Review: The Rebel – Johnny Yuma – Johnny Cash

Posted: January 30, 2013 in 1950's, 4/5, Country, Johnny Cash, Music Reviews
Tags: , , , , , ,

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.

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