OTR, Take 6: Bob Dylan - Blonde on Blonde

Twenty-one years ago (christ, can it have been that long?), I met Lane Abernathy. I’ve now known him for more than half of my life.

Things like this sneak up on you.

It feels like it wasn’t too long ago that Lane showed up at Denison for his only year there before transferring out. He went to the same high school as another one of my best friends, Aru Hill. (What are the chances that two of my best friends, completely unrelated but for a high school in common, would both be from Bell Buckle, Tennessee?)

I’ve never been to this magical place that produces the best people I know, but I am in Nashville this weekend hanging out with Lane, my wife, and one of her good friends.

Actually, I’m in the air right now at 5:12 am after our flight was delayed for hours and hours thanks to storms. So in the interest of candor, today’s “record” is streaming through Tidal and the photo here was taken yesterday.

I'm naturally drawn to featuring a Nashville record this week, but I’m also the kind of person who likes to feature unexpected wrinkles on themes, so I immediately threw out the obvious Nashville records—and there are many great obvious Nashville records.

So let’s talk about a record most of you know (and definitely know at least one song on the album): Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, one of the seismic-shift albums of the 60s.

I didn't bring the table and record player on the plane with me.

To be honest, it might have made more sense to feature Dylan's John Wesley Harding, which was released in 1967 just after Blonde on Blonde in 1966, but I couldn't find the record yesterday. Either way, both were recorded in Nashville. Dylan had established himself as a folk hero and was in the process of infuriating the folk establishment by "going electric."

Two years prior, in 1964, Dylan drew boos when he appeared on stage at the Newport Folk Festival bearing an electric guitar. This was a betrayal that is difficult to imagine now. It would have been something like Radiohead going from OK Computer to Kid A, trading guitars for electronics, if their audience loathed it rather than celebrated it.

Blonde on Blonde is, I would argue, the high-water mark of the early electric period. (Many argue strenuously for Highway 61 Revisted.) Dylan began recording Blonde on Blonde in New York, but after frustrating sessions and unable to get the sound he heard in his head, he, Robbie Robertson, and Al Kooper went down to Nashville and recorded the album with local Nashville studio musicians.

One of the things that people who have never played in bands routinely underestimate is the very particular magic certain groupings of musicians have. It's really not as simple as, "Yo, I just wrote this song. Here are the chords and the arrangement." And it's not as straightforward as whether the musicians are "good" or not. There's an alchemy that occurs when certain musicians play together.

Lane is, hands down, the best musician I've had the privilege of playing music with. He is both the best drummer and the best guitarist I've played alongside. Sometimes this type of talent is a problem: it can overwhelm the other players, suffocate them. Lane, though, is incredibly easy to play with: unselfish, comfortable with empty space, able to either fill or invite others to shine.

I already had a band when Lane showed up, but his addition fundamentally changed the dynamic of things. We had a confidence in jamming out ideas that previously needed to be fully scripted. It's strange to think, but one of the most difficult things for a band to figure out when playing original material is how to end a song. As in, when you're on stage, how do you gracefully stop playing a song. Have you ever noticed how many songs fade out on records? Yeah.

Anyway, the change of scene and the new musicians made everything click for Dylan on Blonde on Blonde. He had released Highway 61 Revisted the year before, which is often regarded as Dylan's high water mark. Blonde on Blonde has always been my favorite of his mid 60s albums. There's nothing as high as "Like a Rolling Stone," but there's a focus in the sound and the instrumentation that is just wonderful.

I'm about to touch down in Nashville, so I'm going to wrap this up and go play some music with Lane. It's been four years since we've hung out, when he came into town for my wedding. He played a wonderful acoustic set at the tiny event and I cannot wait to reconnect with him. I hope all of you have a weekend of connection and joy.

Listen to Blonde on Blonde on Tidal.

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