Nashville Skyline and the Birth of Country Rock

Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline, released April 9, 1969, was not the first but the third consecutive album Dylan recorded in Nashville.

Holed up in the former Quonset Hut—one of two studios that had served as the epicenter of the lush Nashville Sound of the mid-'50s to early '60s—Dylan and force-of-nature producer Bob Johnston had already led a group of Nashville session players through 1966's manic, mercurial Blonde on Blonde and 1967's stripped-down John Wesley Harding.

Bob Dylan - Nashville Skyline

About that record of bare folk rock, which had only the sparse rhythm section of Charlie McCoy and Kenny Buttrey, Dylan told Rolling Stone in 1972: "I didn’t intentionally come out with some kind of mellow sound. I would have liked a good sound, more musical, more steel guitar, more piano. More music.”

He got his wish on Nashville Skyline. Opening with a Johnny Cash duet, followed by the pedal steel and piano of "Nashville Skyline Rag" and a paean to simple love in "To Be Alone With You," the album was a full twist of the radio dial into country music.

That said, Dylan wasn't exactly new to playing it. In Dont Look Back, you can see him sing Hank Williams in a hotel room during his '65 tour through England. While recording more than 100 homespun tracks with The Band during the summer of '67—released years later as The Basement Tapes—Dylan was just as likely to lead them through songs by Williams, Cash, or Elvis as he was his own.

But Nashville Skyline represented his first real public foray into country's lilting rhythms, traditional songwriting, and twang. And it was still a gamble.

Bob Dylan - "Threw It All Away," live on the Johnny Cash Show

Dylan, earlier than most, had shunned the excesses of '60s rock. Some music critics still said they heard the influence of the Vietnam War in John Wesley Harding (which sure sounds like a reach, even then), but there was no mistaking Nashville Skyline as anything but an album of personal songs. The era's poet laureate had already made one turn from protest singer to feverish Rimbaud, but he was now at-ease, sweetly singing about his "big brass bed."

By crafting such an album, as well as appearing on the brand-new Johnny Cash Show to promote it, Dylan seemed to give other artists permission: Rockers could engage with their country influences and country songwriters like Kris Kristofferson could lean further into the poetic rock realm Dylan was exiting. But while Nashville Skyline may have broken open the idea of country rock, many of Dylan's peers were going through the same metamorphosis.

Well before Nashville Skyline, Gram Parsons was extolling the virtues of country music to anyone who'd listen. His first attempt at a country rock sound can be heard on The International Submarine Band's Safe at Home, which features a medley of Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" and Arthur Crudup's "That's All Right," a take on Merle Haggard's "I Must Be Somebody Else You've Known," and a number of Parsons originals. One such original, "Luxury Liner," would later be covered by Emmylou Harris and taken as the name of her 1977 album.

After his first band's dissolution, Parsons famously joined (and all but took over) The Byrds for a brief moment—just long enough to make Sweetheart of the Rodeo in his image, even if he was ousted by the time the record was released. While his vocals were stripped from the songs he was supposed to lead, his influence was strong, changing the entire course of the album. The original concept would have had The Byrds journeying through the entirety of American music. After Gram's instigation, they decided to reside squarely in the country pocket.

With his next project, The Flying Burrito Bros, Parsons was able to craft The Gilded Palace of Sin, a nearly perfect encapsulation of country rock and country-tinged soul. Released two months before Nashville Skyline, even Dylan himself praised it, but distribution issues stopped it from becoming a hit. While not greeted by high sales, it had an immediate impact on the Southern California scene and a lasting influence through the decades.

You can hear the change from folk rock to country rock across the discographies of many California-based artists in the late '60s through the early '70s. The Stone Poneys' Vol. III was the first that set singer Linda Ronstadt apart as the star of the band. It also sat right on the edge of that group's folk rock stylings and the more straightforward country that would make up Ronstadt's 1969 solo debut, Hand Sown... Home Grown, and 1971's Linda Ronstadt. That self-titled album featured the newly hired Glenn Frey on guitar and Don Henley on drums, the soon-to-be Eagles that would ride the country rock wave into huge commercial success.

Judy Collins, a verifiable star of the Greenwich Village folk scene, was joined in Los Angeles by a band that included Stephen Stills, Flying Burritos bassist Chris Etheridge, Buddy Emmons, James Burton, and others to craft the country rock masterpiece Who Knows Where the Time Goes in 1968. Collins turns Leonard Cohen's "Bird on the Wire" into a kind of roadhouse tune that's no less affecting, the Incredible String Band's "First Girl I Loved" into a somber gem, and Ian Tyson's "Someday Soon" into her own yearning country classic.

Former Byrds singer Gene Clark paired up with bluegrass banjo player Doug Dillard to release two great albums of country rock in 1968 and '69 as Dillard & Clark. After the full-band opening track of "Out on the Side," The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark leans into acoustic country playing. But Clark's rock-oriented lyricism is on display. In "Train Leaves Here This Mornin'," that title line is followed by the suggestive "I don't know what I might be on." Their followup, Through the Morning, Through the Night features a standout, countrified cover of The Beatles' "Don't Let Me Down," with pedal steel courtesy of Flying Burritos' Sneaky Pete Kleinow.

Crosby, Stills, & Nash had already been blending rock, jazz, folk, and more on their debut self-titled album from 1969, but with the inclusion of Neil Young, country rock was added to the mix of 1970's Déjà Vu. And while some of that group's songs are as far from country as '70s rock could get, their vocal harmonies played a key role in helping another rock band nail the country rock sound of the time. With Jerry Garcia playing pedal steel on Déjà Vu, the worlds of the Grateful Dead and CSNY mixed for a moment, helping the Dead dig into their own country-inspired songwriting and vocal harmonies on American Beauty that same year.

Though leaning more heavily into traditional country than the country rock of The Flying Burrito Bros, Gram Parsons' two solo albums, GP and Grievous Angel are still classics of the genre. Joined by members of Elvis' backing band—James Burton, Glen D. Hardin, and Ronnie Tutt—alongside backing vocalist and duet partner Emmylou Harris, the albums, taken together, are a summation of Parsons' commitment to country music.

After his death (Grievous Angel was released posthumously in 1974), Harris continued to mix the worlds of rock and country, while keeping Parsons' legacy alive. Her 1975 solo debut, Pieces of the Sky, covered The Beatles, Merle Haggard, and The Louvin Brothers. Elite Hotel brought James Burton and Glen Hardin back into the band and covered Flying Burritos-era Parsons songs like "Sin City" and "Wheels," as well as songs Parsons and Harris had once sung together like "Together Again" and "Ooh Las Vegas." Reaching number one on the country charts, it was not only the beginning of Emmylou's reign as one of the leading stars of country music, but it can also be seen as a kind of belated commercial recognition of Parsons' music.

More Country Rock Records on Reverb LP