Why did Bob Dylan’s voice change for the ‘Nashville Skyline’ album?
Bob Dylan’s self-titled debut album was released in 1962; by the time Nashville Skyline came around in 1969, he had already released eight studio albums, found himself adorned as the ‘voice of a generation’ and started to retreat from the limelight. For many, this would represent a career beyond reach; for Dylan, it was all condensed into seven years that seemed to go by in some sort of adrenalised somnambulant state. Therefore, it is no surprise that Nashville Skyline found him in a more reflective voice. However, it wasn’t just his ‘voice’ in terms of introspective philosophy that had changed. His vocals seemed to have literally transformed too.
You don’t have to trawl through everything the great man has said to find evidence of Hank Williams’s impact on him. Never a man to shy away from shining a light on his influences, Dylan has continually cited William’s and other country stars as being central proponents of his musical inspirations. Nashville Skyline saw him dive in with an impassioned embrace, jump into a big brass bed with the country stylings that he had been flirting with off-and-on throughout his career.
With the aforementioned big brass bed, Dylan’s new crooning style sung out the clearest on the song ‘Lay Lady Lay’, which he wrote for the movie Midnight Cowboy. He smoothly sails through the lyrics in a self-evident departure from the near-rapping style of old.
When asked about this new baritone sound, his explanation was simple, “I tell you,” he told Jann S. Wenner, “You stop smoking those cigarettes, and you’ll be able to sing like Caruso.”
Now that Bob’s larynx was freed up from choking on smoke, he was able to smoothly pipe out sounds to sit harmoniously alongside Johnny Cash’s dulcet tones on the records cover of Girl From The North Country.
Dylan’s careworn vocal cords were no doubt also altered by the fact that prior to Nashville Skyline, he enjoyed what essentially seemed to be his only spare five minutes of the decade. Although the gruffer sound would return on later albums, the notable transition to silky tones on Nashville Skyline suits the record’s message of “Love and only love,” down to an Adagio tee.
Dylan’s atypical coarse vocal style, which David Bowie perfectly encapsulated with the description of “sand and glue,” may well have served him perfectly on his eponymous protest pieces, but the sultry delivery on this occasion resulted in one of his very best records. What’s more, there’s an undeniable health benefit for Bob, to boot.