Today’s show comes by request of Bill A. Reminder that any Annual subscriber can request a show for me to tackle.
And don’t forget I am currently crowdfunding my forthcoming book ‘Pledging My Time: Conversations with Bob Dylan Band Members’ through December 16. More info and preorder at Indiegogo.
Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium is nicknamed the “mother church of country music.” From the ‘40s until the ‘70s, it played host to iconic country radio show the Grand Ole Opry. Bob Dylan wrote in Chronicles about tuning in to the Opry radio broadcast as a kid:
The first time I heard Hank [Williams] he was singing on the Grand Ole Opry, a Saturday night radio show broadcast out of Nashville. Roy Acuff, who MC’d the program, was referred to by the announcer as “The King of Country Music.” Someone would always be introduced as “the next governor of Tennessee” and the show advertised dog food and sold plans for old-age pensions. Hank sang “Move It On Over,” a song about living in the doghouse and it struck me really funny.
The Opry briefly comes up again in Dylan’s new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song, in the Webb Pierce chapter when Bob’s writing about the iconically bedazzled Nudie Suits:
The thing Nudie loved more than money was country music. His store was a haven and hangout for the biggest names and there was a small stage where everyone got up to play. George Jones in his shirtsleeves waiting for a fitting by Manuel Cuevas—who Nudie stole when he was Sinatra’s personal tailor and who only left when he divorced Nudie’s daughter—borrowing an acoustic guitar to debut “The Grand Tour.” Little Jimmy Dickens trying out material he was going to perform at the Opry that weekend.
The Ryman comes up outside of the Opry context too, in the chapter about (loosely) Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard’s hit 1983 cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty”:
Pancho is also supplying the alcohol, drugs, and sex for them. Pancho’s the man. Eventually he violates some kind of agreement with the Federales and his end is automatic. In another life Pancho would’ve been in the bullring and Lefty on the Ryman country music stage.
For all Dylan’s reverence for this historical country music destination though, he hasn’t played there himself much. Maybe because it’s quite small (capacity 2,362), though the Beacon in New York, where he plays constantly, isn’t much larger. So, in what may become a new occasional series on notable venues Dylan has played (should it? if so, any name suggestions?), I decided to use Bill’s show request as an opportunity to look at Bob’s handful of Ryman appearances.
May 1, 1969
Dylan’s first Ryman appearance is the most historic of all. Johnny Cash taped his TV show there, and Dylan appeared while in town recording Self Portrait. He performed three songs: “I Threw It All Away” and “Living the Blues” solo and “Girl from the North Country” as a duet with Johnny Cash, promoting the similar version on Nashville Skyline, which had come out a few weeks earlier.
The televised video just looks like a TV set; it could be anywhere. I didn’t even realize this was taped at the Ryman until researching this newsletter. But this behind-the-scenes photo I found of Dylan chatting with his producer Bob Johnston and someone else (anyone know?) before the taping gives you a better look at the venue’s iconic seating pews and stained-glass windows.
November 8-9, 1994
As best I can tell, Dylan didn’t return to the Ryman for 25 years (he did tape a country music special with Willie Nelson at the Grand Ole Opry House in 1993, but by then the Opry had left its Ryman home for a new building). He played two nights though in 1994 that were greeted with universal acclaim:
For what it’s worth, I’m listening to the show the night after, the second of the two-night run, and that’s unduly harsh. I get it, early-‘90s Bob vocals are an acquired taste (okay, any Bob vocals are an acquired taste), but he imbues mostly greatest-hits with powerful delivery and some enjoyably scrappy arrangements. He doesn’t overtly acknowledge the location, but Bucky Baxter’s pedal steel adds some country flair.
September 19-20, 2007
Bob didn’t return to the Ryman for another 13 years, but that return, for another two shows, was really something. Only days after The White Stripes cancelled their fall tour – marking the end of the band, as it subsequently turned out – Dylan brought suddenly-available Nashville resident Jack White onstage.
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