one piece at a timeWe’ve begun to see Johnny flirt with hot producers in the 70s in search of renewed commercial success, generally with very limited results. As he would continue to do throughout his career, these experiments were generally countered with “a return to the classic Cash sound”.

Lo and behold, we have an album not credited to Johnny Cash but to… Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Three. If you haven’t got the hint, this should be one old-school boom chicka boom album. And, to Cash’s sure delight, this one was marked by a #1 hit… the title track, “One Piece at a Time”. Yay for Cash!

But how does the album actually pan out?

Opening track Let There Be Country serves as a pretty good mission statement for the album. The song indeed brings back, if not the classic Tennessee Three sound, at least the 70s version driven by loping acoustic guitar and boom chicka boom leads. The song is a catchy number that taps into Nashville’s anxieties of the day: Countrypolitan was leaving past superstars in the dust for the first time, and Cash’s recent attempts at commercial success bore this out. The old rural life was changing and country music was beginning to speak to a new urban experience not rooted in farming and the long shadow of the Great Depression that so marks the songs of Cash’s generation. Cash names off a hall of fame-like list of country greats but then argues that the new sounds are ok because today’s new songwriter stepped off a bus into Nashville the same as all those greats did one day a long time ago. Times change, but the tradition continues.

This is clearly Gentleman Cash, then. Looking at the dark days of post-Vietnam America facing a large recession due to the oil crisis, his view is, “everything’ll be ok”. This is nowhere clearer than on Sold Out of Flagpoles, a renewed take on patriotism for Cash (compared to say his America album) in which he again argues that the frightening changes of time are really the same old patterns repeating themselves. This time the musical accompaniment adds Jew’s Harp and mandolin for variety, but the underlying boom chicka boom is a reassuring motif for the worried listener.

Elsewhere, the songs are a bit of a missed bag. In a Young Girl’s Mind is a beautiful ballad drawing on mandocello and harmonica (courtesy of the great Charlie McCoy), yet marked by restraint in its arrangement, drawing the listener close to Johnny’s words. The same can’t be said for Side B’s ballad, Love Has Lost Again, which drowns in syrupy strings. A sad choice, given that Johnny was trying to showcase the songwriting of his daughter Rosanne (yet to be a star herself). Mountain Lady is another laidback tune about the fading down home life that again is swamped by the strings. Oh yeah, and they also dominate an upbeat tune about a freewheeling rich girl, Daughter of a Railroad Man.

Obviously I’m not a fan of overblown arrangements, but the recording of the album is an important step in Cash’s work. He’s now found his own sound in his home studio. The strings are pastoral, and amidst the choral voices, you can clearly hear his wife June in the mix. The basic sound of the Tennessee Three is locked in, and Cash now starts to draw on a broader pool of musicians to fill out the sound. Take the harmonica which is all over this album, clearly drawing on Willie Nelson’s sound.

When the strings aren’t overdone, this has interesting results. Michigan City Howdy Do would be a fabulous outlaw country tune. Drop D lead guitar winds back and forth through the melody like a slithering snake, all to a pretty awesome strutting rhythm that would make Waylon proud. If only the choir didn’t come in on the chorus…

Oh well… almost all is forgiven on the title track One Piece at a Time, which revisits the Boy Named Sue template to tell a humorous tale of a Cadillac built from parts smuggled out of the factory over twenty years. An instant classic. Ironically Boy Name Sue author Shel Silverstein co-wrote opening number Let There be Country, while this Silverstein-by-the-numbers tune is penned by little known writer Wayne Kemp

The highlight of the album, though, is Committed to Parkview. In the midst of the tumultuous 70s post-hippie haze, Johnny tells a compassionate tale of the many patients of a mental institution. He would revisit this tune with the Highwaymen, but the version here is perfect.

That takes us to closing track Go On Blues, which is the closest to the 50s Cash sound we’ve gotten on a studio album in a long while. Again, Cash’s optimism comes to the fore as he sings, “Go on blues, go on lonesome, get your dark clouds off of me”… Classic Cash.

All in all it’s a decent album noted by some real energy from Johnny. He penned over half the songs himself. It was recorded at his home studio. And production was handled by a Nashville outsider – Detroit native Don Davis – assisted by Johnny’s personal engineer Charlie Bragg. Light on contemporary tricks, nods to Cash’s past, and the Man in Black singing a few songs he really cares about. I’m glad this one hit the charts.

4/5

Other songs from the era:

  • No Earthly Good – a song Cash returned to many times in the 70s. This version features up-and-comers the Oak Ridge Boys on background vocals with Johnny on lead vocals. From the Oak Ridge Boys’ album Old Fashioned Down Home
  • Temptation – the ballad with June that could have made this album. Strange that it remained unreleased given how often they sang the tune live. A worthy successor to Jackson. Released on the Reader’s Digest The Great Seventies Recordings box set.
  • Behind The Walls of a Prison – A televised prison special brought Johnny together with Linda Ronstadt (who’s totally on fire), Roy Clark, and a comedy duo whose work has not stood the test of time. A few decent, if predictable, live tracks here (Folsom Prison Blues, Sunday Morning Coming Down, Hey Porter, Wreck of the Old Ninety Seven, Orange Blossom Special, A Boy Named Sue and a fabulous Jacob Green). It’s interesting hearing Cash’s set interplay with the other guests, but not essential. Also interesting as I think this is the first time we hear synthesizer on a Cash song.

I’m not dead yet…

Posted: October 16, 2017 in Uncategorized

Will likely be another year until I get back to my Johnny Cash chronicles, but in the meantime, here’s a picture of Bill Frisell’s pedal board I took in case anyone out there is a guitar nerd like me:

JohnnyCashStrawberryCakeAnother Johnny Cash live album? Well, by 1976, Johnny’s albums were stalling in the charts and the label was flip-flopping him between new producers with no great results. After a scrapped gospel album, they turned back to the format that rebirthed his career…

Unfortunately (at least for Columbia), Strawberry Cake is no Folsom Prison or San Quentin.  For the Cash fan, though, it’s an enjoyable album, different again from any of his others. Folsom is the wild one, San Quentin an introduction to all new material in the raucous prison environment, Madison Square Gardens the performance of a gentleman, The Johnny Cash Show his gospel message to a TV audience, and Pa Osteraker a stripped down document of his singer-songwriter period, with just the boys backing him.

On Strawberry Cake, Johnny is back on the road with the whole family band. He’s still the placid gentleman often heard in the 70s, but he seems to be moving into a “greatest hits” mode, a shift away from the early 70s Cash who sang political tunes and the narratives of David Allan Coe and Kris Kristofferson. The abundant dialogue on the album, however, shows why Johnny was just as popular as he was, even able to break the British market which is generally resistant to country music.

The sound on this album is great, too. Carl Perkins is gone from the band, so his edgier leads are gone, but new guitarist Jerry Hensley is fantastic with Bob Wooten. The two of them weave guitar lines back and forth in a wonderful way, almost like those early Stones albums where you can’t tell where Keith Richards ends and Brian Jones begins.

So what do we have here? Certainly some classics, all played masterfully. Big River is paced perfectly – too often it’s rushed in its live performance – and there is a balance between the minimal lead riff, and some flashier licks during the verses. Doin’ My Time is a magical rendition, sounding Sun Records-like without any drums, but modern with the dual lead guitars. I Still Miss Someone falters a bit with schmaltzy piano. They recover quickly with an a cappella duet between Johnny and June Carter Cash on Another Man Done Gone interrupted only briefly by some tasteful blues guitar. I Got Stripes is perhaps a bit chipper for a prison song, but still works. And Rock Island Line is played masterfully, even improved by Johnny’s joke about how audience member Lonnie Donegan (of UK skiffle fame) stole the song from him in 1958!

There are a couple of old-time numbers. The Carter Family, in an increasingly rare performance for the time, do a great medley of Church in the Wildwood and Lonesome Valley. With only 12-string guitar and Johnny singing bass as backing, it’s a fantastic performance. Plus it gets interrupted by a bomb scare evacuation! Closing gospel number, The Fourth Man, is a hokier affair, but enjoyable.

The three newer songs are all enjoyable but don’t cover new ground for Cash. Strawberry Cake is an unreleased waltz documenting the tale of a Californian down on his luck in New York who wanders into the Plaza only to be tempted by the sight of strawberry cake… which he steals to amusing results. Fun but forgettable. Navajo is a beautiful tribute to the story of this native tribe, but lacks the punch of his Bitter Tears material. And, introduced as his “newest song”, is Destination Victoria Station, the somewhat generic train song released on his special album for the Southern US restaurant chain of the same name. The fact that the new songs are all unreleased obscurities only highlights how he was lacking a decent new single to promote.

All in all, though, it’s a great live album showcasing Johnny’s laid back mid-seventies style. Tragic if only in how it showcases his ability to draw a live audience while not being able to sell new records.

4/5

Other songs from the era:

  • I Still Miss Someone/My Ship Will Sail – The Earl Scruggs Revue’s 1975 Anniversary album was successful enough that they released a Volume 2 the following year. Two great songs played in a laid-back bluegrass style. I Still Miss Someone is a fantastic remake of Cash’s iconic ballad, and My Ship Will Sail is a modern country gospel Cash first recorded (but didn’t release until the posthumous Ultimate Gospel compilation) in 1974, and later tried again on 1987’s Johnny Cash is Coming to Town. Available on Singles Plus.
  • It’s All Over/Old Time Feeling – It’s All Over was a single-only release in 1976 and is a fine if unremarkable Cash breakup tune. Worth listening to as it harkens back to the Tennessee Three sound. The b-side is a syrupy ballad featuring June Carter Cash with a lusher 70s sound. First released on Greatest Hits Vol. 3, no available on Singles Plus.
  • No Earthly Good – Johnny Cash lent his voice to this gospel tune from the Oak Ridge Boys’ Old Fashioned Down Home (Hand Clappin’ Foot Stompin’) LP. A typical waltz-time acoustic number, this is a song that Cash would revisit frequently in his career. Only available on the deleted Oak Ridge Boys’ album.
  • Temptation – This unreleased duet with June Carter Cash had been in Cash’s live set for years. If you like Jackson, you’ll probably like this. Available on the Great Seventies Recordings.

soul of truth

Having recently been on tour, on Oct. 7, 1975, Johnny Cash gathered a group of musicians in his home studio to record some gospel music. It would take almost forty years for any of the material to be released, but what is now available makes for an interesting listen.

The October 7th sessions featured seven songs:

  • Don’t Give Up on Me – a personal a deeply emotional prayer in which Johnny sings “I’m still not the man that you want me to be, so please Lord, don’t give up on me”
  • What on Earth Will You Do (For Heaven’s Sake) – Johnny recorded this number many times during the seventies so it was obviously an important work for him. A spoken word introduction reveals this is not intended to be a judgmental or critical number, but rather is intended more for himself than anyone else.
  • I Was There When it Happened – he returns to this number he recorded with Sun Records in a piano-led southern gospel style
  • That’s Just Like Jesus – a soft ballad in waltz time.
  • Over the Next Hill We’ll Be Home – a new Johnny-written lyric to the same melody as What on Earth
  • Keep me From Blowing Away – a slow tune about human weakness and dependency on God for strength.
  • Our Little Home Town – The most upbeat of the tunes, with a classic gospel beat unusual for Cash, this one’s a condemnation of big city evils.

Lyrically it’s an interesting bunch of tunes because they are largely written by Johnny and they reflect a deep humility. He speaks of himself as weak and deeply in need of God’s grace. Musically, this is quite the departure for Johnny. Notable in the musicians are the Oak Ridge Boys who provide southern gospel quartet harmonies; Earl Poole Ball, a vigorous gospel piano player, who would soon become a fixture in Johnny’s band; and steel guitar player Pete Wade, here playing guitar, offering weepy guitar bends left, right and centre that are strikingly different from Bob Wootton’s simple, clean playing.

Three more songs were recorded on October 21st, with many of the same musicians, but lacking guitarist Pete Wade:

  • Back in the Fold: A great ballad of redemption.
  • Look unto the East: A reflective tune about Jesus’ death.
  • An unissued take of the Carter Family classic Waiting on the Far Side Banks of Jordan.

Later in the month, Bob Wootton and a few others would overdub some more instrumental parts, but a travesty occurred on November 4th. Five of the tracks – That’s Just Like Jesus, Over the Next Hill, Keep Me from  Blowing Away, Back in the Fold, and Look Unto the East – were drenched with strings. Despite classic harmonica player Charlie McCoy adding a few parts, even he can save the tunes from absolute treacle.  What was starting to be a loose, relaxed and well-played album, with sincere, strong vocals from Cash, turned into an overproduced mess, just like his recent Precious Memories album.

In December, Johnny and June went back with the Oak Ridge Boys, son-in-law Jack Routh, Pete Wade, Marshall Grant, WS Holland and a few others and recorded a few more tunes:

  • Sanctified: a fun gospel number with some questionable works-based theology
  • Would You Recognize Jesus: A catchy, new Statler Brothers tune (they would release their own version in 1976) with a clear message:  “If you’ve never fed the hungry given clothes to the poor, if you’ve never helped a stranger who came knocking on your door… well, if you ain’t helping none of these, then you ain’t helping him,” that unfortunately devolves into a schmaltzy joke about Jesus “riding in a ’49 Ford”.
  • Another take of Waiting on the Far Side Banks of Jordan that shines thanks to June’s vocal at Wade’s guitar licks

Cash had already released five albums in 1975, a gospel album in 1974, and his sales were waning, so it’s no big surprise that Columbia shelved this release. It was finally released as part of the excellent Bootleg Vol. IV: Soul of Truth, which featured two full discs of rare Cash gospel albums. This particular album has its moments, but again shows Johnny (and producer Charlie Bragg) whitewashing anything interesting about their sound.

3/5

Destination Victoria Station

Johnny’s fifth album of 1975, Destination Victoria Station, signifies the death knell for many artists: the commercial tie-in. Apparently Victoria Station was a chain of train-themed restaurants in the southern US and Cash teamed up with them to release a compilation of train songs available exclusively through their restaurants. Surprisingly, the album’s actually not that bad.

Here’s what we get:

Four previously released tracks: City of New Orleans from Johnny Cash and his Woman (1973), Folsom Prison Blues from the At Folsom Prison live album (1968), Crystal Chandeliers and Burgundy from the Junkie and the Juicehead Minus Me (1974), and Texas – 1947 from his most recent release, Look at Them Beans (1975). Obviously they’re trying to promote his (weaker) more recent material alongside his best.

Two new vocal performances added onto old musical backing: Wabash Cannonball with music recorded for Happiness is You (1966). This one has an excellent, relaxed vocal performance which is far superior to the original, recorded at the height of Johnny’s drug addiction. Orange Blossom Special with music recorded for the album of the same name (1965). Again, Johnny sounds fantastic, although the original is one of my favourite Cash performances ever, so it’s about impossible to top.

Five re-recordings of old classics: Casey Jones is a faithful re-recording. Hey Porter is well done with a great vocal, and a more laid back musical accompaniment. John Henry is a more straight-forward, upbeat version of The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer. Wreck of the Old 97 is similar to Hey Porter with a slightly laid-back approach, despite usually being frenetic in his live versions. Waiting for a Train is faithful to the original with its piano lead.

One new song: Destination Victoria Station. Although a fine train song, this one is spoiled by the unnecessary backing choir.

As a whole, though, the album is quite good.  Sonically, it’s a true return to the Tennessee Three sound. The music – apart from the choir on Destination Victoria Station – is just Johnny, Marshall, Bob, WS Holland, and a piano player. Although never released on CD, it’s worth hunting down a used LP.

3.5/5

Look at them Beans

With John R. Cash we saw the real beginning of Johnny Cash’s long decline and, to be blunt, I find many of his late 70s and 80s releases downright depressing.  It’s not that there’s nothing of value in these albums, in fact when he was clean in the late 70s he gave many fine vocal performances.  What’s said is that the excellent tracks seem to be a fluke. He floundered around with so many producers looking for creative inspiration it’s like he was panning for gold, hoping to get lucky. What happened to the man who had a vision of mariachi horns that led to Ring of Fire? What about the passionate campaigner for Indian rights that produced the bold Bitter Tears concept album? Sadly, Look at Them Beans, Johnny’s fourth release in 1975 was just another shot in the dark.

John R. Cash’s attempt at working with LA-based studio musicians didn’t work, so this time around, Cash brought Detroit-based R&B producer Don Davis to his Hendersonville studio to help him out (friend Charlie Bragg also produced two of the tracks). For inspiration, Cash looked to simple rural themes. And, given one of the only tracks that worked on his previous album was written by Texan Billy Joe Shaver, it’s not surprising that Johnny turned to the Lone Star state, with its red-hot outlaw scene, for material.  Perhaps then Look at them Beans should be remembered as “the Texas album.”

The opening track, Texas-1947, was written by emerging songwriter Guy Clark, who would later become a mentor to Lyle Lovett.  It’s a worthy song about a child’s wonder at the dawn of high-speed trains. Joe Tex provides the enthusiastically delivered Look at them Beans, about a year of bumper crop. In my mind it’s a shadow compared to Five Feet High and Rising. Another Texan, Don Williams, provides Down the Road I Go, which is a fine a country-blues as Cash had sung since the mid-sixties, complete with boom-chicka-boom rhythm and honky tonk piano. Johnny’s son-in-law Jack Routh again contributes a song, All Around Cowboy, which evokes that Texan atmosphere. And, last, Johnny himself penned Down at Drippin’ Springs, a tribute to Texan hill country and its wonderful music:

“Down at Dripping Springs down at Dripping Springs
There’s Willie and Waylon, Kris and Tom, have you heard Gatlin sing”

The other material on the album is highly sentimental and fits the albums rural themes well. What Have You Got Planned Tonight, Diana, which would be released by Merle Haggard the next year, is a powerful ballad about love’s twilight years. The story of a dying widower looking forward to joining his wife in death  now seems eerily prophetic knowing how soon after June Carter Johnny died. No Charge is a spoken word narrative of a parent’s love for a child. June and her sister Helen Carter provide Gone which is a San Francisco prison song complete with weeping pedal steel (an unusual instrument in Cash’s music).

Two more Cash songs remain. I Hardly Ever Sing Beer Drinking Songs is quite catchy, but doesn’t ring true:

“I never ever sing the blues I’ve forgotten Born to Lose
And I hardly ever sing beer drinking songs.”

A great boom chicka boom number, again with honky tonk piano, it’s paired back-to-back with the tear-in-my-beer weeper Down the Road I Go. They’re in the same key, have a similar arrangement, but offer complete opposite messages, which just makes Johnny seem insincere.  This plays poorly for Johnny because his appeal has always been his ability to connect with the downtrodden.  Last, I Never Met a Man Like You Before is the best gospel song Johnny had produced in a while, with it’s simple message:

“If worldly riches fail me, but I have you how can I be poor?
I’ve never met a man like you before.”

All in all, we have a decent set of tunes that suit Johnny well. Many of the basic arrangements work well too. Carl Perkins had moved on from Johnny’s band, which brought the Tennessee Three back to their minimalist roots. Bob Wootton’s guitar playing produces some crystal clear leads over the classic boom chicka boom sound. A few tunes sound like they’re straight out of Johnny’s mid-60s heyday with Columbia…

Until Don Davis coats everything in syrup.  Every nook and cranny is filled with a string backing, a brass intrusion, or a soaring choir. Add in a few attempts at contemporary styles, such as the outlaw-style shuffle of Texas-1947, and the album is left sounding dated.

An improvement over John R. Cash, but all in all a mediocre release.

3.5/5

Other Tracks from the Era:

  • Beautiful Memphis: An acoustic-led waltz that was left unreleased. Left in unadulterated form, it’s a fine nostalgic number. Available on the Reader’s Digest box set The Great Seventies Recordings.

John R Cash

In 1975 it had been several years since Cash had had a real hit. His lengthy Gospel Road album reached #12 in 1973 and seemed to be the public’s last straw. The five albums since then had seen diminishing returns and had no big singles. With a children’s album and gospel album already released earlier in the year, you can imagine why Columbia might have been getting a bit frustrated.

Their impatience, though, led to a very poor decision. Some executive had the bright idea of shipping him off to LA to record a bunch of singer-songwriter material with an anonymous batch of session musicians.  There are indeed some fine players on this album (Ry Cooder, James Burton, and a young David Foster), but the performances are completely anemic.  Some might  enjoy this bland batch of seventies easy listening, but I’m not one of them.

Across ten tunes, you can feel producer Gary Klein grasping at straws. Anything that might be “cool” gets thrown at Cash.  A few things stick, but most fall flat, and this despite the fact that Johnny gives many absolutely stellar vocal performances.

So what do we have? The opener is a Randy Newman tune – that wry, sardonic piano player who went on to fame writing theme songs for Pixar – that’s interesting as an unsentimental look at southern life. Elsewhere, they take a shot at The Band’s epic tale of the south, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and ruin it with an overblown gospel choir and stilted rhythm. They try a number by “Wild Thing” composer Chip Taylor, Clean Your Own Tables, and turn Johnny Cash into Jimmy Buffet.

Elsewhere, they concede some of Cash’s personal favourites. His new stepson-in-law Jack Routh, featured prominently on the Junkie and the Juicehead Minus Me, provides a tune called Hard Times Comin’. It’s a completely generic tune about the power of love through life’s difficulties, and cribs its melody from The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.  Johnny and June had success with folk singer Tim Hardin’s If I Were a Carpenter (number 2 on the charts!), so why not go back to him? The first shot is The Lady Came from Baltimore, a forgettable ballad of a poor man who falls in love with a woman he intended to rob and comes away empty-handed. The second is Reason to Believe which is good, but can’t touch Rod Stewart’s 1971 version. Johnny himself provides one tune, the Kris Kristofferson-style Lonesome to the Bone which he recorded for Ragged Old Flag… just one year earlier! Without the Tennessee Three, it commits all the same sins as Johnny’s recording of Sunday Morning Coming Down. A harrowing tale neutered by an overdose of saccharine strings.

The only real interest here comes from a pair of songs on side two. The first is up and coming Texas songwriter Billy Joe Shaver’s Jesus Was Our Saviour and Cotton Was Our King. This one fits Cash like a glove and he shows wonderful command of the material. The second comes from David Allan Coe who was a wild, underground country rocker before he struck gold writing Tanya Tucker’s 1973 hit Would You Lay with Me (In a Field of Stone). By 1975, he was signed to Columbia writing for others and releasing his own material as well. I’m not sure who Columbia was trying to benefit on this tune – building Cash’s youth appeal by paring him with an up-and-comer, or trying to give Coe some credibility by pairing him with a veteran. Either way, this duet is about the only song on the album that works, even though its edgy content is smothered (once again) by the schmaltzy arrangement.

These two gems are too little, too late, and whenever I listen to this album I’ve fallen asleep or changed the record long before I get to the closing number, Smokey Factory Blues, a decent tune about the drudgery of factory life.

It would take almost another 20 years for anyone to figure out with this album tells us about what makes Johnny work. Stick him in a studio with “hit” songs and crack session musicians? Nope. Give him some raw material by gritty songwriters living on the edge? Yep. It worked with Kristofferson. It works with Shaver and Coe. And it worked with a great deal of the material Rick Rubin would give him in the 90s. It’s too bad we had to wait so long for anyone to get it right.

2.5/5