It seems like it would create some sort of disturbance in the universe if one saw these two giants of music, supremely steeped in American tradition, both in the same room at the same time. It simultaneously seems like it would be an obvious thing for them to do, but also, perhaps, too on the nose if Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan collaborated and remained close friends.
The two highly esteemed songwriters are often considered very alike but also different in what they do; both are innate poets touching upon the heartstrings of countless listeners. As songwriters and performers, they delved into the darkest parts of their own human experience, while elevating the truths of life, and shared it with their adoring audience. Both men operated as shining bastions of creative and cultural endeavour. What’s more, they were even friends while they did it.
They remained close friends for over 40 years, however, they would only collaborate once — on Bob Dylan’s landmark record Nashville Skyline. Their appreciation for one another lasted longer than 40 years though; they admired each other’s work from afar before ever keeping a correspondence. It was the country star who reached out first. Johnny Cash wrote in his book, Cash: The Autobiography, “I had a portable record player that I’d take along on the road, and I’d put on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan backstage, then go out and do my show, then listen again as soon as I came off.”
Cash was clearly a fan but he wanted to speak to the man behind the music too, “After a while at that, I wrote Bob a letter telling him how much of a fan I was,” he said. “He wrote back almost immediately, saying he’d been following my music since ‘I Walk the Line,’ and so we began a correspondence.”
It was clear that respect ran mutually and free-lowing between the two men. Dylan responded to Cash immediately when the country star reached out and when his friend passed in 2003, Dylan wrote, “In plain terms, Johnny was and is the North Star; you could guide your ship by him — the greatest of the greats then and now.”
“Truly he is what the land and country is all about,” continued Dylan, “The heart and soul of it personified and what it means to be here; and he said it all in plain English. I think we can have recollections of him, but we can’t define him any more than we can define a fountain of truth, light and beauty.” The two had a strong affinity for each other’s work, both relied on the written word as testaments for spreading truth and shedding light on life’s mysterious questions.
Dylan continued: “If we want to know what it means to be mortal, we need to look no further than the Man in Black. Blessed with a profound imagination, he used the gift to express all the various lost causes of the human soul.”
The key to their relationship is that the duo maintained a healthy mutual respect for one another, Johnny Cash had established himself in the ’50s as a staple within the world of country music. By the time the ’60s arrived, Cash began exploring folk traditional music — a genre that Bob Dylan had completely immersed himself in, specifically with his debut album, Bob Dylan. As previously mentioned, Cash wholeheartedly imbibed Freewheelin’ with Bob Dylan, and realised that Dylan had already established himself as a staple of the folk community in New York City, within the tradition of the rambling folk legend, Woodie Guthrie.
After a correspondence began, the two would meet in 1964 at the Newport Folk music festival, where they both performed annually. This is the same festival that, a year later in 1965, Dylan would perform his controversial electric set and, with it, change the face of music forever. As a respectful gesture, Johnny Cash would hand Dylan a Martin acoustic guitar as a gift — a tradition among country artists, by way of initiation.
By this point in 1964, just as many began embracing Dylan as the new voice of the oppressed and downtrodden; they prescribed the ethos of folk music as the mouthpiece of political protest. Consequently, Dylan rejected this notion in his typical and timely way, desperately avoiding being pigeonholed. This rejection saw its true physical manifestation in Dylan’s electric set at the Newport Folk Festival in ‘65. Many became outraged, while Dylan found a true ally in Cash who came to his defence.
Cash wrote a letter to the Editor of Broadside magazine, demanding those up in arms, to “Shut up! And let me sing!” This happened prior to the ‘64 Newport Folk Festival where they met. Dylan, in response to Cash’s letter, wrote, “Johnny wrote the magazine saying to shut up and let me sing, that I knew what I was doing. This was before I had ever met him, and the letter meant the world to me. I’ve kept the magazine to this day.”
In 1969 Bob Dylan recorded what would be considered his own country album, Nashville Skyline, produced by Bob Johnston, who also produced Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, and Cash’s At Folsom Prison. Johnston had hoped the two would record an entire album together, and there was a good cause too. Cash and Dylan recorded 15 songs together for the Nashville sessions, but would only end up keeping one of those tracks, Girl From The North Country.
In the past, Dylan was infamous for never really taking the time to do multiple takes on a track. So while Cash and Dylan went back and forth on a number of different songs, ‘Girl,’ ‘One Too Many Mornings’, ‘Big River,’ ‘Ring of Fire” and ‘I Walk the Line’; there were too many mistakes running throughout the recordings and their two voices — firmly placed at different ends of the spectrum, even with Dylan’s drastic vocal change on the album — didn’t always blend well together. The nature of the recordings are a little loose at the seams as if the two didn’t take the time to rehearse the material beforehand. “There’s nothing on earth I like better than song trading with a friend or a circle of them, except perhaps doing it with my family,” Cash commented on their exchanges.
By the summer of ‘69, after the pair had collaborated for Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, Johnny Cash had his own television show, plainly but powerfully named, The Johnny Cash Show. For the very first airing and episode, Cash was able to get Dylan on the show, where the two performed a stunning rendition of ‘Girl From the North Country’ — the perfect way to show their respect and admiration for one another.
Their friendship will forever go down in history as the meeting of two brilliant songwriters and some of the human race’s finest poets.
Watch Bob Dylan perform ‘I Threw It All Away’ on The Johnny Cash Show, below.