One of the odder things about Nashville Skyline, Dylan’s 1969 studio album, is that it opens with what was the second song on Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, his breakthrough 1963 album: “Girl From the North Country”.
Nashville Skyline is not that dissimilar from Freewheelin’. If John Wesley Harding was a hard reboot after the pinnacle that was Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde (and the ensuing meltdown with the public), Nashville Skyline is the refinement of that countrified approach, in the same way that Freewheelin’ was an advance on Bob Dylan’s folk stylings.
The duet with Johnny Cash on this version of “Girl” is one that only partially works. Cash has been an interesting figure in the Dylan project, showing up at Newport with kind words about Dylan in 1964, and then again in Eat the Document. It is clear that they were good friends, and that their sensibilities meshed in a way that their singing never did. If Joan Baez’s duets made Dylan a hero to the folk scenesters, Cash wasn’t able to do the same for Dylan and country.
This version, with alternating verses, opens well enough, but it just sort of breaks down at the end. Both are such idiosyncratic stylists that they can’t quite get on the same page, they sing over each other, and the ending just sort of devolves altogether as if each man were thinking “how do we actually get out of this?”.
This is a song that I think everyone wishes were better than it is. It should be legendary, but it’s just sort of fine. Two of the all time greats should never work together to produce fine.
Here’s Bob on Johnny’s tv show: