Pledging His Time

Daryl Sanders chronicles the story and musicians who made a Nashville masterpiece

In his new book, That Thin, Wild Mercury Sound, author and East Nashvillian Daryl Sanders details the history and making of Bob Dylan’s complex and revolutionary 1966 masterpiece, Blonde on Blonde. According to Sanders, the classic album could have only been crafted in Nashville.

The musicians in Nashville were inspired by the same music that inspired Dylan, but they were closer to it,” Sanders says. “They were Southerners; it was in the air, the water, and in their blood. Beyond that, they were also highly versatile studio musicians. They had done hundreds of sessions and knew what to do in the studio. They had played on pop, soul, rock, country, and blues records. They could do it all. That’s what made Blonde on Blonde a uniquely Nashville record — Dylan got all of that here.”

Nashville provided Dylan the sound he had been searching for since his decision to shed the folk-troubadour, protest-singer image of his early career and fully embrace rock ’n’ roll and its many antecedents. Dylan’s search began on his 1965 album, Bringing It All Back Home, where he first fused rock, folk, country, and R&B elements, which continued with his next album, Highway 61 Revisited.

Although both albums garnered critical acclaim and financial success, Dylan was not satisfied. The music lacked a vital element, an energy and excitement he later described as “that thin, that wild mercury sound — metallic and bright gold.” It was a sound harkening back to Dylan’s youth when he first fell in love with the full spectrum of American music.

“Whether he was consciously thinking of Nashville at the time or not, the city had been a source for the music that made Dylan want to pick up a guitar, play, and write songs,” Sanders says. “He listened to the Grand Ole Opry on WSM, and Hank Williams had been his first musical hero. It’s almost certain he first heard his second musical hero, Little Richard, on WLAC.”

Along with the influence of Nashville’s two powerhouse 50,000 watt clear-channel radio stations, Dylan’s road to Nashville was facilitated by his friendship with Johnny Cash and the arrival of producer Bob Johnston, who began working with Dylan on Highway 61 Revisited and immediately pushed the singer to record in the Music City. Johnston’s case was strengthened when Nashville session man Charlie McCoy visited New York City during the Highway 61 Revisited sessions and supplied the vital guitar lick for Dylan’s song, “Desolation Row.”

“Dylan saw how quickly and intuitively Charlie made that recording better,” Sanders says. “But I think the key factor was Dylan had one of Charlie’s records — [the Charlie McCoy and the Escorts single] ‘Harpoon Man’ which had the Willie Dixon song ‘I’m Ready’ on the flip side. It featured organ, guitar, and harmonica, which was the blend Dylan was experimenting with. I think Dylan realized, ‘Wow, this guy’s doing something similar to what I’m doing, and he has a hot band.’”

As Sanders engagingly details in his book, the members of the Escorts — Charlie McCoy, Wayne Moss, Kenny Buttrey, Mac Gayden, and Wayne Butler — shared a musical alchemy derived from long hours of live performances combined with the professionalism and versatility of crack studio musicians. Supplemented by other Nashville studio cats like Hargus “Pig” Robbins, Jerry Kennedy, and Joe South, along with the musicians Dylan brought with him — guitarist Robbie Robertson and organist Al Kooper — Dylan was able to capture the thin, wild mercury sound that had previously eluded him.

The story of how the 1960’s premier rock poet and the “voice of a generation” forged a partnership with the new generation of Nashville Cats, is one Sanders is particularly qualified to tell. As a Tennessee native and a Nashville-based music journalist for the majority of his career, Sanders focused on the many non-country sides of the Music City. His journey to writing the definitive history of Blonde on Blonde began as he was writing for the pioneering left-of-center Nashville music magazine, Hank, in the mid-70s.

“Right after I graduated from Vanderbilt, I was writing about Nashville’s non-country music scene, and I met Mac Gayden at a show at the Exit/In,” Sanders says. “Mac really opened my eyes and ears to so much of Nashville’s music history, and that’s when I found out Blonde on Blonde was recorded in Nashville.”

In the following years, Sanders forged friendships with many Nashville musicians, and in 2011, published his first story on Blonde on Blonde. “I was working for The Nashville Musician magazine and writing a regular feature called ‘Flashback’ about famous Nashville recording sessions. I had all these interviews about the Blonde on Blonde sessions I had accumulated over the years I used for the story. Jim Ridley of the Nashville Scene saw the story, and I expanded it into a cover story for the Scene.”

The story’s reception eventually led to a book contract with Chicago Review Press and several years of intense research, interviews, and writing. It was a responsibility Sanders didn’t take lightly.

“[Writing this book is] the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Sanders says. “Blonde on Blonde is Dylan’s masterpiece, and I knew Dylan-ologists would put my book under the microscope. I’ve already heard from some Dylan scholars who bought two copies so they could read one and mark one up, and I’ve already made some corrections for the second printing. I’ve welcomed their input because this book is not about
my ego.

“I’m proud of getting this story out there for the sake of the musicians and for the sake of Nashville,” he continues. “It’s funny some people now regard me as a Dylan expert because it’s not really a book about Dylan. It’s really about the Nashville Cats and the rich rock and soul history of this town.”