Photos by John Connor Coulston
On the evening of Feb. 14, 1966, Bob Dylan arrived at Columbia’s historic Studio A in Nashville, Tennessee–after a delayed flight and weeks of unsuccessful recording time in New York City–to lay down one of his greatest rock albums to date: Blonde on Blonde.
Dylan’s Nashville studio time not only helped others see the city as more than a recording mecca for country music, but that behind every successful artist is a group of equally remarkable session musicians who share the credit.
In Dylan’s case, it’s the versatile group of musicians informally known as the “Nashville Cats,” who, over the course of 72 hours, played on almost all of the recordings and helped craft the album into what later lured artists like Joan Baez, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and many others to Music City during the late ’60s and early ’70s.
The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s latest exhibit–Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City–gives a behind-the-scenes look at this pivotal chapter in Nashville’s history and spotlights not only the artists who recorded there, but also the first-class musicians who are not as easily recognized.
“Like other major exhibitions here, Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats is a story with multiple chapters, many that were in danger of disappearing and are all essential to an understanding of the history of Nashville and its place as a destination for cultural pilgrims from around the world,” said Kyle Young, the museum’s director, during the exhibit’s preview Thursday night. “The exhibit recounts what happened when the larger world of popular music discovered the organic, essentially southern and musically literate talents of Nashville’s extraordinary studio musicians.”
Some of the more renowned Nashville Cats spotlighted in the exhibit include Charlie Daniels, Charlie McCoy, Jerry Reed, steel guitarist Pete Drake, drummer Kenny Buttrey and a long list of others. McCoy, who performed during the exhibit’s preview, played guitar and bass on Dylan’s other
Nashville recordings John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, as well as bass harmonica on Simon & Garfunkel’s folk rock ballad “The Boxer.”
That same harmonica, as well as one used by Dylan in the early ’60s, is on display, sharing space with other iconic items such as Johnny Cash’s Grammy for his linear notes to Nashville Skyline, as well as Dylan’s 1949 Martin guitar and western jacket made by renowned Nashville fashion designer Manuel.
“This true story spotlights a little known aspect of our Music City moniker that infuses together a series of events that fueled our rise as a world-class recording center,” Young said. “As the title suggests, the process was fostered and legitimized for many by the remarkable friendship between Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, two icons of popular music bonding over their mutual love and respect for great songs.”
In his Blonde on Blonde linear notes, Dylan acknowledges the hard work of the studio musicians whose efforts were often overshadowed by his own spotlight.
That’s far from the case at the new exhibit, which features more than 15 listening stations, each spotlighting the work of a Nashville musician. While walking through, visitors will hear the sounds of drummer Kenny Buttrey’s contribution on Dylan’s “Lay, Lady Lay,” Lloyd Green’s piercing steel guitar (which is also on display) on The Byrds’ rendition of Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere” and Fred Carter Jr.’s flawless guitar picking on “The Boxer,” among several others.
Other significant items on display include Joan Baez’s letter to the Nashville Cats for their help on Any Day Now, an album of Bob Dylan covers, and David’s Album, Charlie McCoy’s datebook and Charlie Daniel’s mid-1950s Fender Telecaster, which was used on sessions for Dylan’s Nashville Skyline and Self Portrait.
Over the course of its 21-month stay, the exhibit will also be accompanied by public programs such as live performances and film screenings, which will largely be free to those with a museum membership.