You wouldn't know it today, judging by the rabid cross-fertilization between rock, pop and Americana, but up until the end of the '60s, the divide between rock on the one hand and country music on the other couldn't be more pronounced. Each side looked at the other suspiciously, a relationship exacerbated in no small measure by Merle Haggard's "Okee from Muskogee," a barbed putdown of the counter culture that set up the battle lines between the hippies and the harbingers of conservative, all American values.
When Dylan went to Nashville at the invitation of producer Bob Johnston in 1966 to record his epic album "Blonde on Blonde," the relationship between the two genres managed to thaw to a certain extent, but it wasn't until later, when the bard returned to Music City to make "John Wesley Harding" and "Nashville Skyline" that the two entities finally found common ground. Ushered in under the auspices of Johnny Cash through the rock solid guest list he hosted on his ground-breaking network TV show, the boundaries began to break down. It eventually took bands like The Byrds, The Band, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Poco and the Flying Burrito Brothers to plow them down completely.
"Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City," released in conjunction with a new exhibit on display at Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, provides a sprawling overview of the music made in the late '60s and early '70s by artists that seized that crossover connection and laid the foundation for the sound that would later be better known as simply Americana.
While a two CD set can provide only a scant sampling at best, it does include something essential from many of the artists involved - Dylan, Cash, The Byrds, Leonard Cohen, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Joan Baez, Kris Kristofferson, Simon & Garfunkel, Beatles Ringo Starr and George Harrison, Neil Young and, yes, even The Monkees.
The tracks chosen for inclusion offer an excellent overview, although it might have been nice to get a few more rarities beyond its single alternate outtake, an unreleased version of the Dylan-Harrison dual composition "If Not For You." (What about unearthing those Dylan/Cash sessions that yielded their game-changing duet, "Girl From the North Country?") Regardless, "Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City" provides a perfect primer into the origins of country rock and a seminal sound that continues to push the parameters.