Nashville Songwriters On Bob Dylan
(Tom Hambridge during a tour stop as an opening act for Bob Dylan)
Bob Dylan is regarded as one of history’s greatest songwriters, and has been an inspiration to countless artists of every genre. American Songwriter asked some of Nashville’s best-known writers to weigh in on what Dylan has meant to them over the years.
Songwriter Bobby Fischer (Conway Twitty, George Jones, Phil Vassar); songwriter/bandleader/producer Tom Hambridge (Montgomery Gentry, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Keith Anderson); songwriter and former New Dylans member Jim Reilley (Vince Gill, Hal Ketchum, Jack Ingram); and songwriter/vocalist/producer Robert White Johnson (the Beach Boys, Cheap Trick, Celine Dion) offered their thoughts about the impact Dylan has had on their own songwriting and careers.
Interestingly, of nearly a dozen Nashville writers who were contacted about this article, several didn’t respond and only one under the age of 50 answered and he had no comments, making one wonder how many members of the Nashville songwriting community are even aware of Dylan’s history with, and connection to, Music City.
How did you first get into Bob Dylan?
BF: I really respected his thoughts when I first heard “Blowin’ In the Wind” and then “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” I was a Hank Williams fan, and, to me, both of them were very real in lyric, music and delivery.
JR: My father’s Bob Dylan albums were the first albums I remember wanting for my very own. I remember sitting/lying in front of our old mono cabinet speaker and listening intently to the music that magically poured out. This was about 1964-1965 and I remember just getting hypnotized by the interplay of guitar and voice on songs like “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Blowin’ In The Wind” and “It Ain’t Me Babe.” I was also mesmerized by the photos of him on the album covers like Bringing It all Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited and the Greatest Hits album. There was something very haunting about those songs and those covers that really moved me. I remember staring at that Highway 61 Revisited cover for hours. His facial expression still haunts me.
RWJ: I originally played drums and sang lead, but I got bored and picked up the guitar to write. Dylan was all over the place making musical history at the time. He had his own solo success, in addition to the Byrds and many other artists covering his songs. I found out quickly that I could figure out most of his songs on the guitar. He and the Beatles were my main inspiration at the time. I even did the harmonica/guitar bit that Dylan did. Instant band, kinda.
How has he influenced your music?
BF: He made me want to write from the heart and not just about the same regular subject matter everyone wrote about.
JR: Dylan immeasurably influenced my music as well as most everyone that has come along since, consciously or unconsciously. He defined the very template of the singer/songwriter that everyone else since has had to work within. Phrasing, rhyming, dynamics, subject matter – you name it, he defined the new paradigm. He changed music. It’s almost hard to comprehend that his music was created in the same way I create music, pencil to paper, guitar in hand, and not just mystically like it has been around for centuries or something.
TH: Every time I sit down and write a song he’s on my radar. In my head I’m thinking, “How would Dylan approach this subject?” “Would Dylan write this line this way?” It keeps my writing bar high. I won’t let myself get away with throwaway lines because I feel him over my shoulder saying, “You can beat that line.”
RWJ: It’s always been the incredible songs! Because he was less than a stellar vocalist you didn’t get swept up by the production etc. The focus was on the song! He made you think! Still does!
How many times have you seen him play live? What were those shows like?
BF: I saw him perform once at the Grammy awards at Radio City in New York when a song I co-wrote for Reba (“You Lie”) was up for a Grammy. He and Tony Bennett both performed. They obviously stood out.
JR: I’ve seen Dylan several times, each experience uniquely informative and moving. His charisma is unlike any other artist and it’s almost so big that it gets in the way. It took me a few shows to overcome the fact that I was actually in the same room as him. I know many people who complain about Dylan live, but I’ve always carried something away from it and always enjoyed it immensely.
TH: I’ve seen Dylan lots of times and I’ve opened shows for him. The shows are always different. I saw him one time in Mansfield, Massachusetts at a beautiful place called Great Woods and he had no lighting on him. The spotlight was shining down on the middle of the stage but his microphone was moved a bit to the left of the light so he sang in the shadows. Sometimes he’ll change the melody and groove of a song so drastically that it may take you until the middle of the second chorus to realize what song it is.
RWJ: I was supposed to meet him when he performed at (now-defunct Nashville concert venue) the Starwood some years ago when I was producing Peter Wolf of the J Geils Band for MCA. Peter and Dylan go way back. But we were working non-stop and I was completely toast at the time. I had been in the studio for over six months straight with Peter, and just didn’t have the energy to “go out” on our only night off to listen to more music. In hindsight, I wish I’d gone of course, but I was too tired to think straight!
Did it take you a while to get into Bob Dylan, given his strange singing style?
BF: No, because I like the off-the-wall stylists.
JR: My connection to Dylan was immediate, perhaps since it really was some of the first music I was ever exposed to. I had no other frame of reference to skew my listening. I connected with the hypnotic quality of those early first few guitar vocal albums on a cellular level. As for those who slag Dylan’s vocal style – I have no time for them. It is as much a style and presence as Sinatra or Elvis or Pavarotti. The way his voice dances around the lyrics so eloquently, I argue that he is a better singer than most in the way he makes words stick to your heart and sometimes in your back like a dagger.
RWJ: Not at all. He stood out like a sore thumb, but back in those days artists were allowed to be artists. They were accepted on their merit. They were REAL, not fabricated with Auto-tune and Photoshop!
How do you feel about the claim that he’s borrowed so much from others in his own songwriting?
BF: I think everybody copies somebody to start. Otherwise, how do you start? Then you try to evolve.
JR: His early work was no more derivative than anyone else of the time, and after watershed albums like Bringing It All Back Home, he never looked back…no pun intended. It’s true he was honing his chops by spitting out rehashed Woody Guthrie-style numbers at first, but I think he was just biding his time, studying the form, before he single-handedly revolutionized it. Back in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, most everyone was doing covers anyway; it was the last gasp of the Tin Pan Alley model where songwriters would write and singers would sing.
RWJ: That’s crap! Everything’s and everyone’s borrowed in a sense. The Beatles lifted Little Richard’s trademark ooo-whee and they also borrowed from tons of R&B records from America in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. There’s a big difference between being inspired and ripping people off. How about Clapton, Page, Richards and every other blues/rock guitarist borrowing from Robert Johnson and others? Unfortunately there are too many song “factories” these days. It’s all becoming “noise” to a large degree. Sad.
What’s the closest you’ve ever gotten to Dylan?
BF: As I mentioned, seeing him at the Grammys in New York City.
JR: Five or six feet. I was in a car being driven by my wife following his bus into the backstage area of a venue he was playing the same night. I expected the bus to stop and there would be a period before until he emerged, and as long as we didn’t get thrown out of the area I was sure to meet him. I had a perfect photo and sharpie all ready to go. But as we were following the bus it came to an abrupt stop and the door burst open and a tiny homunculus came bounding out in a hooded sweatshirt and vanished into the stage door before I could even get my car door open. In hindsight, I’m kind of glad I didn’t meet him and have a negative experience. In a way it still keeps him magical to me.
TH: (Talking about the above photo of him and Dylan) This is me and Bob backstage somewhere. We were opening for him. He would watch our set. He liked the songs I had written for Susan Tedeschi whom I had produced. After a show he came up and said he dug my song “Rock Me Right” and he put his arm around me and someone took a picture. Years later I was playing a session with Tony Garnier, a great bass player who has been Dylan’s bandleader for years, and he said that Dylan never does that. He said, “Shit, I don’t even have a picture with Bob.” I guess I caught him on a good night.
RWJ: As I mentioned, I had the chance and didn’t.
Do you have a favorite Bob Dylan quote or lyric?
JR: There are quite a few – the song lyric quotes that resonate most with me are the ones more plays on words or the more subversive or anti-authority lines. The conversational quotes are perhaps apocryphal but anyway, some of my faves are “Money doesn’t talk it swears,” “I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now,” “The sun’s not yellow it’s chicken,” “You fake just like a woman,” and many many others.
TH: So many. The conversation between God and Abraham in the first verse of “Highway 61 Revisited.” Also his use of crazy internal rhymes like January/married/Aires from “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar”…“What can I say about Claudette? Ain’t seen her since January. She could be respectfully married or running a whorehouse in Buenos Aires.”
RWJ: Think about songs like “The Times They Are a-Changin’” and “Blowin’ In The Wind.” They’ll always be timeless. Those are favorites of mine lyrically because they’ll always stand the test of time. A young person who would hear either of these songs today for the first time would more than likely be stirred in the same way it affected me and zillions of others all those years ago. The more things change…the more they remain the same! Simple yet incredibly profound.
What are some of your favorite songs or albums, and why?
BF: “Forever Young,” “Blowin’ In the Wind,” “Most of the Time” and “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right” are my top four.
JR: I hate to be so pedestrian and obvious about this, and pick so many of the obvious choices – but since Dylan in his career has explored so many different avenues and inspirations, and I find validity in all of them on different levels, my favorite albums have as much to do with circumstance and where I was in my life. My favorite albums are Bringing It All Back Home, Blonde on Blonde, Highway 61 Revisited, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, The Times They Are a-Changin’, Another Side of Bob Dylan, Infidels, Good as I Been to You, World Gone Wrong, Live 1966: The Royal Albert Hall Concert (Acoustic Set), Live Sydney 1966 (Bootleg), Street Legal, Time Out of Mind and Hard Rain. Favorite songs are “Just Like a Woman,” “I Want You,” “Positively 4th Street,” “Changing of the Guards,” “I Can’t Leave Her Behind,” “Visions of Johanna,” “She Belongs to Me,” “Fourth Time Around,” “It’s All Over Now Baby Blue,” “Tell Me Momma,” “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “Make You Feel My Love,” “New Morning,” “Shooting Star,” “Dignity,” “Idiot Wind,” “Things Have Changed,” “Love Minus Zero/No Limit,” “My Back Pages,” “Abandoned Love,” “Caribbean Wind,” “Heart of Mine” and “One of Us Must Know.”
RWJ: “All Along the Watchtower”… one of my favorite songs of all time. I mean, think about it – Dylan and Hendrix! I saw Hendrix perform this song live twice when I was a kid. I was never the same after that. “Lay Lady Lay” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”… totally unique at the time production-wise with the various musical blends going on. Incredible vibe and gutsy for Dylan. What I wouldn’t give to hear someone or something that good and adventurous right now!
Is there a period of Dylan’s music you think is underrated or overrated?
BF: I have to admit I’ve been neglectful in listening to him for the past few years.
JR: Almost every Dylan album has at least a gem or two if not many. There are a few albums I didn’t click with and part of that has more to do with his voice or the bad production than the songs themselves. The Nashville Skyline/Self Portrait era was one I never really dug too much. New Morning is a pretty underrated album and many dismiss his born again (Slow Train Coming, Saved, Shot of Love) period, but there were some good songs on those records. The Desire and Street Legal albums had some great songs; “Changing of the Guards” is one of my favorite Dylan songs. The recent era (Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, Modern Times) has also had some great songs.
What do you admire about Bob Dylan?
BF: He always wrote what he thought and was an independent thinker. He’s the Irving Berlin of his time.
RWJ: His gifts as a songwriter and groundbreaker of course, but also because he’s still out there doin’ it! Gotta love the guy! The road is hard when you’re over 30, let alone when you’re 70! God bless him!
Read more 30 Days of Dylan.