Various Artists: Dylan Country

Various Artists
Dylan Country
Shout! Factory

It’s a testament to the immeasurable influence of the music of Bob Dylan on all forms of contemporary music when you look at just how many Dylan tribute albums have been released over the years. Dozens of such compilations have been assembled over the past few decades, ranging from reggae interpretations, to blues, gospel, bluegrass, and pop, and more often than not, with middling results (something best exemplified by last 2003’s lukewarm Blues on Blonde on Blonde). The intentions of every single artist who contributes to a Dylan tribute album are obviously sincere, but rarely does an entire album of covers work successfully, as most performances sound forced. When such a compilation gets it right, though, it is magical, as 2003’s stellar Gotta Serve Somebody: A Gospel Tribute to Bob Dylan proved, taking the songs from Dylan’s controversial gospel period between 1978 and 1982, and shedding new light on the music, thanks to powerful performances by such reputable artists as Shirley Caesar, Mavis Staples, and Fairfield Four.

One musical style that has been hugely influenced by Dylan is country, but until now, we had yet to see an excellent, definitive collection of covers by country artists over the years. Fortunately, the folks at Shout! Factory Records were thinking the same thing, and their great new CD, simply titled Dylan Country, does a very admirable job at looking at Dylan’s impact on country music, especially when you consider how mammoth a task this must have been. So many country covers have been recorded over the past 40 years, that you could probably slap together a very good three or four disc box set, but Dylan Country sticks to a much more taut, focused, 56-minute CD. Plus, unlike other tribute albums that have contemporary artists hastily submitting rushed performances, this album is much more fun, thanks to the fact that every song selected has already appeared on each artists’ own albums in the past. Of course, some Dylan fans will bicker about what was left off, but compilation producer Scott Amos has done a terrific job culling classic performances and obscure gems, dating from as early as 1965, to as recent as 2001.

Of course, what would a collection of essential country renditions of Dylan songs be without the great “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”, from The Byrds’ seminal 1968 album Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and neither would it be complete without a Johnny Cash performance, the chosen track being Cash’s 1965 recording of “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, which comes complete with his “Ring of Fire” style mariachi horns. After those two choices, though, the rest of the CD gets even more interesting. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” is given a sweet, albeit straight-laced performance by a pre-outlaw era Waylon Jennings (circa 1965), while Buck Owens’ 1971 cover of the great “Love Minus Zero/No Limit” is suprisingly sublime, considering it was recorded during Owens’s schmaltzy Hee Haw period. Speaking of schmaltz, Glen Campbell’s jaunty 1973 version of “If Not For You” suits the man’s style well, and a young Hank Williams, Jr. turns in a charmingly cheesy performance of “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight”.

Some very pleasant underrated gems surface, as well, including bluegrass innovators The Country Gentlemen, who deliver a fantastic vocal performance of “Girl From the North Country”, while contemporary bluegrass artist Tim O’Brien delivers a fun mandolin-accompanied performance on “Subterranean Homesick Blues”. Jennifer Warnes’ slick, late ’70s country-rock treatment of “Sign in the Window” boasts the smooth, West Coast feel of Linda Ronstadt, and the great Jerry Jeff Walker’s live performance of “One Too Many Mornings” sounds perfectly suited for the man. Meanwhile, fiddler Peter Ostroushko and guitarist Norman Blake duet on an absolutely jaw-dropping version of “Restless Farewell”, making it sound like an old Civil War era folk song, and Willie Nelson recruits Bob himself on “Heartland”, the two delivering a plaintive, ragged, road-weary duet.

It’s interesting to note, though, just how powerful a Dylan song can sound when sung by a woman with a great voice, and two such ladies steal the show: Emmylou Harris’s cover of “When I Paint My Masterpiece”, and Nanci Griffiths’ interpretation of the great romantic dialogue in “Boots of Spanish Leather” (with Dylan on harmonica) are both achingly gorgeous, the pair’s lilting voices tender enough to stop you dead in your tracks. Dylan Country delivers what it promises, a highly enjoyable, refreshingly diverse collection of tunes that are often very faithful to, and sometimes manage to equal Dylan’s classic original versions. The intense emotion, the poetic wordplay, and the simple beauty of Bob Dylan’s arrangements couldn’t be more suited for country music, something this fine compilation proves beyond a shadow of a doubt.