Is this still Music City?

I grew up 90 minutes from Nashville, and I’ve been to concerts and shows in every kind of venue there, many times. Except for one–the one, the Ryman Auditorium. I’d never set foot in that hallowed hall until this week, when I had a date with Bob Dylan.

I know plenty of people have a problem with Dylan because they have a problem with the way he sings, or the way he sometimes chooses to sing or because they think he can’t sing. In that way, he was an acquired taste for me, too. He re-wrote the rules for how a song could be sung, same as he re-wrote the rules for writing songs. He has been reported to have said Woody Guthrie and Hank Williams are among his favorite songwriters. In his twangy vocal style–especially in the early 1960s–he clearly emulated Woody Guthrie.

Off to see the Wizard

The man is a genius. I won’t go on about a catalog of 600+ songs that won both a Pulitzer Prize in 2008 and a Nobel Prize for literature in 2016, among endless other best-of-all-time honors. Those songs are responsible for Bob Dylan selling more than 125 million records worldwide and have been recorded by others more than 6,000 times, according to NPR.

Back to my date with him at the Ryman.

When I’m going to a Bob Dylan concert, a big part of the excitement to me is that it’s him live on the stage, and for a couple of hours, he–the legend–and I are in the same room, breathing the same air. I don’t want to think of it as seeing a live historical exhibit, but can you imagine getting to see all four Beatles on stage, performing together?

I’ve dropped more than a little coin to get the front-row seat, close enough to look him in the eye, nobody’s head or hat blocking the view. He’s looked me back in the eye, too, y’all. But you know what? That kind of ticket is…jaw-droppingly expensive, a pretty hefty three-figure amount, let’s just say. So I have to be judicious about how often I drop that much on a single concert ticket, but there’s only one of him and he’s still touring (at age 80!) so I’m drawn to pony up for as long as I may have the chance.

Except that the last time I saw him, about three years ago at the Tivoli Theater in Chattanooga, I had to admit the voice was more “sand and glue but with a lot to say” as I’ve seen it described, than singing. How late into life is somebody supposed to be able to maintain a singing voice, after all? And yes, the man has recorded plenty of well-sung songs, but in his last live show, the voice was heavy on rasp and light on songful–if that’s a word. I love him, always will, but I wasn’t sure how many more times I could justify spending top dollar….

…until, there I was, buying tickets the next time I saw he was coming to the Tennessee Theater in Knoxville–May 2020. Thanks to COVID-19, my money was refunded and I never got to see that show, which was canceled. Like everything else during the pandemic.

I don’t know exactly why he hasn’t stopped touring well after he could have any financial incentive to still perform more than 100 shows a year, but I saw him try to avoid being specific on the why in an interview with 60 Minutes from about 20 years ago. He said something about making a bargain he had to live up to in exchange for being enabled to fulfill what he saw as his destiny. When asked who he’d made that bargain with, he said with the “main one in this life or the next, the chief commander.” He’s been touring steadily ever since with no apparent plans of stopping.

In November 2021, he was back on a three-year “World Tour.” He was going to be in Chattanooga again in Spring 2022, and Memphis, Nashville, Asheville, Atlanta–plenty of opportunities within reach if I were inclined to go. I’d just about decided maybe I’d seen him enough–eight times or so over the last several years–and spent enough. Maybe I couldn’t justify buying a pricey ticket for a raspy shout.

Then I saw that his Nashville show was going to be at the Ryman. Which you know is special even if you’ve never set foot in the place, as was the case for me. I decided I couldn’t pass up the combination of him and that venue, too. By the time I came to that conclusion, the priciest seats, including front row, were long gone. Tickets weren’t cheap, by any means, but there were still good ones and their price didn’t cause sticker shock. My seat was in Row R of Section 5, the second block behind the first block that began with Row A, the front row looking up at the stage. Depending how Dylan’s singing went, I was going to be fine with it if this were my last trip to hear him live–and I would get to see the Ryman on the inside, in action.

There was a buzz in the crowd as people arrived at the venue Wednesday night. The entry, a bar area and something of a photo gallery are all housed in a modern addition to the old, church-like auditorium. Just outside, a statue of Bill Monroe stood guard, a reminder of the history of the place and all the legends who’d taken the stage in front of rows and rows of church-pew seating.

Back of the Ryman

I wasn’t going to leave there without a commemorative poster–it would note that the show was in the Ryman, after all–so I queued up with dozens of others lined up for Dylan merch. Sensible shoppers will never buy a poster and a T-shirt on-site at a concert, but that’s what I did: winning!

Finally, it was time to enter the original Ryman at the ticket check. I walked through a door framed by a gothic arch and laid eyes on a place seemingly made for the phrase, “If these walls could talk…” Only in the case of the Ryman, the phrase better would be: “If these walls could sing.” Wooden walls. Just like the wooden floors and wooden pews.

I didn’t take anywhere near the number of pictures I would’ve liked because the usual Dylan show no-photos, no-videos, no-cell-phone rules were in place and being strictly enforced. Yes, even before the show when people were just milling about. I really dislike that about Dylan shows, but as I always hear and did this night, the rules were among many special circumstances–song choices, no opening act, you name it–someone would declare as happening, “Because he’s Bob Blanking Dylan, that’s why.”

People revel in knowing they’ll soon be in the presence of a legend, I guess.

The Dylan shows I’ve attended always begin precisely at the scheduled hour. I think to myself, “Well, at his age…”

When he took the stage at 8 p.m. on the dot, he was met with a standing ovation. His voice was great, too. I mean really great–as good as I’ve ever heard. I figured the forced COVID break had done him some good. It was all electricity from there.

The set was a mix of about five or six of his very best-known songs, some from his most recent album–yes, another new album in 2020–Rough and Rowdy Ways, and the rest plucked from that vast catalog. It’s true what you’ve heard about his preference for “re-imagining” or re-arranging the old familiar songs so that it can take a couple of lines, or more, to realize what song it is that he’s performing. At least, it can for me.

He closed with “Every Grain of Sand,” originally released in 1981. It was extensively “re-imagined,” but the powerful words were as beautiful as ever.

He’s never much of a talker on stage, and I have seen entire performances in which he says not a word. That’s why I was struck at the extent to which he did talk in Nashville.

Just before “Every Grain of Sand,” he thanked the audience, which roared its approval. Then he said, “It’s great to be in Music City again. Is this still Music City?” Again, we roared, and he chuckled–Bob Dylan smiled and chuckled, people!– then said, “I want to introduce you to my band tonight.” He named each musician, the audience approved, and then he said “thank you” again. Next to no words compared to most performers, but those were more spoken words than I’ve heard him say at all previous shows I’ve seen, combined.

The fact he had more than usual to say on stage wasn’t lost on the Twittersphere, either. When “one of the most decorated and enigmatic musicians alive” actually communicates with his audience, he sets them buzzing.

The “Overheard at Dylan Shows” Twitter account captured it for me:

“What a performance. What an audience. What a venue. It was a magical night at the Ryman. #BobDylan comes out to a standing ovation, he leaves to a standing ovation and every moment in between was breathtaking.The love and appreciation the Nashville audience showed Bob was incredible.”

Leaving the show, I heard a teenager say to a man who appeared to be his father: “We will always remember this night!”

I walked out of there smiling.

I loved getting a look around inside of the Ryman, but I loved even more that I was there for that exceptional performance. Upbeat to the point of almost playful, and the voice was great.

So great, in fact, I’ve also bought a ticket to his April 4 Chattanooga show at the Tivoli again.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

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