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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Sings Precious MemoriesOne of the reasons behind Johnny Cash’s move from Sun to Columbia Records in 1959 was the Sam Phillip’s unwillingness to let Johnny release gospel music. Not surprisingly, Johnny’s second Columbia release was the excellent Hymns which brought original composition and gospel classics together in his signature boom chicka boom sound.  By the mid-70s, Johnny was still passionate about gospel music. He had released several gospel albums since then – the bland Hymns from the Heart, the travelogue The Holy Land, and the narrative of Jesus, The Gospel Road – not to mention two Christmas albums. Most of his albums featured at least one gospel tune as well, even (or especially) the prison ones!

Recent years had seen a shift in his gospel music, though. In the early years, Johnny was living wild and he seemed to turn to the hymns of his childhood for comfort. Working his way clean from drugs in 1968-1972 brought about a spiritual revival for Cash. He started attending a church pastored by Hank Snow’s son. Gospel pianist Larry Butler joined his band and produced several of his albums. And Cash began writing catchy, but often corny, gospel tunes similar to the style popular in revivalist churches of the day.

It is in this context that Sings Precious Memories was released as the second (of five!) albums Johnny released in 1975.  Self-produced by Johnny, it’s a surprising release. I’ll be succinct (for once) about the music: these are orchestra-led renderings of Johnny singing classic hymns. Imagine what you’d expect to hear on a 1975 variety show. If that’s your thing, you’ll like this album. If not, then there’s no need to buy this one. Easy choice.

For this review, then, I’m going to focus on the song selection. There’s a wide variety of traditions in western hymnody. Having grown up in rural Arkansas beginning in the 1930s, Johnny would have been exposed, for the most part, to hymns developed through American revivalism. Many early protestant hymns came from the Calvinist tradition and were dense with heavy theologically concepts. Central to these intellectual songs was a sense of destiny, that you were “in” or “out” based on God’s grace and appointment.

In the 1730s, the Great Awakening swept across Europe, England and America and brought about a far more personal type of faith, one that focused on individuals choosing God as their saviour, rather than God choosing them. Jesus became a friend and companion, and his spirit a guide and comforter in life. Emotion and individual reaction to God’s stirring were central the Christian experience. A second awakening moved through America in the early 19th century and gave rise to many of the churches that Johnny was exposed to in his childhood. Their songs were intense, sentimental, and intimate. By the 1960s, a similar revival was moving again through much of America, a return to personal faith through preachers like Billy Graham, as many of the established churches (Episcopalian, United Methodists), were fading away.

The eleven hymns on Sings Precious Memories are the product of this revivalist American tradition:

  • Precious Memories is a 1925 hymn from Tennessee. Although popular, it’s lacking in any real gospel message. Instead, it points to sentiment over family and home as an anchor in troubled times.
  • Rock of Ages is a British hymn with words written in the late 18th century and music written in the early 19th century. It is one of the great hymns of salvation:

Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure;
Save from wrath and make me pure.

  • The Old Rugged Cross is an American Methodist hymn from 1912. A powerful song relating the challenges of life as a Christian to the hope of future glory centred on a vision, “And I will cling to the Old Rugged Cross/And exchange it some day for a crown”
  • Softly and Tenderly is a late 19th century hymn that comes from the revivalist movement birthed in America’s Second Great Awakening. Its comforting melody is a result of the a capella Christian tradition in which it was written, although Johnny uses musical accompaniment. This hymn presents Jesus as a comforting, personal friend.
  • In the Sweet By and By is an American hymn from the mid-19th century that has become popular at funerals because of its clear message of reunion with God and loved ones beyond death. Johnny’s version is rendered fairly up beat with a boisterous brass section.
  • Just as I Am. Johnny had become close friends with evangelist Billy Graham, and this 1835 hymn by the great Charlotte Elliott was the climax of every Graham revival. It is the classic “altar call” song in which worshipers are invited to come to the altar at the front of the church, confess their sins, and accept Jesus as their savior. Its message of acceptance for everyone remains poignant to this day.
  • Farther Along is an early 20th century song of perseverance: “Tempted and tried, how often we question/Why we must suffer year after year”
  • When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder is a late 19th century American hymn about not missing out on salvation. It’s upbeat here, but not as fun as how Johnny often played it in concert.
  • Amazing Grace. If someone knows only one hymn, this is the one. If you don’t know its history, look it up. Johnny sings it reverently here.
  • At the Cross was written by great hymnist Isaac Watts in 1707, just before the first Great Awakening, and is a powerful hymn of salvation through Jesus’ death:

At the cross, at the cross,
Where I first saw the light,
And the burden of my heart rolled away –
It was there by faith I received my sight,
And now I am happy all the day.

Check out the gospel clapping at the end of Johnny’s version!

  • Have Thine Own Way, Lord is a beautiful song of surrender apparently written in 1902 by a missionary facing disappointment when they couldn’t raise the funds for their journey.

Personally, I enjoy these hymns far more than the cheesy gospel songs he had recently recorded (see “J-E-S-U-S”), although these too come from a sentimental hymn-writing tradition. Musically, the orchestration are not to my taste and I far prefer the acoustic renditions of many of these Johnny would provide late in his career on My Mother’s Hymn Book.

All in all, great song choice (if you’re looking for a gospel album), quite good singing, but forgettable music.


Other Songs from the Era:

  • Lily of the Valley – A home demo of this was released on Personal File, but he also recorded a proper version during the Precious Memories sessions. Released on The Great Seventies Recordings box set.
  • Gospel Ship/Song to Woody/Hey Porter – Bluegrass star Earl Scruggs was at the height of his success when he roped Johnny Cash (and a host of other big names) into contributing to his Anniversary Special Vol. 1. These are great versions of a classic southern gospel tune, a Bob Dylan cover, and a Sun-era Cash number. All are available on Anniversary Special Vol. 1, and the last two are also on Cash’s Singles, Plus.