Tuesday, June 1, 2004


Album offers intriguing
country covers of
Bob Dylan’s songs

This collection of country-based cover versions of Bob Dylan's work over the years has more hits than misses -- and even some of the misses have an intriguing edge to them.

"Dylan Country"
Various artists
(Shout! Factory)

While folk singer Nanci Griffith's genteel rendition of "Boots of Spanish Leather" suffers from preciosity in its overall arrangement (and drones on a bit too long in the process), one would expect better from Johnny Cash and Hank Williams Jr. But their respective covers of "It Ain't Me Babe" and "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" are couched in formulaic country recording studio techniques of the time -- Cash, a champion of Dylan's when he was alive, almost sounds strident to the point of parodying the love-turned-away lyrics, and Williams' expressed affections come off saccharine.

Still, overall, it's an intriguing collection that culls material from 1966 and the high bluegrass harmonies of the Country Gentlemen on "Girl from the North Country," to 2001, with Willie Nelson's duet with the raspy-voiced Dylan on the rueful "Heartland."

Truth be told, Nelson is blessed with the kind of voice that can make any song sound good. The same can be said for another great interpretive singer, Emmylou Harris, who makes "When I Paint My Masterpiece" her own.

Dylan also appears with banjo legend Earl Scruggs as they revisit the instrumental "Nashville Skyline Rag," two years after its 1969 debut. And the Byrds' hit rendition from "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" is here as well, from the group's pivotal "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" album.

Some of the better versions are a little idiosyncratic and even off-handed, like Waylon Jennings doing "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," and a great, live take on "One Too Many Mornings" sung by a subdued Jerry Jeff Walker that perfectly captures its weary lyricism. Even Buck Owens, whom we usually associate with the robust Bakersfield sound, gives a sincere reading of "Love Minus Zero/No Limit."

"Subterranean Homesick Blues" gets stripped down instrumentally, with mandolin player Tim O'Brien nearly rapping the goofy song, accompanied by Mark Schatz's "hambone," making his body a percussion instrument with hand claps, thigh slaps and mouth pops. Fiddler Peter Ostroushko and guitarist Norman Blake transform Dylan's "Restless Farewell" (from 1964's "The Times They Are A-Changin'") into a traditional folk song that could've been centuries old.

The slicker, Los Angeles pop-country approach is represented by a nice version of "If Not for You" by Glen Campbell and a curious take of "Sign on the Window" from Jennifer Warnes.

Things come to a close with the great Kitty Wells who recorded, at the age of 55 back in 1974, a strong and poignant version of "Forever Young" that includes a glorious instrumental passage to end the song.

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