By Ray Chelstowski
Columbia/Sony (3-CD, 3-LP)
Following his 1966 motorcycle accident, Bob Dylan became fascinated with Nashville and artists like Johnny Cash. This period sits between Blonde on Blonde and his work with The Band, and was largely out of step with the spacey, surreal and psychedelic music of the moment. In February 1969, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash tucked themselves away in a Nashville studio for two days of sessions where they sang each other’s songs. Dylan would return to Columbia Studio A in February 1969 to work on Nashville Skyline and invite Cash to be a guest on the record. Their time together was short but prolific. It was also the first time that Dylan would collaborate in the studio with some of the artists he admired most.
When The Johnny Cash Show was scheduled to debut in June 1969 on ABC, Cash offered Bob Dylan a guest slot on the first show. This appearance accelerated renown for records like John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline, and Self Portrait by presenting to America a “Bob Dylan” many had never quite seen before. These albums allowed Dylan to experiment with his sound and his voice, often stripping things down to the basics. The work was completed quickly, starting a rumor that all of the writing for these records was completed in a single drive to Nashville. The scarcity of outtakes from the sessions only fueled broader mystical speculation about the music it looked to explain.
Now, material from these studio sessions and national television appearances are available through a collection called Travelin' Thru. There alongside these lost gems are a series of tracks performed with bluegrass banjo great Earl Scruggs. The first disc features outtakes from John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline and introduces a new song “Western Road.” JWH outtakes were never available before because most songs rarely required more than three takes. In the end there simply weren’t many that sounded different than the final cuts. As a result the music on Disc One is very familiar; playing more like a hits package than a collection that offers a different musical angle of entry.
Discs Two and Three center around Dylan’s collaborations with Cash. Here among the 25 tracks is "Wanted Man," which they wrote on the spot and Cash recorded at San Quentin a week later. The package is overly thorough. However, it does reveal how perfectly their voices and singing styles were matched.
Disc Three closes with tracks recorded in 1970 with Earl Scruggs for the PBS television special, Earl Scruggs: His Family and Friends. These may be the finest of the entire collection. “To Be Alone With You” is a banjo jam that sounds as fresh today as it did almost 50 years ago. In an interview with Scruggs (included), he reveals his excitement and nerves about performing with Dylan. The energy that fueled and the mutual respect they shared is heard note for note on the set’s very best bundle.
In the end, this is a fairly exhaustive body of work that is intended for the serious collector and the completely devout. For avid fans this box set offers some great musical sharpshooting, but the abundance of material can be daunting to wade through. Pick your moments. There are many here to mine.