In 1966, Bob Dylan did something extraordinary when he went to Nashville to record an album. He left his band behind, in order to record with session players known as the Nashville Cats. That album he made was a masterpiece, ‘Blonde on Blonde”.
John Sebastian apparently held Nashville musicians in high esteem. According to one account, the song developed after the Lovin’ Spoonful was in Nashville for a concert, and while sitting at a bar, were blown away by the guitar playing of Danny Gatton. Sebastian wrote the song and it peaked at #8 in the Billboard 100 in 1967.
John Sebastian on writing the song…it is a bit long but interesting:
It happened to me quite by accident. First of all I was a tremendous fan of the music coming out of Nashville and the south at that time. Sometimes it was Memphis or Muscle Shoals but I didn’t know that, I was just responding to the music. I knew that when you cut records here, you could finish an album in a day in a half! But the ‘Spoonful played in Nashville in ’65 or so. We finished our show at the Fairgrounds Auditorium–the biggest thing in town. We felt pretty good about it and went back to the Holiday Inn and to the beer bar in the basement and get some beers and this guy comes in–goes and sits in the corner. There wasn’t even a stage. He pulls out a guitar and he is absolutely stunning. He starts off with something Chet Aktins-y and then he starts to get these bends and pedal steel tones and then multiple bends and then more jazz chords. Now we’re in “hillbilly jazz.” By the time this guy finished, me and (Lovin’ Spoonfuls) Zal Yanovsky we went up to our room. In those days, the ‘Spoonful were still sharing rooms, and we sit on the edge of our beds and go ‘How could this be?’ We are playing the big joint in town and this guy is in a beer bar. He can play rings around us. How does this work? Are we just four guys with long hair? It was years before we figured out that the kid had been a young Danny Gatton making spare change. But it traumatized us for a while.
The song actually was written a couple of weeks after our Nashville encounter. I was in Long Island somewhere. I saw an album cover –years later–Zal and I were in a record store–and I go “Oh my God, this is the guy from the beer bar.” Danny Gatton fans have sent me a stack of his cds and I can’t understand how he did the first damn thing (laughs).
This song is a celebration of the remarkable musicianship of Nashville, Tennessee guitar pickers who have been “Playin’ since they’s babies.” John Sebastian held for the Nashville musicians in very high esteem.
The lyrics refer to the Sun Records company. While Sun was best known for first recording Elvis Presley, it also released songs by Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Roy Orbison
Nashville cats, play clean as country water
Nashville cats, play wild as mountain dew
Nashville cats, been playin’ since they’s babies
Nashville cats, get work before they’re two
Well, there’s thirteen hundred and fifty two
Guitar pickers in Nashville
And they can pick more notes than the number of ants
On a Tennessee ant hill
Yeah, there’s thirteen hundred and fifty two
Guitar cases in Nashville
And any one that unpacks ‘is guitar could play
Twice as better than I will
Yeah, I was just thirteen, you might say I was a
Musical proverbial knee-high
When I heard a couple new-sounding tunes on the tubes
And they blasted me sky-high
And the record man said every one is a yellow sun
Record from Nashville
And up north there ain’t nobody buys them
And I said, “But I Will”
And it was
Well, there’s sixteen thousand eight hundred ‘n’ twenty one
Mothers from Nashville
All their friends play music, and they ain’t uptight
If one of the kids will
Because it’s custom made for any mothers son
To be a guitar picker in Nashville
And I sure am glad I got a chance to say a word about
The music and the mothers from Nashville