Bob Dylan & The Hawks – Alternative-Country Progenitors
The seeds of alternative country, or country rock, or No Depression, or whatever you may choose to call it, were arguably sown in 1965 when Bob Dylan decided to use the Hawks as his backing band. Dylan, growing bored of solo performances and folk releases, was looking to up the ante. He had just released Bringing It All Back Home, with which he branched out to electric arrangements and rock ‘n’ roll. On July 25, 1965, he made his now-legendary Newport Folk Festival appearance performing with Mike Bloomfield and the Butterfield Blues Band. The crowd reacted as if betrayed, and though Dylan somewhat appeased them by coming back out with his acoustic guitar, in his mind something else was ready to take place.
The Hawks were a rough bunch of musicians from Canada, with the exception of Levon Helm, who was reared in Arkansas. They had paid their dues and honed their chops as the backing band to the Canadian wildman rockabilly singer Ronnie Hawkins. Robbie Robertson had joined the group at 15 and had become an amazing guitar player and stylist. They had also been doing their own gigs and occasional recording dates, with Levon Helm taking lead vocal duties. The Hawks were growing tired of the bar circuit and didn’t seem to be getting anywhere fast. Like Dylan, they were looking for a change.
Dylan approached the Hawks about backing him on his upcoming British tour. All of them were up for it except Helm, who didn’t want to be just “some folksinger’s drummer”. He left the band and went back to Arkansas, though his departure would prove to be temporary.
With a British tour set for February 1966 and a replacement drummer in tow, Dylan and the Hawks set out to do something different, not knowing they would be changing the face of rock ‘n’ roll. They were pelted and booed at every stop on the tour. With a huge American flag hung behind them, they played at the loudest volume anyone had been subject to up until that time. Dylan drove through these shows with total abandon. The chemistry between he and the Hawks, especially Robertson, was jelling in a frightening but satisfying way. The sound behind Dylan was a carnival of American music culture, from Rick Danko’s tuba-like bass and Appalachian-sweet backing vocals, to Robertson’s Hubert Sumlin-James Burton hybrid guitar playing. What may have been called an unholy alliance at the beginning was turning into the holiest musical hybrid imaginable.
For an obvious recorded starting point of this music, one must look to the unfortunately still unreleased, but easily obtainable, Royal Albert Hall show. With maybe the exception of James Brown’s Live and Lowdown at the Apollo, Vol. I and Jerry Lee Lewis’ Live at the Star Club, Dylan’s Royal Albert Hall show is the greatest, most fascinating live recording I’ve ever heard. Fascinating because of what was being instantaneously created on stage, and because of how oblivious and appalled much of the crowd seems to be. The intensity is flat-out spooky and ever so defiant. If there was ever a more “punk” performance, I’ve never heard it.
There is, of course, the often-told story of how, during the intro to “Like A Rolling Stone”, an angry fan yells out “Judas”, to which Dylan says, “I don’t believe you…you’re a liar,” then turns around to the band and screams, “He’s a fucking liar!” From that point, the band launches into a seething and anthemic version of the song.
Dylan’s bittersweet, acidic vocals were a high point throughout this period, as witnessed in high beauty during this show’s rendition of the classic “One Too Many Mornings”. The “mercurial” sound was the description of what Dylan said he wanted and got on the Blonde on Blonde LP; that sound was living and breathing on those stages in Britain.
Dylan’s work had always had a country influence, though maybe it wasn’t as obvious by the time he got around to recording Bringing It All Back Home. By hiring the Hawks as his backup band, it became a musical menagerie — a complete musical crossroads, spearheaded by this wild carnaby street garbed poet. If you’ve never seen the still unreleased Eat The Document video that captures moments of this tour, it’s hard to imagine how crazy it all came off. While the audience does actually seem appalled, the electricity emitting from the stage is amazing. Robertson’s fingertips play like a living encyclopedia of American music culture, and with a fury that is as frightening as it is undeniable. Altogether, it was a collage of brutally American musics that had never been taken so far or with this much sheer energy and volume.
To these ears, the Royal Albert Hall performance is the epitome of alternative country. This music is savage, but Bakersfield and Nashville are all over it — mostly provided by a bunch of Canadians with a tough love of American culture and music.