Ramblin' Round: 'Travelin' Thru' — Dylan, Cash, a train and McAlester

The album cover of 'Travelin Thru' features a photo of Bob Dylan performing live on "The Johnny Cash Show."

Listening to the studio banter between Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash on the on the newest drop in Dylan's long-running bootleg album series is not only illuminating but also fun — especially when I found something intriguing on a new video put together to celebrate the album's release.

The city of McAlester is represented on the video of a duet by Dylan and Cash on Dylan's then-new song, "Wanted Man" — but you've got to be quick to catch it.

McAlester isn't named in the song — but the city's location is shown for a flashing moment on an old-time map used in the video as a double exposure of a steam locomotive rolls along.

Still, with cities ranging from Sacramento to Buffalo and Milwaukee included in that version of the song's lyrics, it's pretty cool that the portion of the southern United States depicted on the map includes McAlester. Other relatively nearby cities, such as Atoka and Tishomingo, are also shown on the map, along with Fort Smith, Texarkana and Hot Springs, Arkansas.

McAlester makes its appearance at about the 1:49 and 1:50 portion of the Vevo video of "Wanted Man" — which also shows images of outlaws, including Jesse James.

The new boxed set is officially named "Bob Dylan: Travelin' Thru, Featuring Johnny Cash: The Bootleg Series Vol.15."

Disc 1 consists entirely of outtakes from the albums Dylan recorded in Nashville in 1967 and 1969: "John Wesley Harding" and "Nashville Skyline." One of the big surprises for me is that Dylan recorded different melodies for several of the songs on "John Wesley Harding" — most noticeably on "I Pity the Poor Immigrant" and "I Am a Lonesome Hobo."

Released in 1967 at the height of psychedelia, Dylan's "John Wesley Harding" album is credited with inspiring rock music to return to its rural and country roots. The same year his pals, The Beatles, released the massively produced "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," the stripped-down sound on Dylan's album featured only himself on acoustic guitar and harmonica, along with Nashville cats  Kenny Buttrey on drums and Charley McCoy on bass. Steel guitarist Pete Drake added some licks to the album's last two tracks.

Dylan returned to Nashville a couple of years later to record "Nashville Skyline" — a full-blown country and western album featuring Bob singing in a new voice — a country croon that would only last for a couple of albums.

On "Nashville Skyline," Dylan surrounded himself with the cream of Nashville's session musicians, including a guitarist and fiddler relatively new to the scene — Charlie Daniels. Most of the outtakes from "Nashville Skyline" aren't markedly different from the original album version, with a sped-up version of what had been the ballad "Tell Me That It Isn't True" being one of the biggest differences.

Disc 2 is the real treasure of the session. With Dylan and Cash sharing the same Columbia Records producer, Bob Johnston at the time, he cleverly arranged for then to "accidentally" run into each other while both were recording their respective projects at Columbia's studios in Nashville.

It wasn't the first time the two had met. Even before they met face-to-face, Cash championed Dylan after traditional folk music fans booed Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, when Dylan made the switch from acoustic to electric guitar and dared to sing his rock songs such as "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Maggie's Farm" on the hallowed folk festival grounds. When criticism by the folkies continued, Cash sent a letter to the editor to Broadside magazine with the words "Shut up and let him sing!"

When they finally met and Dylan admired a Martin guitar Cash had played onstage, Cash gave it to him in a time-honored country tradition.

When Dylan and Cash ran into each other in that Nashville studio, they decided to go have lunch. When they returned, Johnston had everything in place, with microphones set up and an inviting studio ambience. How could they not follow Johnston's suggestion that they record some songs? 

Twenty-seven of those songs are included on "Travelin' Thru" — which, in the spirit of the moment, seems more like a jam session between old pals than a summit meeting between two American musical giants. Most of these songs — with all but a few being officially released for the first time — are done as the two try to find some mutual musical footing.

Since they've both had heavy folk and country music influences, that's not too difficult — but they didn't have most of the lyrics readily available, either. When first June Carter, and then Cash, ask Bob to sing his "Girl of the North Country" from his 1963 album "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," Dylan says he doesn't know if he can do it and adds it's been a long time.

However, he does try it — and in one of the early takes, Cash sounds as if he remembers more of the lyrics to Dylan's song than Dylan does! They eventually nail it though, and the best version is the one that Dylan ultimately uses to open his "Nashville Skyline" album.

With Cash's band and Carl Perkins assembled in the studio, many of the songs they record together come from Cash, including his Sun Records hits from the 1950s — with "Big River" turning out to be one of the  most memorable. Dylan does little to enhance "I Still Miss Someone" and "Guess Things Happen That Way" though — taking solo turns on the chorus of both songs while Cash stands by.

They also try a Jimmie Rodgers medley, some gospel staples, such as "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" and some early rockers such as "Matchbox" — with Perkins adding his electric guitar riffs to the song he had popularized as a Sun Records label-mate of Cash in the 1950s.

Still, "Wanted Man" remains a highlight — although Cash is still trying to learn the song and they flub some lyrics, break up laughing and start to improvise by naming cities and states where the song's subject is "wanted man" off the top of their heads. Not only is he a "wanted man" by the law, he's a "wanted man" by Lucy Watson, Jeannie Brown and Nellie Johnson, too!

With this recording session occurring on Feb. 19, 1969, Cash did learn the song — because he sang it and recorded a few days later, on Feb. 24, when he traveled to California to record his live "At San Quintin" album.

It must have been great for Dylan to see his pal Cash not only use the song, but use it as the album's opening track. However, "Wanted Man" was not the only new song Cash learned for the concert. He also learned a song written by Shel Silverstein, but he had to have the lyrics in front of him when he performed it for the first time.

That song — "A Boy Named Sue" — became one of the biggest hits Cash ever recorded.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com

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