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Bob Dylan - Travelin’ Thru, Featuring Johnny Cash: The Bootleg Series Vol. 15 Music Album Reviews

Dylan's latest installment in his long-running Bootleg series is one of the shortest, the highlight of which is his collaboration with Johnny Cash. 

Weighing in at a mere three discs—last year’s More Blood, MoreTracks was twice that size—Travelin' Thru is a relatively trim installment in Bob Dylan’s ongoing Bootleg Series. Instead of opening a door onto a secret history, it adds color and texture to an already well-known story: Dylan's late-’60s sojourn in Nashville, the period in which he recorded John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, capped off by his performance on The Johnny Cash Show in 1969—his first television appearance in nearly five years.


Dylan knew precisely what he wanted for the Harding sessions: just his guitar, bass, and drums. Producer Bob Johnston brought bassist Charlie McCoy and drummer Kenneth Buttrey into the studio, persuaded Bob to add steel guitarist Pete Drake to a couple of tracks, and the entire thing was finished within nine hours. The swift session means there were only a handful of outtakes left behind. Just seven alternate takes made the cut for Travelin’ Thru and apart from Dylan fussing with a few words, these aren’t far removed in form or feel from the versions that made the final album. The outtakes from Nashville Skyline—which includes the unheard song “Western Road,” a loose-limbed blues that happily plays with some well-worn tropes—also aren’t markedly different than what made the cut on the finished LP. The differences here are subtle—”Lay, Lady, Lay” seems a bit muted without its busy percussion and sighing steel—but it’s fun to hear Dylan groove along with these Nashville pros, working up a head of country-funk steam on “Country Pie” with the help of guitarist Charlie Daniels. Unfortunately, there aren't many of these Nashville Skyline outtakes. A bunch of masters were lost when CBS Records Nashville neglected to pay the fees for a storage facility, and while Sony recovered some tapes in a 2008 auction, many reels are still missing, which means the eight cuts on Travelin’ Thru are all that could be salvaged for official release.

All this means that the heart of Travelin’ Thru lies in the session Dylan held with Johnny Cash on February 18, 1969, just after he finished work on Nashville Skyline. The pair tested the waters the day before, stumbling through a version of Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone” and playing Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” simultaneously with Johnny’s “Understand Your Man,” a song that lifted the melody from “Don’t Think Twice.” It’s a clever idea, albeit slightly confusing in practice—at one point, Dylan messes up his lyrics and slyly suggests he should be singing Cash’s words instead—but the mash-up illustrates how the two icons were operating on a similar wavelength. More than that, they were on equal footing in 1969. Each had spent the past decade changing the sound of American music by deviating from conventions, each building an image that verged on mythic. What's appealing about their duet session is how it deflates those myths: it’s merely two mutual admirers figuring out how to play music together.

Raised on old folk, country, and blues tunes, not to mention rock & roll, Dylan and Cash shared a similar vernacular, but speaking it in a sympathetic fashion took some effort. Although a version of “Girl from the North Country” wound up opening up Nashville Skyline, the duo generally avoided Dylan’s songbook. They also attempted “One Too Many Mornings” and Bob unveiled “Wanted Man,” a tune he wrote specifically for Johnny that played upon Cash’s Man In Black mythos. This tentative, good-humored read-through is the only known recording of Dylan singing the song, and it arrives fairly close to the end of the session, after the pair realized Bob didn't know how the country standard “The Wreck of the Old 97” went and that he couldn’t remember the words to Cash’s “Guess Things Happen That Way.” Discovering such gaps was part of the process, as was Cash feeding lyrics to Dylan: on the old Appalachian folk tune “Mountain Dew,” he instructs Bob how to deliver a line so it has the impact of a punchline.

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Hearing Cash and Dylan attack the same lyric from different angles provides a striking insight regarding the pair's vocal styles. Cash barrels forth, commanding attention with his booming baritone, while Dylan sounds slippier, as if he’s suppressing a laugh. These two join together on the chorus but they don't harmonize, exactly: they’re fellow travelers on the same road, headed to the same destination but getting there at different speeds. This scenario repeats itself throughout the session, as the pair trade lines and graciously make space for their partner, yet neither willing to abandon their own stylistic quirks. Where they find common ground is on a selection of spirituals, standards, and Jimmie Rodgers tunes, plus a lively reading of “Matchbox” featuring Carl Perkins, who wrote the song back in 1957. None of this amounts to a cohesive session, so it's not a surprise that it was largely shelved in 1969. Yet its genial raggedness is the very reason to listen to it decades later; it feels bracingly human.

Dylan and Cash reunited a few months later when Bob stopped by The Johnny Cash Show.. Dylan was plugging Nashville Skyline, singing “I Threw It Away” and reprising his “Girl From The North Country” duet with Johnny, and it’s remarkable to hear how at ease he is here.. The same crew supported Dylan a couple of days after this May 1, 1969 taping, playing “Ring Of Fire” and “Folsom Prison Blues” with a similar gusto and bonhomie, a vibe that carried Dylan through to the clutch of 1970 recordings with bluegrass banjoist Earl Scruggs that close off this set.

Comparing the Scruggs cuts and the funky, swampy Cash covers with the austere John Wesley Harding outtakes that begin Travelin’ Thru is illuminating. When Dylan began his Nashville years, he was cautious, a sentiment befitting an artist who purposely withdrew from the spotlight, but the singer on the 1970 sessions is playful and alive, clearly enjoying the company of other musicians. Dylan may not have returned to Nashville to record—as the title suggests, he was just passing through the town—but he kept that communal spirit close at hand in the music that he’s made over the years.


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