Reloading Miley Cyrus’s startling, country-tinged Bob Dylan cover

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Miley Cyrus opts for classy black and white attire in this publicity still taken from the “Can’t Be Tamed” album photo shoot, summer 2010. Image Credit: Hollywood Records

When Miley Cyrus walked into Hollywood’s renowned Henson Recording Studios in the fall of 2011 to record her contribution to the Chimes of Freedom charity project featuring the songs of Bob Dylan, who knew that she would be showcasing her country music chops so forcefully.

Along with songwriter and producer John Shanks [e.g. Sheryl Crow, Keith Urban, Bon Jovi], who has worked with Cyrus on her previous two releases — The Time of Our Lives and Can’t Be Tamed plus ubiquitous chart topper “The Climb” — the song she chose was “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go.”

It was originally written and recorded by Dylan and appeared as a cut on arguably his best album of the 1970s, Blood on the Tracks.

The legendary songwriter was at a critical impasse in his personal life when “Lonesome” was recorded in September 1974 in New York City. He and his first wife, Sara, were experiencing their first major marital problems, which would ultimately end in divorce three years later.

Not surprisingly, Dylan has always refuted the allegories about the song’s origin, stating that he didn’t write confessional songs or anything revolving around his personal life. According to his interesting 2004 memoir, Chronicles: Volume One, the singer claimed all the songs on the album were inspired by the short stories of Russian writer Anton Chekhov.

Dylan’s near solo, folksy take of “Lonesome” — besides the melodic bass playing courtesy of Tony Brown, only Dylan’s acoustic guitar and harmonica accompany the track — is perhaps the jauntiest cut on Blood on the Tracks.

The song’s protagonist expresses his ever-lasting love for his significant other, but realizes that she is leaving him. Although he will never forget their relationship, including the good and bad times — i.e. “Situations have ended sad, relationships have all been bad, mine’ve been like Verlaine’s and Rimbaud; but there’s no way I can compare, all those scenes to this affair, yer gonna make me lonesome when you go” — the listener does not sense much bitter or despair. Rather, it is an acknowledgment that life will continue.

Since the song first appeared over 40 years ago, it has rarely been performed by Dylan. In fact, he last performed it in May 1976 during the penultimate show of his Rolling Thunder Revue. And only a handful of artists — largely indie — have released cover versions, including Shawn Colvin and Elvis Costello, whose version sat unreleased for a decade.

Without a doubt, the successful pop singer and former Disney teen idol’s cover has received the most attention. It would be interesting to learn how Cyrus first heard the song and why she chose to cover it. Regardless, the talented singer has contributed a performance worthy of the original version, a feat that doesn’t happen very often.

Cyrus retains the unadorned, ballad feel of the original, only adding more acoustic guitar, background vocals, keyboards parts kept low in the mix, and an outstanding slide guitar solo near its conclusion courtesy of Shanks.

To hear her impassioned vocal, especially on the last “ooh, ooh, you’re gonna make me lonesome when you go”, it is remarkable to realize that Cyrus was only 18 when the song was recorded. Dylan was a mature 33 years old on the original. And her version is actually more melancholy than Dylan’s.

Sadly, her record label, Hollywood Records, chose not to release it as a single, although an official music video was created.

Can’t Be Tamed was rightly criticized for its manufactured, repetitive synths and Auto-Tuned vocals. The title cut became another Top 10 hit on the pop charts, but no other singles were released in the USA, usually a good indicator that something is amiss.

The singer made appearances on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and The Ellen DeGeneres Show, performing the song in its entirety. She remained largely out of the spotlight for the next year, dropping out of the animated comedy Hotel Transylvania to focus on recording her next album — the platinum-certified, full blown pop confetti of Bangerz.

Cyrus’s goal was to become a pop diva after her alter ego, Hannah Montana, rode off into the sunset. No doubt she has and then some. But maybe it is time for the singer to temporarily embrace her country roots, take a 180 degree left turn, and record a full country album to induce some critical head scratching.

Cyrus’s maturing, expressive vocals are tailor-made for country music, and the genre has a history of bending and embracing artists who experienced previous commercial pop success. Just look at her godmother Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley’s post-1973 career, Darius Rucker of Hootie and the Blowfish, Steven Tyler, or the success of Lionel Richie’s Tuskegee duets project.

It is understandable that she is hesitant to follow in her father’s footsteps, but hopefully the Nashville, Tennessee-bred young woman will recall what all the amazing reviews said about her Dylan cover and realize where her greatest vocal strengths lie.

© Jeremy Roberts, 2016. All rights reserved. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

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Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ someone fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email: jeremylr@windstream.net

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