When it came out in 1992 I think I listened to Good As I Been To You, Bob Dylan’s twenty-eighth album once or twice. I was twenty-three and it had absolutely nothing of interest to me and I quickly and decisively disposed of it.
In retrospect, this is a very interesting Dylan project, if not necessarily a really good one. Dylan’s first all acoustic album since Another Side of Bob Dylan way back in 1964, it is also only his second to contain no songs that he himself wrote (and the other, Dylan, was a collection of warm-up pieces released by Columbia out of spite, rather than by Dylan’s choice). Coming as it did almost immediately on the heels of the Thirtieth Anniversary Concert Celebration, it probably should have been a bigger hit than it was.
I think that if this album were released today the music press would have a way to deal with it. A songwriter like Dylan returning to classic country songs and folk tunes from the past would have an obvious hook – a return to the roots – that would be a much more obvious selling point. Think of the reaction to Springsteen’s album of Pete Seeger covers, for example (both that album and this one include “Froggie Went a-Courtin’”, not that that is a good thing). This Dylan album was a disappointment both commercially and critically (it peaked at #51 in the US and spawned no singles). It seems like an album that few people even bother to have an opinion about.
One thing is certain: Dylan went in this direction deliberately. In May and June 1992 he recorded a number of tracks in Chicago with David Bromberg. Some (though apparently not all) of these circulate among collectors, and two were included on Bootleg Series 8 (the traditional song “Duncan and Brady” and the Jimmie Rodgers song “Miss the Mississippi and You”). Here Dylan was doing standards, but with a full band. To my ears it didn’t sound like much.
All of Good As I Been To You was recorded by Dylan in his garage studio in July 1992. He originally intended to add a few solo songs to the full band covers that he recorded with Bromberg, but the project morphed in a new direction. This was the most minimal Dylan in almost three decades. There is no accompaniment other than his own guitar playing and harmonica, and there are nothing really in the way of effects. It is stripped down, spare, and intimate.
I do have to say, after having criticized Dylan’s recent guitar playing in a few posts, that he is quite good here. Often on Dylan albums and at live shows you can’t tell what Dylan is doing on guitar – he frequently delegates the guitar to Mark Knopfler or Mick Taylor or GE Smith or whomever. On this album you can really pay attention to what it is that he’s doing. There is a lot of very lovely playing on this album. So, sorry for suggesting you were losing it! (though I still don’t get that Kinky Friedman thing….)
As for the album itself, well, I’m a lot more sympathetic to it now than I was two decades ago. Since taking up the banjo myself I find that I listen to almost nothing but this kind of music – so this is right in my contemporary wheelhouse. If anything, the album falters for me when the songs are ones that I now know far too well (“Blackjack Davey”, or “Sittin’ On Top of the World”) because I hear other, often better, versions in the back of my mind.
I think that my judgment on this one is that there is not a single song on that I dislike – which is a first for me since, I don’t know, probably Desire. By the same token, however, there is no song on here that I actually love. Nothing that I will rush back to listen to again in the future. The whole thing is sort of beige noise. The songs have a samey feeling to them and there is not much variety in terms of key or pace. A slow, bluesy, folksy finger-picking style. It’s nice, but you don’t need to go back for any of it. There is nothing memorable here at all. It’s elevator music, essentially.
Of all the Dylan albums so far, this is the one that I sort of wanted to will myself into liking. It so closely aligns with my current musical tastes that I hoped it would be a revelation. As it turns out, however, it just reminds me that I have a dozen versions of “Blackjack Davey” on my phone, and I like almost all of them better than this one. Heck, I can play that song myself, and I like that better too…
Here’s a version I have on my phone, by Almeda Riddle. Now this is a great version of this song: