Another 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.
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.