John Wesley Harding: A digital album shootout
After Bob Dylan’s July 1966 motorcycle accident, he retreated into obscurity. Nobody knew what he was up to, really. Rumors abounded. A little over a year later, he was back in a Columbia recording studio in Nashville. The sessions took three days. On December 27, 1967, John Wesley Harding was officially released.
John Wesley Harding marked a turn in Dylan’s career. This post-Highway 61 Revisited, post-Blonde on Blonde album is dialed back, stripped down to a core trio: Dylan on acoustic guitar and sometimes piano, Charlie McCoy on bass, and Kenny Buttrey on the drum kit. Pete Drake appears on steel guitar on a couple of tracks. That’s it.
The album paved the way for Dylan’s Country & Western phase, which, came into full flower on Nashville Skyline. It also overlaps with the home recordings he was making in the Catskills with The Band, that legendary foray into weird Americana known as The Basement Tapes.
The songs on John Wesley Harding are minimalist, gnomic parables, peppered with assorted allegorical characters: John Wesley Harding, Tom Paine, Saint Augustine, the Joker, the Thief, Frankie Lee, Judas Priest, the Landlord, the Drifter, the Hobo, the Wicked Messenger, the Poor Immigrant.
It was as if Dylan has pulled off the highway of fame onto a dirt road through the hollow and up to an isolated hilltop, where he could take stock of the 1960’s era, a period spinning out of control. He’s looking at a safe distance from his hideaway, like an outsider, an outlaw rejecting the bleeding edge. And yet, in its own way, John Wesley Harding is very revolutionary in how it peels back songwriting to the core, so sparse that it becomes allusive.
Over the years I collected a batch of album versions on vinyl and CD. I wanted to do a shootout and explore which version offers the best listen. Of course, this is a completely subjective question. Your ears will have to tell the difference.
A shootout feels appropriate because John Wesley Hardin, the man Bob based the title song on, was a gunslinger himself.