Country Music has always stood apart from the mainstream music business, as much for its conservative values as its signature instruments, such as pedal-steel guitar, and songs about the American south. In the late 1960s, however, the country music capital, Nashville, became a fashionable recording destination for a procession of folk and rock stars such as Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, who epitomised the liberal beliefs of the American counter-culture.

At the same time, Johnny Cash - one of country music's most iconic figures - began inviting pop artists such as Dylan and Joni Mitchell to appear on his TV show.


That era of musical cross-pollination is celebrated in a new exhibition, Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City, which runs at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tennessee, until December 2016.

Released this month to coincide with the exhibition is a 36-track double album of the same name, which includes Cash's version of Dylan's It Ain't Me Babe, plus Cash and Dylan singing a duet of Girl From The North Country. Also on the album are a mixture of hits and rarities by Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Joan Baez, The Byrds and Simon & Garfunkel. What all the tracks have in common is the accompaniment of a group of session musicians collectively known as the Nashville Cats. Among them are harmonica ace Charlie McCoy, guitarists Grady Martin and Jerry Reed, and blind pianist Pig Robbins.

Bob Dylan was first encouraged to record in Nashville by producer and former Nashville resident Bob Johnston. The result was Dylan's 1966 album Blonde On Blonde and 1969 release Nashville Skyline, for which Johnny Cash wrote the sleeve notes. Cash and Dylan first met at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. Five years later, they recorded more than a dozen duets in two days, including Girl From The North Country, which appeared on Nashville Skyline.

Jam session

Cash began his career alongside rock'n'roll pioneers Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins at Sun Records in the 1950s, and closing the Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats album is a live jam through the rockabilly song Matchbox by Cash, Perkins and British group Derek and the Dominos which featured Eric Clapton. The song was recorded on Cash's TV show, which was shot at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville - a venue nicknamed the Mother Church of Country Music.

Music history

According to historian Michael Gray of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, "Bob Dylan surprised many when he came to Nashville and began working with the city's unmatched session musicians, the Nashville Cats. At the same time, Johnny Cash was recruiting folk and rock musicians - including Dylan - to appear on his ground-breaking network television show. This album explores this magical time in a 'new Music City.'"