Archive for January, 2013

Rebel Johnny YumaA seldom discussed entry in Johnny’s catalogue is the 1959 EP, The Rebel – Johnny Yuma. Although I had all of the tracks in one form or another, I never put together their source until I started digging through the liner notes for the Complete Columbia Collection. While Johnny Yuma was released as a single in 1961, and then included on the 1963 release Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash, it made its debut here on this 1959 four-track release.

The title track was written by Richard Markowitz as the theme for the 1959-1961 western show, “The Rebel,” and is rendered by Johnny Cash and co. as an upbeat number that would fit equally into any TV show or movie of the genre. Likely his recently successful single Don’t Take Your Guns to Town made him an attractive choice for such a job. Johnny’s performance is fun and spirited, and he would return to this tune frequently in concert, often in a medley at the end of his set to please fans.

What makes the release particularly interesting are the b-sides which, together, show Johnny continuing to pursue his passion for concept albums. With the addition of Remember the Alamo, The Ballad of Boot Hill and Lorena he pulls together four songs reminiscing on 19th century life in the west, something Cash would revisit time and time again in his career.

While none of the songs are penned by Cash, the release is particularly notable for his recording of Carl Perkins’ Ballad of Boot Hill. Some 10 years later, Carl would step into Cash’s band following the death of Luther Perkins (unrelated) in a house fire. Here, though, in a soft, lilting waltz, Cash tenderly narrates the famous gunfight at the OK Corral. The female backing vocals are tasteful and appropriate.

Lorena is a mournful tale, depicting the last thoughts of a civil war soldier. The trembling honky tonk piano makes it sound like a song they’d turn to late at night in an old saloon. Alamo is my least favourite of the bunch, although, again it suits the style and theme of the release. Sung as a march with slightly overbearing backing vocals, Cash tells the tale of this famed bloody battle.

With the dawning of the LP era, and later the CD age, this little release has been lost. The first two tracks popped up on Ring of Fire, Boot Hill was included on Ballads of the True West, and Lorena mostly vanished (I first heard it on a scratched up old copy of More of Old Golden Throat, and was happy to find it included on 2012’s Singles, Plus). Viewed together, though, while this release is not a masterpiece, it is another important development in Cash’s career, a hint of the types of albums he would continue to pursue with the creative freedom Columbia was offering him. All in all, you have four diverse tracks each interesting in their own right, but building into a thematic whole. Not bad for a one-off to promote a TV show.

4/5

Other songs from the era:

  • Johnny Yuma Theme – An alternate to the end product, this is an entirely different tune penned by Cash himself. Whereas the chosen song sounds like a Western theme (complete with a chorus singing the title in the opening), this sounds like a Cash tune, complete with a sparse guitar opening from Luther. Cash would later rework the melody into Hardin Wouldn’t Run. Available on Bootleg Vol. 2.
  • The Little Drummer Boy/I’ll Remember You – Cash’s first Christmas song was released as a 45. Little Drummer Boy has never been a favourite of mine, so I can’t say I’m a fan. The tune centres on Cash’s typical pre-WS Holland drum sound – a soft but martial beat on a tom-tom drum – supported by an angelic female chorus. No signs of the Tennessee Two on this one, nor of the driving snare sound Holland would bring in a year or so. The b-side is a bouncy tune driven by honky-tonk piano and another angelic chorus. The “bum-bum-bum-bums” are a little too poppy for me (think “Mr. Sandman”), but the tune is very catchy. The a-side was included on 1963’s The Christmas Spirit. The b-side has popped up frequently in recent years, including on Bootleg Vol. 2.
  • The Ballad of the Harpweaver – Johnny took a stab at this Christmas obscurity, perhaps as a b-side for Drummer Boy? It’s a spoken word piece, the type Cash would gravitate to frequently on his concept albums. A more haunting, Appalachian-sounding version would be re-recorded for The Christmas Spirit. Here it’s plain old dull. Available on the Legacy edition of Ride this Train.
  • Second Honeymoon – Released late in 1959 as the b-side to Going to Memphis, an advance single to be included later in 1960 on Ride this Train, this track was then re-released in 1960 as an a-side. It should have remained a b-side. A by-the-numbers moaner about a jilted lover who returns to his bridal suite without his bride. Cash wrote many better tearjerkers himself. Also available on the Legacy edition of Ride This Train.
  • Bandana/Wabash Blues – Recorded by “The Tennessee Two (and Friend)”, this is an instrumental 45rpm featuring an upbeat tune on the a-side and a slower one on the b-side. If you love Luther’s sound, you’ll go nuts for this release. His skills were limited, but he used them so effectively. Also, it showcases Johnny’s percussive approach to rhythm guitar developed in the absence of a drummer. Unfortunately only available on the exorbitantly-priced Bear Family Records releases.

songsofoursoilSongs of Our Soil seems to prove the theory that Cash was holding back his good material from Sam Phillips during the end of his tenure at Sun Records.  His third release for Columbia, still less than a year since the first, Songs demonstrates that Cash’s creativity really was stifled over at Sun.  While he wrote those great songs and crafted his signature sound over at Sun, Columbia gave him the opportunity to explore his whims and fancies with little restraint.

While Fabulous fit nicely into the Sun sound, except with added drums, Hymns was the gospel album Sam forbade.  Now on Songs of Our Soil, Cash strikes out into an entirely new vein – the concept album.  In twelve tightly crafted songs, Cash evokes a passing rural America.  Five songs clock in under two minutes, and six are originals written by Johnny, and two more are his revisions of traditionals (Clementine/Oh My Darling Clementine and Drink To Me/Drink To Me With Only Thine Eyes).

As many have noted, the album is filled with death.  His mother dies (Don’t Step on Mother’s Roses), his father dies (again, Roses), his grandfather dies (Grandfather’s Clock), a native warrior threatens murder (Old Apache Squaw), a carousing miner is murdered behind a saloon on the eve of his wedding (Clementine), three prospectors thirst to death in the desert (Hank and Joe and Me), a cemetery caretaker ponders his forthcoming lonely death (The Caretaker), and it’s all rounded with a meditation on the return of Christ (The Great Speckled Bird).  Other songs offer little cheeriness.  The farm gets flooded (Five Feet High and Rising), the family ponders asking the rich man in town for help as they starve (The Man on the Hill), and a sailor gets homesick (I Want to Go Home).

Despite the dour subject matter, the music throughout is upbeat.  Fans of the Sun sound will really enjoy this one.  Where they’re added, the drums are light, letting Luther’s Boom-Chicka-Boom picking carry the rhythm along.  Johnny’s acoustic guitar strums along throughout, most notably on Don’t Step on Mother’s Roses, where Luther steps out with some Hawaiian-esque lead guitar.

The contrast between the dark lyrics and the shuffling music belies Johnny’s character.  This album speaks of two worlds: the reality of life in the rural south he grew up in and the lore of the West that filled his imagination as a child on the farm.  That life was full of struggle, with poverty and natural disaster always looming at the door, threatening to take everything a hard working family had worked for.  Most things of value were a tribute to a lost loved one, be they a rose bush over mother’s grave, or a glorious clock memorializing grandfather.  And yet for those who ventured beyond the farm, the land of opportunity often resulted in tragedy.

Despite having grown up in such a world of toil, Cash was ever hopeful.  The landmarks of the album attest to as much: it opens with a hopeful love song (Drink to Me), closes the first side with a hopeful look towards redemption in Christ’s return, and then finally resolves the album with It Could Be You (Instead of Him), a plea for compassion towards one’s fellow man:

Befriend each stranger in the night help to make his burden light

Lift up the fallen ones and be a friend

Shed a tear share a sigh share his fears don’t pass him by

But for the grace of God it could be you instead of him

It is this code of charity that kept people alive in such a difficult world.

In a modern world, it can be hard to identify with the context of Cash’s songs, and yet all of these threats still loom.  In the past two months, New York City and Montreal have flooded.  We’re still living in war.  Many have lost their houses in recent years.  And when we face challenges, the same hope remains: the hope of love, the hope of a benevolent God, and the hope of goodwill from others when we’re in need.  To this end, Songs of Our Soil is a timeless success.

5/5

Other songs from the era:

  • I Got Stripes – This was the single, featuring Five Feet High and Rising.  This track would contribute to Johnny’s bad-boy image, offering a light-hearted take on prison life.  It’s a classic upbeat number (faster than anything on the Songs LP) that would feature regularly in Cash’s live set.  It can be found on the Legacy edition of Songs of Our Soil.
  • Wo Ist Zuhause Mama/Viel Zu Spat – On Oct. 25, 1959, Johnny recorded German versions of How High’s the Water Mama and I Got Stripes, linking Johnny to his days as a soldier deployed to Germany in the early 50s.  Purely interesting as a novelty item.  The backing vocals in Wo Ist Zuhause are particularly amusing.  Available on several different Bear Family releases.
  • Heartbeat/Relief is Just a Swallow Away/Hello Again – These tunes have popped up again on some of the Bear Family releases.  Apparently, Johnny’s nephew Roy Cash Jr. was trying to get a start as a country singer under the name of Roy Rivers.  Johnny was kind enough to open the studio to him and these are three recordings that have surfaced.  Johnny isn’t heard on any of these, and the sound is different from Cash’s own sound, so I’m doubtful if the Tennessee Two are on here either.  Instead it’s booming drums, jaunty steel guitar, and bouncy piano typical of the era.  Roy’s voice isn’t half bad, though!

hymnsFaith was central to Johnny Cash’s music and life. Read either of his autobiographies and you’ll hear the haunting story of his older brother Jack’s brutal death at age 15. Mauled by a power saw in a local mill, he died a week later, depleted by the injuries to his stomach. Despite dying young, Jack left a strong impression on Johnny. Johnny remembered his brother as a gifted, fiery preacher.

If you look at the cover of Johnny’s first album for Rick Rubin – which would resuscitate Johnny’s career one last time before his own death – the black-and-white imagery echoes Johnny and Jack, one the dark, troubled soul, the other the good and faithful servant. As Cash discussed, though, even that black dog had a white spot, a fleck of hope.

When Johnny recorded Hymns in 1958 he was no saint. A road warrior, travelling the highways and byways promoting his career, his addiction to pills was beginning, taking uppers to sustain him from concert to concert, and downers to help him sleep when he got home. Compounded by affairs on the road, one can imagine he was not much of a husband or father.

Yet, Cash was adamant in his desire to record a gospel record, so adamant, in fact, that it became one of the determining factors in his move from Sun Records to Columbia. With one album under his belt at Columbia, they made good on their promise to allow him to record a gospel album. The result is Hymns by Johnny Cash, which went on to sell 500,000 copies.

Hymns offers new insight into Cash’s psyche. On this release we see little of the spit-in-your-eye rebel described in Folsom Prison Blues or Don’t Take Your Guns to Town. Instead, we see a humble man looking back to the faith of his childhood. Cash’s faith is deeply sentimental, rooted in the folksy Christianity of the cottonfields. Take “Are All the Children In” , a poem read over a gently-played “Just As I Am”. In it, a man reflects on death, wondering if God will call him in, just like his mother used to at the end of each day.

Sentimentality, however, should not be confused with happiness. I often get frustrated with the credit Rick Rubin receives for “discovering” the dark side of Cash, because it’s been there throughout his career, even on this his first gospel album. Despite this being an album of hymns, it is more accurately an album of desparate prayers. Many of the songs present a broken, lonesome and rejected man looking to a faithful God for hope. In Lead Me Father, he cries, “When my hands are tired and my step is slow/Walk beside me and give me the strength to go/Fill my face with your courage so defeat won’t show/Pick me up when I stumble so the world won’t know.” The Bible heroes are loners – Noah and Samson on He’ll be a Friend – and Jesus is the one who can feed, heal, and give life (It Was Jesus).

The songs are a mix of traditionals (The Old Account; Swing Low, Sweet Chariot), contemporary tunes (I Saw a Man, Lead Me Gently, Snow in His Hair, These Things Shall Pass, God Will), and four Cash originals. These four are all wonderful. It Was Jesus is a bouncy call-and-response number. Lead Me Father is a comforting ballad with beautiful backing vocals by the Jordanaires. I Call Him is a bouncy number co-written with his father, Roy Cash. Last, He’ll be a Friend is a memorable Bible lesson put to song.

Audience reactions to this release will vary. Many who don’t share Cash’s faith will find this collection tedious. As someone who does enjoy gospel, this is not just another hymn collection. Regardless, great value is found in his perspective on faith. Johnny isn’t a squeaky-clean Pat Boone, he’s a troubled man turning to faith for hope. This is the perspective that resonates throughout.

Musically, there is no other Cash album quite like this one. The core of this album is the boom-chicka-boom sound of Cash and the Tennessee Two. Sometimes gentle, sometimes rollicking, it is always Luther’s simple guitar lines racketing over Marshall’s back-and-forth bass, with Cash’s voice booming over the top. Throughout, their foundation is augmented by now-dated background choruses, and at times piano and drums. This is Cash in transition. He is shifting from the simple sound of the Tennessee Two, to a more orchestrated approach that would ultimately dwarf his signature sound.

Next to the stripped-back My Mother’s Hymn Book released shortly before his death, this is my favourite Cash gospel album. Many of these would carry through his live sets over the years (The Old Account absolutely rocks on At San Quentin). Here, though, they are clear, focused and incisive.

5/5 (If you don’t like gospel, 3/5?)

Other songs from the era:
The 2002 Legacy Edition of Hymns includes an alternate, mono mix of It Was Jesus. Stripped of the background vocals and with echo added to Cash’s vocal, this version just doesn’t work. Instead of being a sprite album opener, it turns into a plodding single.

The Fabulous Johnny Cash is Cash’s first LP for Columbia Records. Released late in 1958, it foreshadows the many new directions he would take in his 25+years with Columbia. Johnny’s canon from Sun Records (1955-1958) is legendary. Backed only by the Tennessee Two, their sound was raw and minimal. Despite each musician’s limited technical ability, and with producer Sam Phillip’s “no drums” restriction, they developed their unique Boom-Chicka-Boom sound. Johnny’s acoustic guitar was, more often than not, a percussion instrument. Luther Perkin’s guitar and Marshall Grant’s bass tick-tock in the background, Luther stepping out only for the most sparse of guitar solos. At times they were complemented by standard 1950’s vocal choruses, but for the most part, it was three men hammering out rockabilly, blues and ballads about life in the South.

fabulousFabulous is the most akin to the Sun releases of any Columbia album, and yet begins to expand the palette. All of Cash’s favourite themes are here: rural Southern life (Pickin’ Time, Suppertime), heartbreak (I’d Rather Die Young, That’s All Over), sentimentality (Shepherd of My Heart), the life of a musician (Frankie’s Man, Johnny, The Troubadour), a fascination with trains (One More Ride) and old-time gospel (That’s Enough). Over the course of his career he would revisit all of these again, and again, sometimes in theme albums (Ride This Train, America, Precious Memories), other times all mixed together (almost every album he released, even Folsom Prison, had a hymn or two).

For fans at the time, however, this album must have felt like a cool glass of water at the end of a walk through the desert. While he exploded out of the gate with Sun, Johnny quickly grew frustrated with Phillip’s imposed limitations (No drums! No gospel!). By the end of his Sun days, Johnny kept his originals to himself, offering Sam nothing but sub-par covers. The covers here are anything but. That’s All Over and I’d Rather Die Young are as sad and lonesome as anything you’ll ever hear, the latter laying a template for his classic 1960 cover of Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry (minus the pedal steel). That’s Enough is a bluesy gospel number, Cash’s drawl moaning about human rejection and divine comfort, all while punching out lines more direct and comical than anything I’ve ever heard in church (“He’s the great Emancipator/my heart regulator”). Suppertime is a gorgeous closer, with subtle additions of weeping steel guitar.

While Cash would prove himself as a master interpreter over the next few decades (Rick Rubin anyone?), it is his originals that stand out here, five in all. The opener, Run Softly Blue River, comes kicking out of the gate with a rough and ready one note guitar riff from Luther, announcing the arrival of the Johnny Cash. Frankie’s Man, Johnny is a worthy follow-up, a humourous tale of a failed attempt at cheating on the road (“Be good but carry a stick/sometimes it looks like a guitar picker just can’t tell what to pick”). Pickin’ Time makes a wonderful pair with Suppertime, both paying tribute to Cash’s Arkansas cotton field roots. Ultimately, though, it’s the twin originals of I Still Miss Someone and Don’t Take Your Guns to Town that are the focal point of this album. Two classic songs that are definitive Cash, one is a broken-hearted love song, the other a tragic tale of rebellion, both expressed in the most minimal of terms, lyrically and musically.

In Fabulous, then, we have a taste of Cash’s entire legacy, a summation of his past and a window into his future. Other albums may have bigger hits, or clearer visions, but if you’re looking for an album with the Johnny Cash sound, then this is the one for you.

A classic. 5/5

Other songs from the era:
Six outtakes are featured on the 2002 Legacy edition. Some point backwards towards the minimal Sun sound (Fool’s Hall of Fame, Cold Shoulder, Walkin’ the Blues), others experiment with a more orchestrated approach (Oh What a Dream, Mama’s Baby (a wonderfully swinging number), I’ll Remember You). Walkin’ the Blues stands out as a beautiful acoustic track unusual for Cash.

Singles:

  • All Over Again/What Do I Care: A quick acoustic track, but largely forgettable. Despite being the a-side, this was omitted from the classic singles collection Ring of Fire. While Luther plays a characteristic boom-chicka-boom lead line, it pales in comparison to earlier hits like I Walk the Line. The b-side is better, notable most of all for its a cappella introduction. All Over Again is available on Bootleg Vol. 2, and Singles, Plus. What Do I Care is on Ring of Fire.
  • Oh What a Dream was re-recorded as “You Dreamer You” and released as the b-side to Frankie’s Man, Johnny. The pace is sped up and the Jordanaire’s backing vocals are augmented by a female chorus, hinting at the lusher sound Cash gravitated towards with Columbia. You can find it on the Legacy Edition of Ride This Train or Bootleg Vol. 2.

moonbeamMy very first music purchase was a strange one. I was 10, and Men Without Hats’ Pop Goes the World was topping the Canadian charts. Instead of buying the album, though, for some reason I bought a cassette EP of their second single, Moonbeam. Thus began a lifelong bent towards the random and the obscure.

My music collection has grown and shrunk at various times over the years, but I have always gravitated to those little gems found on b-sides, imports, or long-deleted releases. In the days before the Internet, that sometimes meant years of waiting for a rarity to pop up in a used record shop or a one-off record show.

I remember my amazement when a short-lived shop in my hometown of Ottawa, Canada had a two-cassette Australian ‘zine from 1981 including a demo of the Cure’s 100 Years. The Cure’s collector guide didn’t even have a picture of this treasure. To my chagrin, it’s since been cleaned up and released on a Rhino deluxe edition CD. Likewise, one fortuitous record show uncovered two copies of a US flexidisc with a hilarious demo of Sloan’s I Can Feel It. That little nugget was not included in the recent three-disc reissue of their classic album Twice Removed, so it remains an obscurity.

This blog is dedicated to completists and obscurists. Bit by bit, I hope to review and document the hundreds of records and singles I’ve gathered over the years. My tastes are very diverse – I grew up on mopey British 80s music (Cure, Depeche Mode, Morrissey/Smiths, New Order) and I still love the early releases of the era’s juggernauts: REM and U2. In the 90s I never got into grunge. Instead, I was one of two kids in my Canadian high school addicted to Britpop. On this side of the pond, there was no Blur-Oasis rivalry. If you even knew those bands (before Song 2 and Wonderwall), it was you against the world. Definitely Maybe was decadent rock ‘n roll in a world of brooding Seattle metal; Parklife was sophisticated, bubbly pop in a sea of three-chord punk. The 21st century has found me looking backwards: I’ve come to love the British Invasion, late 50’s jazz (John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk), Italian opera, and old country music.

It’s on that last note that I begin my blog. Given the recent release of Johnny Cash’s Complete Columbia Collection, which has rendered many of my old scratched up records obsolete, I’m going to work my way through his Columbia records catalogue, over 50 releases strong. Some are absolute classics, some are terrible, but all told, you’d be hard pressed to find another artist quite as iconic and prolific as Cash (and no, those endless Hendrix posthumous releases don’t count!).

Some other year I’ll get around to the Cure’s Live In Japan video or the minimalist beauty of Low and Ida, but I thought Cash would be as good a place to start as any. In my opinion, Johnny Cash is too often reduced to one thing. To some, he’s the Folsom Prison bad boy giving the finger to an annoying press photographer. To others, he’s a good ol’ boy singing well-worn hymns and songs about the cotton fields. I love Johnny Cash because he’s all these things and more, and it takes his entire catalogue to understand this. Including the worst of all Cash albums, Rainbow (how can Johnny Cash singing Creedence Clearwater Revival sound so bad?).

So that’s where I’ll start… over who knows how long, I’ll give a comprehensive look at Johnny Cash’s impressive Columbia catalogue, reviewing it record by record, pausing to discuss rarities and outtakes along the way. And who knows… I might just get around to his Sun, Mercury and American releases too!