Sound of Johnny CashOne would expect an album entitled The Sound of Johnny Cash to, well, sound like Johnny Cash. Come 1962, however, it was increasingly difficult to define that sound. On Sun records in the late ‘50s, Johnny had a distinct sound. It was part country, part rockabilly, and all Cash. Guitarist Luther Perkins was no Chet Atkins or even Scotty Moore, and yet, despite technical limitations, built a distinctive rockabilly influenced-style. During the verses he would usually tick-tock back and forth between the root and the fifth, and in the breaks he would either play a simple chord-based chime in the upper register, or a twangy riff low down on the E and A strings (Rock Island Line and Folsom Prison Blues are both fabulous examples wherein he does both in one solo). On bass, Marshall Grant would generally underpin Luther’s tick-tock. Their producer, Sam Phillips, forbade drums, so Cash himself took an interesting approach to acoustic-based rhythm playing. Rather than using bluegrass or delta blues-style fingerpicking, he shoved a heavy piece of paper between the strings and the fretboard, further muted the strings with his left hand, and used his right hand to rake across the strings, giving a percussive clickety-clack. The result was a never-before-heard minimalist approach to country born of necessity: Boom-chicka-boom. The “booms” were Marshall and Luther, the “chicka” was Cash essentially playing drums on his guitar. Add to that Johnny’s lonesome, moaning baritone and you had absolute magic.

Less than 4 years into his Columbia contract, however, the “sound of Johnny Cash” had diversified significantly. His interest in the history of the south, led him to explore new sounds, including bluegrass on “Papa Played the Dobro,” or Civil War-era marching bands in “The Big Battle”. The addition of touring mate Johnny Western into the recording studio brought more complex acoustic guitar arrangements into the mix (see Tennessee Flat-Top Box). Not surprisingly, with big studios and big label budgets, the arrangements became grandiose and over-the-top, too (Girl from Saskatoon anyone?). Most recently, he had released Hymns from the Heart, which apart from Cash’s voice, and one song featuring the newly expanded Tennesee Three (with WS Holland on drums), was entirely lacking the “sound of Johnny Cash.”

One would expect, then, that The Sound of Johnny Cash to be a deliberate return to form. The question is: is it? Opening tune Lost on the Desert, driven by a booming 12-string acoustic guitar, would lead one to believe that, no, Cash has continued to pursue more mainstream trends, this time the popular folk sounds of groups like the Kingston Trio. As the album progresses, though, Lost is seen to be a red herring. What unfolds over 11 more tracks is a return to the boom-chicka-boom sound.

The album themes are familiar, notably the high proportion of breakup tunes. Accidently on Purpose is a waltz where Johnny’s lover marries another; I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know tells a similar story, this time with bar-room piano leading the way; and Let Me Down Easy and Mr. Lonesome are exactly what their titles suggest. The highlight might be You Won’t Have Far To Go, which exemplifies Cash’s minimalism, offering a scant verse, chorus, a guitar riff (hardly long enough to be deemed a solo), and a repeat of the chorus. In it, a gambling man laments his greatest loss:

Love’s a gamble and I’m a gamblin’ man I’ve done everything to make you understand But the odds are high and luck is running low Look for me you won’t have far to go

Elsewhere, Cash returns to his familiar motif of life in the south. Lost in the Desert is yet another tale of death in the desert (see Hank and Joe and Me on Songs of Our Soil). Meanwhile, Leadbelly’s In Them Old Cottonfields Back Home, is a more comforting tale of a mother’s life in the midst of a hard sharecropper’s life (see Suppertime and Are All The Children In).

What is interesting about this album, though, is that it doesn’t just remind us of the sound of Johnny’s past, instead it points the way forward to the future, even serving as a template for his ultimate Man in Black persona. This is notable first in the three crime tales. The first, Jimmie Rodgers’ In the Jailhouse Now (later made famous in O Brother Where Art Thou?), is a cautionary tale of crime and gambling, which, with its upbeat tone and enthusiastic call and response vocals made for a great single. The second, Delia’s Gone, is a brutal, callous murder ballad, building on his infamous Folsom Prison line, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”:

First time I shot her, shot her in the side Hard to let her suffer, but with the second shot she died

The third, I’m Free from the Chain Gang Now, is a tale of an innocent man’s liberation, although whether it is literal, or only in his mind is never made clear. What made Johnny so relatable was that he was passionate about justice, and yet always showed an understanding of what it is that makes us do the wrong thing. In these songs, this dimension of his complex personality emerges. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that Cash returned to Delia and Chain Gang to great effect in his American Recording years with Rick Rubin.

His two self-penned contributions also show Cash developing some deep humility. In You Remembered Me, a wild man thanks his lover for being faithful to him. Sing it Pretty, Sue updates his earlier hit Ballad of a Teenage Queen. In Ballad, the talented local girl runs off to Hollywood only to return home because she couldn’t bear to be apart from the humble boy in the candy store. In Sing It, the star (Sue) never comes back. Instead, her jilted lover sits at home quietly supporting the girl he once loved. You can’t help but wonder if this is really a role reversal – Cash secretly wishing that his wife, Vivian, would release him to the life of fame he had found.  More likely it refers to Billie Jean Horton, widow of Cash’s best friend Johnny Horton.  She had recently ended their affair, claiming she wanted to focus on her career… in reality she was frightened by his willingness to leave his family for her and his amphetamine use (she had seen enough of that in her prior marriage to Hank Williams). Regardless, his own compositions reveal the morally complex world in which Cash lived by 1962 – surrounded by fame, linked to his old rural life, a Memphis wife whom he had moved to a big house in California (and to whom he was unfaithful), a ballooning drug addiction and a yearning for the old-time religion of his childhood.

In terms of the actual “sound”, this album satisfies, but is not really the old sound nor the new sound (that would solidify on his next release). Overall, it is a return to his minimalist sound, yet Columbia’s big-studio echo (driven by expensive reverb effects devices), could never match the natural echo found in the Sun Studio’s vocal booth (the claustrophobic tiled bathroom of an old barber shop). Strangely, WS Holland, introduced on Hymns from the Heart, does not appear on this release, so again we’re back to the Tennessee Two complemented by studio musicians. After the blandness of Hymns from the Heart, though, Sound is a breath of fresh air.

4.5/5

Other Songs from the Era:

  • A Little At a Time – Released in advance of the album as a b-side to In the Jailhouse Now, this is a truly magical song.  Led by a 12-string guitar lead riff, it’s closest to album opener Lost in the Desert as they share an early 60’s folk vibe.  The male backing vocals are perfectly balanced, and the lyric is heartrbroken Johnny at his best: “Stop loving me a little at a time…”
  • Delia’s Gone (Alternate Take) – An alternate take of Delia’s Gone is quite different. The music is simplified, removing the backing vocals and the key change. Notably, the crucial 3rd and 4th verses are restored. In these, we find Delia to be a loose woman who drove Johnny to murder. Without these verses, as on the album, Johnny seems to murder her for no apparent reason. Both takes are wonderful interpretations of this traditional tune. Available on the Legend box set.
  • Danger Zone – An unreleased cheating song: “Dangerous to hold you, innocent hearts at stake, how long can we go on, when innocent hearts will break.” I wonder where he got the inspiration for this one? There’s an old story about how Neil Young’s wife was none too happy when he penned Cinnamon Girl. I’m guessing Vivian had a similar reaction to this one (if Cash even let her know about it). Available on Bear Records releases
  • Bonanza!/Pick a Bale O’ Cotton – Johnny penned his own lyrics to the famous TV theme song. A fun classic with a blistering opening riff from Luther. Available on Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash. The b-side is another great cotton song reflecting Johnny’s youth in Arkansas. Driven by banjo and snare drum. Available on the Legend box set and Singles, Plus.
  • The Shifting Whispering Sands Part II – Johnny took a first crack at this with Bonanza’s Lorne Greene. Lorne read the narrative in a baritone deeper than Johnny’s and Johnny sang the chorus. They sound good together, but it’s a bombastic, over-produced tune as well, with thick choral voices. Perhaps intended as a companion to Bonanza!, later, Lorne’s vocals were scrubbed and it was re-mixed with more echo for True Tales of the Wild West. Available on Bootleg Vol. 2.
  • There’ll Be Peace in the Valley (For Me)/Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord) – This glorious gospel-themed 45rpm single introduces a new Johnny Cash sound. On these two gospel classics he teams up with the Carter Family, with whom he frequently toured. Although it would be several years before Cash would marry June Carter, the Carter Family would now become Cash’s primary female backing vocalists. On Peace in the Valley, Anita takes the lead on the chorus, her mother and sister backing them up. The sound is marvelous… a gentle acoustic arrangement highlights Johnny’s flawless baritone until Anita soars out of heaven. The b-side is an Easter classic. The approach is similar to the a-side: Johnny sings the verses, Anita leads the chorus with oh-so-sly blues notes (“oh, sometimes it cause me to tremble”). The four-part harmony when they come in together is magical. The arrangement adds new dimensions, though. Starting off a cappella, it grows, adding gentle drums, bass, guitar, and that Carter Family signature, the autoharp. Here then emerges a new classic Cash sound. Also, don’t miss Maybelle Carter’s shining moment on the third verse. Such an improvement over Hymns from the Heart. Available on Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash.
  • Live at New River Ranch, Rising Sun, Maryland – Seven tracks along with on-stage dialogue make up this 17-minute set released on Bootleg Vol. 3. The audio quality isn’t great, but it’s a wonderful glimpse into the difference between Johnny’s recording and live sound at the time. You get classics (I Still Miss Someone, I Walk the Line), a recent track (Cotton Fields), oldies from the Sun days (Rock Island Line, Country Boy), an instrumental (Perkins Boogie), and his perennial set-closer, The Rebel – Johnny Yuma. The dialogue is hilarious – he impersonates a skipping Ernest Tubb record and Elvis Presley wannabes. If anything, though, the set reveals the effect his dependence on amphetamines was having. Every song is played fast and wild, building one upon the other until Johnny Yuma nearly falls apart at the seams. The set is also notable as an early record of the Tennessee Three backing up Johnny. Interestingly, on I Still Miss Someone, Holland steps back on drums, and Johnny keeps the rhythm the way he used to in the Sun days, by strumming like a locomotive across his muted guitar strings.

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