- Bob Townsend For the AJC
Bob Dylan recorded “Blonde on Blonde” in Nashville in 1966, with a group of some of Music City’s best musicians, plus two of his most simpatico sidemen, keyboardist Al Kooper and guitarist Robbie Robertson of the Band.
Ranked among the greatest rock recordings of all time, the sessions for what would become the landmark double album captured former folk singer Dylan at the height of his “electric years.”
It also revealed his songwriting in tones that shifted from playful and surreal to bitter and achingly poignant, with signatures such as “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” “Visions of Johanna” and “Just Like a Woman.”
“The closest I ever got to the sound I hear in my mind,” Dylan said, “that thin, that wild mercury sound.”
Last year, in a move that might be considered almost as audacious as the original, the Nashville-based string band Old Crow Medicine Show recorded a live performance of the 14 songs on “Blonde on Blonde” — in order, from beginning to end.
The celebration at the CMA Theater at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum marked 50 years since the album’s debut.
And in turn, it spawned the newest Old Crow album, “50 Years of Blonde on Blonde,” which was released earlier this year. Fittingly, it’s the band’s first on Columbia Records, the label that first signed Dylan in 1961.
Since April, Old Crow has been on an extended international tour that will bring the band to Atlanta to perform “50 Years of Blonde on Blonde” in its entirety on Oct. 20 at Symphony Hall.
Founding member Ketch Secor, who’s been playing folk and old-time music since he was a kid growing up in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, vividly remembers the first time he saw Dylan perform live.
“When I was 12 years old, I got a copy of ‘Infidels.’ That was my entree to Bob,” Secor remembered in a recent phone conversation. “And then I went to see him. That was my first concert, in 1990, in Charlottesville, Va.
“In the whole show, I could only make out about four words. And they were hey and mister and tambourine and man. But that’s all I needed. With those four words, hung the cosmos. I’ve probably seen him 30 or 35 times, since.”
Of course, Dylan is well known for changing up even his most iconic songs to suit his whims, often altering the lyrics and tempos. But Secor said that turned out to be a plus when it came to covering “Blonde on Blonde.”
“That was one of the things that was really fun about recording the album,” he said. “Reviewing all of these live recordings, in which Bob was doing just that. Being completely new with an old song.”
Surprisingly, “Blonde on Blonde” is not among Secor’s favorite Dylan albums.
“I never really related to it,” he said. “I certainly know the songs. But for me, if I want to listen to Bob in a rock ‘n’ roll band in that era, it’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ for sure. It’s got that piercing harmonica, and the band seems kind of confused at times. It’s like pop art.
“But if ‘Blonde on Blonde’ isn’t the record that I love the most about Bob Dylan, it was a really good record for Old Crow to do, because it’s kind of wide-open. It wasn’t hard for me to scribble in the margins and breathe a different life into it. I think we exceeded everyone’s expectations, including our own.”
Asked if there was trepidation in taking on material that many consider sacred, Secor said the band was typically fearless in finding a method to the madness.
“A lot of that fearlessness was channeled into the memorization of the lyrics,” he said. “That part was really challenging, but really great. It’s a lot like theater. I thought a lot about William Shakespeare throughout this project. It was great to have lines, and have them be such masterful lines.”
And what of the challenges of a mostly acoustic band playing famously electric rock?
“We’re a string band, but we really became a rock ‘n’ roll band to do ‘Blonde on Blonde.’ It was a real training ground for us,” Secor said. “When this band started, I think we wanted to be Dylan at Newport in ’65. But Old Crow wasn’t very good at playing rock ‘n’ roll together.
“It took ‘Blonde on Blonde” to learn how to do that. We’re not playing on electric guitars. But there’s certainly that thin, wild mercury that Bob talks about coursing through all of these performances. And that is electric.”
$25-$45. 8 p.m. Oct. 20. Atlanta Symphony Hall, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-5000, atlantasymphony.org.