were hard at work finishing the tracks for what became Dylan's 1966 album Blonde on Blonde. According to the legend, Dylan kicked off the session with the song "Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I'll Go Mine)," a straightforward rocker propelled by guitar and harmonica. After a few takes, the song still wasn't quite right. It was missing that small, special "something" that made the difference between a good record and a great one.

That's when studio musician Charlie McCoy suggested adding a trumpet fill to match the lick played by organist Al Kooper. The multitalented McCoy could easily play the trumpet, but he was already playing bass on the track and Dylan didn't like overdubs, preferring to go for a live-in-the-studio sound. No problem, McCoy said. He could play both instruments at the same time — and to Dylan's and Kooper's amazement, he proceeded to demonstrate. With the help of an improvised curtain to keep the jaw-dropping sight out of Dylan's view, the band cut it, and the trumpet lick made it perfect. A rock 'n' roll classic was born.

That amusing tale of a uniquely Nashvillian collaboration and improvisation is just one of the stories told by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's new major exhibit Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City, opening this weekend for a nearly two-year run. Setting its sights on the period between 1966 and 1974 — an era bracketed by recording sojourns to Nashville by Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney, both at the height of their fame — the exhibit chronicles how rock and folk musicians flocked to Music City during the counterculture's heyday and helped create a fruitful new hybrid: country-rock.

Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats tells the story of the original "New Nashville" through first-class interactive displays, rare artifacts and the innovative audio-visual presentations that the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum has made its trademark. The exhibit lays the groundwork of its story by detailing Dylan's musical background, his love of country music, his friendship with Johnny Cash and the events that eventually brought him to Nashville. Through displays of historic instruments, rare studio artifacts, photos and documents, it chronicles how a varied group of musicians packed their guitar cases and headed to Nashville for a touch of Music City magic.

On the flipside of that tale is the developing studio system in Nashville and the varied influences that the second-generation Nashville session cats brought to the music scene. The heart of the exhibit is its focus on these seldom-sung heroes, country's counterpart to the famed Los Angeles first-call posse known as The Wrecking Crew.

Separate listening booths, each featuring rare photos, short biographies and sound clips presenting the musical résumés of individual players, amply demonstrate the versatility and skill of these often uncredited musicians, who proved time and again that the title "Music City, U.S.A." was no empty claim. While artists like Rick Nelson and Michael Nesmith were commingling country and rock out West in California, the local players were helping visitors like Dylan and The Byrds find their own strain. Their collaborations bridged the chasms of the culture wars, in a location that many considered the least likely for musical détente.

"The perception of Nashville at the time was that it was a little backwater and the least hip place in the country," Nashville pedal-steel player and exhibit co-curator Pete Finney says. "You had London, San Francisco, New York and L.A., where everything was happening. But behind the scenes, people from all those places were coming to Nashville to record.

"No one has ever looked at all of that as a total thing. There are liner notes about Dylan coming to Nashville or a chapter about Neil Young recording here, but no one has ever put the whole picture together."

The elements of that picture began to form early in the 1960s, when Bob Dylan, riding high on the critical acclaim and sales success of his 1963 album The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, received a fan letter that truly impressed the young singer.

"Johnny Cash wrote him saying how much he loved the album," Finney says. "Dylan was flabbergasted and wrote back. It started a mutual appreciation society that culminated when they met and both played at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, where Dylan was the superstar and Cash was the outsider. They didn't play together, but Cash talked about Dylan and sang 'Don't Think Twice, It's All Right,' a moment that Dylan said was the 'high thrill of a lifetime.' "

The popular portrayal of Dylan as the bohemian king of protest singers and the "voice of a generation" often stood in contrast to his personal music tastes. Dylan had been a country music fan since childhood, often citing Hank Williams as one of his earliest influences.

"The media at the time didn't want to talk about Dylan being interested in what was considered a conservative music form," Finney says, "and the folk scene considered Nashville's country music too slick and commercial. There were two different perceptions of him that made it seem odd that Dylan would record in Nashville, but it was really more of a homecoming for him than a departure."

Even though Dylan was in tune with Nashville, convincing the powers-that-be around him was another story, according to exhibit co-curator Michael Gray.

"The record label executives and his management were resistant to him coming to Nashville," Gray says, "but his producer Bob Johnston had lived in Nashville and knew the players. He started putting the idea in Dylan's head that he should come to Nashville to record."

The turning point came in 1965, when Charlie McCoy was on vacation in New York during the recording of Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited. Johnston invited McCoy to meet Dylan in Columbia Studio A, and Dylan, familiar with McCoy's rock 'n' roll recordings with the Nashville-based combo The Escorts, invited him to play guitar on the recording of "Desolation Row."

"It's a very long song; Charlie nailed it in one or two takes," Gray says. "Johnston looked at Dylan and said, 'If you go to Nashville, they're all like that.' "

Johnston wasn't blowing smoke. Although Nashville had been instrumental in the early years of rock 'n' roll, producing dozens of rockabilly and rock 'n' roll classics, by the mid-1960s popular perception had Nashville a square, middle-of-the-road hit factory — the very antithesis of the swingin' new rock era. But as country music sales grew, there was a need for talented, versatile session players. A second generation of pickers soon gained entry into the studios of Music City.

As with the original "A-Team" players of the 1950s, who combined their early love for hillbilly music with a devotion to jazz, the new-breed players often mixed their appreciation for country with other genres. Many of them stayed glued as teenagers to the R&B booming out of Nashville's WLAC in the wee wee hours, or began their musical apprenticeships in rock 'n' roll bands.

"They had all grown up listening to the same R&B and blues records that Dylan had," Finney says. "That was the sound that Dylan wanted on Blonde on Blonde, and he got it recording with guys his age that had lots of studio experience. It was the sound of artistic freedom combining with the skills that come from working in a very disciplined environment."

What Dylan had discovered in Nashville was a means to make music that not only transcended genres, but delivered hit-making professionalism without losing the laid-back feel of a front-porch jam session. For the most part, the studio systems in New York and Los Angeles were founded upon talented musicians playing precise, pre-orchestrated arrangements. But in Nashville, the system had evolved to the point session players were encouraged, even expected, to make creative contributions. A specific player often wasn't hired to play a certain lick; he was hired for his ability to create the perfect lick when the time came.

Released in May 1966, Blonde on Blonde was hailed as a masterpiece. The record galloped and cavorted over the barriers between folk, rock, country and R&B like a wild mustang. It sounded open, spontaneous, free. Fanatical Dylan fans, many of them rival musicians, obsessed over every note and scoured the liner notes. And when they did, they not only discovered that Nashville was the point of origin for this amazing music, they found the names of the musicians who created it.

"That was a huge deal for them," Michael Gray says. "They had all been on hundreds of sessions before, but they were sort of anonymous. All of a sudden the public knew who the musicians were playing on these records. That opened up a lot of doors for them and gave them a lot of attention."

Along with the newfound attention, Nashville session players soon had an unofficial moniker. In December 1966, folk-rockers The Lovin' Spoonful scored a Top 10 hit with "Nashville Cats," their tribute to the "1,352 guitar pickers in Nashville" set to a trademark Johnny Cash boom-chicka-boom beat. Nashville might still have seemed like a hick town, but for open-minded rockers and folkies, those hillbillies had something in the water worth drinking.

"New York had the hippest folk scene," Pete Finney says. "London had The Beatles. San Francisco and L.A. both had their swingin' scenes. Every one of those cities was connected to Nashville — because the musicians from all those scenes knew that if they wanted a certain kind of professionalism and really open-minded, great playing, they had to come to Nashville."

The list of classic rock and folk records recorded in Nashville during the period from 1966 to 1974 is staggering, often revelatory. While one may not be surprised to find Nashville's fingerprints on country/rock hybrids like The Byrds' Sweetheart of the Rodeo, Linda Ronstadt's Silk Purse or Neil Young's Harvest, it's another matter to realize that such classic tunes as Leonard Cohen's "Bird on a Wire," Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer" or J.J. Cale's "Crazy Mama" were all crafted in Nashville studios, utilizing musicians drawn from the same small pool.

But it wasn't just the hot licks of the Nashville Cats that impressed these musical prospectors. The haircuts may have been shorter, but down-home Southern hospitality and the easygoing but efficient "Nashville system" had created an atmosphere very different from New York or other recording centers.

Take Cinderella Sound, the studio opened by session guitar great Wayne Moss in his Madison garage. One of the first home studios built in Nashville, it was essentially a playhouse for Moss and his buddies. Only his buddies happened to be some of the greatest players ever to record in Music City — Charlie McCoy, guitarist-songwriter Mac Gayden, drummer Kenny Buttrey and others. To visitors from the coasts, professionalism plus fun was a heady mix.

"Steve Miller came here in 1970," Finney says. "He had recorded in San Francisco and London, and all of a sudden he was in somebody's garage with these great players who were relaxed and knew how to get great sound. He got so inspired he went back to San Francisco and built his own studio, which is where he conceived most of his hits from the '70s. There are huge swaths of rock 'n' roll history that can be directly linked back to experiences in Nashville."

Nashville's profile in the counterculture got a greater boost in the summer of 1969 when The Johnny Cash Show premiered on the ABC television network. For the next two years, Cash's show spotlighted performances from mainstream country legends as well as folk and rock acts, many of whom had recorded in Nashville or would eventually find their way to Music City studios. Dazzling clips from these broadcasts make up one of the exhibit's most irresistible features.

Just as the Nashville Cats were influencing the music made by non-Music City musicians, the counterculture soon began to affect the look and sound of Nashville's homegrown sounds.

"I think the outsiders gave people a sense of possibilities for their own projects," Finney says. "As more and more came here to record, the studios became even looser." As new independent studios like Sound Shop and Quadrafonic Sound opened, Nashville's structured if relaxed methods began to change.

"When Quad opened it was more about creativity and not about watching the clock so much," Michael Gray says. "And frankly it was the one place where artists could bring a drink or smoke some pot. They would absolutely have not been able to get away with that at RCA or Columbia."

This era of creativity was reinforced by a new kind of Nashville sound: innovative and introspective songwriters like Kris Kristofferson, John Hartford and Mickey Newbury; genre-busting records from homegrown Nashville-player supergroups such as Area Code 615, The Neon Philharmonic and The Earl Scruggs Revue. They were bolstered by new live venues like Exit/In that opened their doors to the sounds of counterculture country.

The irony — one that will sound familiar to current Nashvillians — is that it took attention from outside arbiters to convince the rest of the city what the country industry already knew: Our hillbilly-music legacy is what makes us special, not an obstacle to be overcome.

"The landscape 40 years ago was such that even the country music business was barely accepted by the powers that be in Nashville," Finney says. "For the most part the powerful money and political interests here didn't want Nashville identified with country music. And then, at the height of the counterculture, we have these scruffy folksinger beatniks and hippies from San Francisco coming to town. There was all this exciting stuff going on, but it all stayed under the radar."

The true legacy of the Nashville Cats and their partners from other locales has only come into focus with the passage of time. Perhaps their biggest accomplishment was to show a broader, more expansive musical horizon beyond the narrow confines of record-industry categories. Labels such as "rock" and "country" were initially imposed to make record-selling easier; as the century wore on, the artificial distinctions calcified.

But as the exhibit shows, the albums made during this fruitful period in Nashville smudged all those boundaries. They might have rock beats and pedal-steel twang; they might feature pop songs with the odd chicken-fried lick. Yet by combining country and rock, they came up with something that couldn't be pigeonholed as either. It may sound trite to say that the Nashville Cats, Dylan and those who followed, along with their counterparts out West, helped to "invent" Americana, but that conclusion is pretty much unavoidable. Where else to trace the origins of contemporary roots music that refuses to fit comfortably into one definition?

The echoes of those genre-defying recordings have been heard in every Music City rebel who followed, from Jason and the Scorchers' blistering 1983 cowpunk-ization of Dylan's buried Blonde on Blonde gem "Absolutely Sweet Marie" — talk about bringing it all back home — to the metaphysical cosmic-cowboy flights of Sturgill Simpson today. For all the tales back in the day of Ralph Emery bad-mouthing The Byrds (who retaliated with their free-swinging putdown "Drug Store Truck Drivin' Man," also covered by the Scorchers), the impression the exhibit leaves is that Nashville's country players were kindred spirits with the spacemen from Planet Rock, not bemused guns for hire.

Yet there's a lesson in Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City that's especially relevant today. Even when its public profile was at its corniest, Nashville was hipper than anyone realized — and the source of true hipness doesn't come from stories trumpeted by national press, PR outreaches by the Chamber of Commerce, or even the number of records sold. The real "Music City cool" was and is found in the studios, nightclubs and jam sessions where small groups of Nashville Cats gather to play as "clean as country water" and "wild as mountain dew," regardless of what fleeting trend is in or out. Without breaking a sweat, they created lasting music whose most defining characteristic is its magnificence.

Nashvillians and out-of-towners alike will get plenty of chances to explore that legacy over the next 21 months, as Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City runs through Dec. 31, 2016. An illustrated companion book featuring a foreword by Rosanne Cash, an overview by Pete Finney, an essay by Johnny Cash expert Michael Streissguth and brief profiles on Nashville Cats and classic recordings is being released with the opening, and a two-disc compilation of music from the exhibit will be released by Sony Legacy later this year.

In addition, a special opening concert titled Listen to the Band: The Nashville Cats With Special Guests will be held on March 28. Country Music Hall of Fame member Charlie McCoy will lead the "Nashville Cats" Band, including David Briggs, Mac Gayden, Lloyd Green, Kenny Malone, Wayne Moss and Norbert Putnam. Guests include Deana Carter, Jon Langford, Tracy Nelson, Steve Young, Old Crow Medicine Show members Critter Fuqua and Ketch Secor, and more.

As with past major exhibits, a full slate of panel discussions, films, instrument demonstrations and more is planned for the length of the exhibit. With Nashville's collective psyche still reeling from our boomtown status of late, that makes Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats particularly well-timed. As visitors will discover, there was once another time when the "New Nashville" label was applied to the Music City scene — and then as now, the widely held perceptions weren't nearly as interesting as the truth.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com

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