Charlie McCoy, Al Kooper and David Bromberg reveal all about the recording sessions for Dylan's Self Portrait album
The Nashville studio multi-instrumentalist who played on every Dylan album from Highway 61 Revisited to Self Portrait
When Dylan first showed up in Nashville to record Blonde On Blonde, he hadn’t finished writing the first song. We ended up recording it at 4 o’clock in the morning. And we’d all been there since 2PM the afternoon before. Dylan’s flight was late, and when he arrived he hadn’t wrote the first song he wanted to do. He said, “You guys just hang loose till I finish it.” So we sat around while he wrote “Sad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlands”.
Dylan seemed a little uncomfortable in Nashville at first, because he was in a strange place, with strange musicians, although he had Al Kooper and Robbie Robertson on board with him. But he never said anything to us really, so it was hard to tell just what he was thinking or feeling. But, the next day, we came back to the studio, and from there it was pretty much business as usual then: I mean, he still didn’t say too much, but he started playing his songs, and we started recording them.
But, like I said, he never said anything. I was session leader on that record, and when you’re session leader, you’re like the middleman between the artist and the producer. So, Dylan would pick up his guitar and play his song to us, and I’d hear it, and I’d immediately start to get some ideas, and I’d say, “Bob, what would you think if we did this, or that…” And he’d have the same answer every time: “I dunno, man. Whadda you think?” He was very strange in that way, very hard to read.
When we did John Wesley Harding, I didn’t have any information prior to going in about what it was going to be like. But Nashville studio musicians, we go to work every day, usually never knowing what we’re going to be doing. We hear the music the first time we walk into the studio. We’re used to that, it’s just the normal way it’s done here.
I noticed that there was a definite shift in the music, though, the style. After Blonde On Blonde, Dylan had that motorcycle wreck. I don’t know if that has anything to do with anything. But I know that that was a major happening to him in his life, one that had nothing to do with music. Blonde On Blonde took 39-and-a-half hours of studio time to record. John Wesley Harding took nine-and-a-half hours. Of course, the band was much, much smaller. Just Dylan, me on bass, and Kenny Buttery on drums. There was steel guitar on a couple tracks, too, but that was it – there wasn’t much on that record. But as for Dylan himself, there was no change. The same thing: he’d play a song and not say anything.
The next time round was Nashville Skyline, which again was a shift, a step into country. John Wesley Harding, especially those last two tracks, seemed a kind of a bridge towards that sound, and Dylan had formed a friendship with Johnny Cash, so it didn’t really surprise me at all. I think Dylan hesitated about coming to Nashville originally, because it has always been known as the capital of country music. But we were known as a country market, and this was the height of what, in Nashville, we called The Hippy Period: that San Francisco, Haight-Ashbury, whatever it was scene. And, of course, Dylan, 1966, was seen as the champion of that group of people, he was the king of it.
He took a bold step by coming here. But Nashville Skyline was the last time he came to Nashville to record. Self Portrait, he wasn’t around. On some of the songs for that, Bob Johnston just brought us in recordings of Dylan, just guitar and vocal, and he asked Kenny and me to overdub bass and drums. And that was difficult, because Dylan’s tempos on those tapes really weren’t so steady. It was tough. But we added bass and drums to several songs. Why the record was done that way, I don’t know for certain. I’d have to say, though, that Self Portrait, it’s just not as vivid in my memory as the sessions when Dylan was there. I can remember songs from the first three records I worked on with him, but at this point, I couldn’t name you one single song from Self Portrait. I guess on this new version that’s coming out, if they’ve stripped all that stuff away, you’re going to be hearing the same tapes much as Kenny and I heard them, which could be interesting.