Review: Now, There Was a Song! – Johnny Cash

Posted: February 10, 2013 in 1960's, 5/5, Country, Johnny Cash
Tags: , , , , , , ,

now there was a songNow, There Was a Song! is a controversial entry in Cash’s discography. As soon as you hit play, the opening chords of the beautiful George Jones ballad, Seasons of My Heart, will tell you you’re a long way out of Cash territory. A bright country piano opens the tune, quickly followed by fiddle and steel guitar. Yes, the Tennessee Two (Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant) are here, but so are a lot of others. Johnny Western returns to play acoustic on his second Cash album, but, unlike Ride This Train, his acoustic picking isn’t the dominant sound. Instead it’s the slip-note piano of Floyd Cramer (Elvis’ player of choice), Gordon Terry’s fiddle, and none other than Hank Williams’ steel guitar player Don Helms.

Steel guitar is rare in Cash’s music, thus Now, There Was a Song! stands out as an idiosyncratic release. The concept seems simple enough – Cash sings a handful of covers by the kings of country – and yet hearing Cash sing country standards in standard country style makes you realize just how unique his songwriting and interpretation was.

He skips across the major sounds of country. Western Swing is well represented, best of all in I Feel Better All Over, then in Time Changes Everything, a standard written by Texas Playboys vocalist Tommy Duncan, and finally in Bob Wills’ ballad My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You. He moves further into Texas with Ernest Tubb’s slow-dance I’ll Miss You When You Go (it would take them another 22 years before they’d duet on Jealous Loving Heart). Johnny Western steps out briefly for a nice guitar-fiddle duet on the opening of Why Do You Punish Me. The album closes with Just One More – a gorgeous George Jones drinking song where you can just picture the honky tonk crowds clumsily waltzing along before closing time – and one final spritely two-step in Honky-Tonk Girl. In sum, though, there’s only one song that really sounds like a Cash song, and that’s Transfusion Blues, whose locomotive chug-a-chug would make it a mainstay of Cash’s live set (uncensored as Cocaine Blues).

The format, however, allows Cash to break free of some of his usual constraints. Cash was never one for drinking songs (see I Hardly Ever Sing Beer Drinking Songs on Look at them Beans), but here he’s even singing about drug use, something that was very real for him at the time. His usual fare, those sad, sad moaners, are all classic on this one as well: I Couldn’t Keep from Crying, Marty Robbins’ I’d Just Be Fool Enough, and above all Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry. Helms’ steel guitar (pickers note, Helms was still playing a non-pedal guitar at this time, which makes one appreciate his virtuosity and sensitivity all the more) draws that much more out of Cash’s weeping lament.

Some fans hate this album and, for Cash purists, I can understand why. I, however, love it.

5/5

Other Songs from the Era:

  • Girl in Saskatoon/Locomotive Man – Where the unreleased tracks of 1960 returned to a simpler sound, Girl in Saskatoon is overloaded with echo. It does, however, continue the acoustic Johnny Western approach Cash favoured that year and would not have been out of place on Ride This Train. As a Canadian, I can’t help but be happy that he sings of Saskatoon, Hudson Bay and all things Canuck. The b-side is a great rollicking tune complete with steam sound effects. Again, largely acoustic-based, it’s a humorous tale of a philandering railroad worker with a woman in every town. A worthy entry into Cash’s canon of train songs. Both are available on Singles, Plus. A raw demo version of the b-side entitled Lovin’ Locomotive Man is on the Bear Records set. It’s a bit slower, but worth it just to hear Cash, Perkins and Grant crank it out without any effects, choirs, or drums added into the mix.
  • Five Minutes to Live: A good boom-chicka-boom tune, this was the title theme to Johnny’s 1961 film, yet it somehow feels unfinished. Rather than a middle 8, we’re given an unembellished instrumental section which changes keys again and again only to go nowhere. I haven’t seen the movie, so maybe the wordless section was there to accommodate a car chase. Meandering aside, apart from the out-of-place “bum-bum-bums”, it proves nicely that Cash could still play his stripped back sound to perfection. Available on Bootleg Vol. 2.
  • The Losing Kind – An absolutely perfect unreleased tune about a luckless gambler. Two versions exist out there, one short, one longer, each with differing closing verses. The long version is on Bootleg Vol. 2. The short version is on a Bear Records compilation.
  • Blues for Two/Jeri and Nina’s Melody – The Tennessee Two and Friend released another 45rpm single in 1960, akin to their 1959 release. This time there’s a riff on Folsom Prison Blues on the a-side. The b-side starts off interestingly, sounding vaguely Middle Eastern, but soon becomes a slow blues tune. Guitar freaks will love Luther’s tremolo tone if nothing else. Available on Bear Records sets.
Comments
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