NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Music producer Bob Johnston, who played a key role in landmark recordings like Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” and Johnny Cash’s “At Folsom Prison,” is being remembered as a maverick who helped bring folk rock to Nashville.
Johnston died Friday. He was 83.
Peter Cooper, an editor at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that Johnston helped open Nashville up to music and musicians from other places.
He said Johnston was responsible for Dylan coming to the Music City, and that Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” was one of at least three recordings Dylan and Johnston made in Nashville.
In his memoir, “Chronicles: Volume One,” Dylan wrote that Johnston called him on the phone one day and asked if he was thinking about recording. “Of course I was,” Dylan added.
On the album “Nashville Skyline,” when Dylan can be heard asking, “Is it rolling Bob?” at beginning of one song, it was Bob Johnston he was talking to, said Michael Gray, another editor at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Dylan wrote that working with Johnston “was like a drunken joyride.” He described the producer as “built like a wrestler, thick wrists and big forearms, barreled chest, short but with a personality that makes him seem bigger than he really is …”
He added, “His idea for producing a record was to keep the machines oiled, turn ’em on and let ‘er rip …”
Johnston’s influence is showcased in an exhibit at the museum called “Dylan, Cash, and the Nashville Cats: A New Music City.”
Ron Cornelius, a longtime friend of Johnston whose folk rock band “West” recorded albums with Johnston in 1967 and 1968, said, “They would not have that exhibit … if it weren’t for Bob.”
Born in Hillsboro, Texas, Johnston grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, in a musical family and began pursuing a career in music after a stint in the U.S. Navy. In the early 1960s, after a short career as a rockabilly artist, he began writing songs for Elvis Presley movies, and traveling to Nashville to record demos.
He would later get a job at Columbia Records in New York. One of the first recordings he produced there was Patti Page’s “Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte,” which became a Top 10 hit in 1964. Following that success he began working with Dylan, eventually persuading him to come to Nashville.
Johnston also helped revitalize Johnny Cash’s career when he supported Cash’s plan to record a live album inside a prison, something label executives had repeatedly rejected.
In 1968, Cash put on a performance for the inmates of Folsom State Prison. The resulting album won widespread acclaim.
“He was a maverick,” Cooper said. “He was the guy who fulfilled Johnny Cash’s vision of recording albums in prisons.”
Johnston also produced multiple stellar albums by Leonard Cohen, Simon and Garfunkel, Flatt & Scruggs, Pete Seeger, Marty Robbins and several other now-legendary artists, all within a 10-year span. His career continued through the 1990s, when he produced albums for Willie Nelson and Carl Perkins, and into the new millennium.