Nashville has a reputation, and a well-earned one too: the Tennessee city is the home of country music.
But, as the Country Music Hall of Fame points out with a new exhibition opening Friday (Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City, from which the artifacts and photographs above are drawn), that deserved reputation doesn’t mean that Nashville’s musical horizons are limited to one genre alone.
Rather, the fact that the city has long been home to accomplished session musicians — like the “Nashville Cats” of the 1960s and ’70s who are the focus of the exhibit — has attracted rock, folk and pop musicians to record there as well. And one of those not-totally-country musicians was particularly powerful in starting that trend: Bob Dylan, who came to the city to record Blonde on Blonde in 1966. Nashville’s conservative country rep was solid, but the results he achieved with local musicians — and his fruitful relationship with Nashville’s Johnny Cash — spoke for themselves.
“His decision to record here in the ’60s was a catalyst for many others to look at what must have seemed like an unusual destination at such a polarized time,” says the Hall of Fame’s Michael Gray. “If Dylan is doing it,” he says other musicians thought, “we should think about going there and checking out those musicians and studios too, in spite of its reputation as a conservative town.”
The dozens of rock and folk albums produced in Nashville during the ’60s and ’70s opened the door for the many artists who followed, a broadening that Gray says continues to this day; he cites Jack White and the Kings of Leon as examples of Dylan’s Nashville descendants. And that’s only part of the reason why Nashville has been proclaimed “the South’s Red-Hot Town” by TIME.
“Nashville is changing now,” Gray says. “The story we’re telling with this exhibit is that Dylan was changing perceptions of Nashville 50 years ago.”