Album Review: The Fabulous Johnny Cash – Johnny Cash

Posted: January 18, 2013 in 1950's, 5/5, Country, Johnny Cash, Music Reviews, Uncategorized
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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.

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