Blood Sweat and TearsTo be short and to the point, I Love This Album. In fact, I would peg this as the great unsung record of Johnny Cash’s career.

If you’ve been reading my reviews thus far, you’ll know that by 1963 Cash had released 7 albums, 1 EP, and a handful of singles since moving from Sun to Columbia. His Sun sound is instantly recognizable. After recording one song for Sam Phillips with a steel guitar (Wide Open Road) , they quickly threw poor Red and his steel out the door, and mastered the sparse, boom-chicka-boom sound: I-V-I bass patterns mimicked by a muted tick-tock electric guitar, brief, chiming arpeggio-style leads, and Johnny driving it all along by raking across his own muted acoustic guitar to give train-like percussion. Occasionally piano was added, as were 50’s style background vocals. Later compilations marred these recordings with overdubbed strings, too, but the core sound was minimal, innovative, and most importantly, distinctly Johnny Cash.

Moving to Columbia had both positive and negative effects. Certainly, Cash was allowed new creative freedom. He quickly explored his love of gospel music, as well as a number of concept records on various aspects of life in the rural south of his youth. A national label offering artistic freedom, however, also expected big sales. Not surprisingly, then, Cash’s Columbia records often work to conform him to contemporary trends, all in an effort to score that big hit. He experimented with folk, more acoustic country styles, and, most horrendously, a typical choir-and-vibraphone Gospel album (Hymns from the Heart). The problem with Cash is, while he has always maintained a clear artistic vision for the content of his music, he seems to resign the delivery of his music to the whims of his producers. Sam Phillips’ approach matched the sonics to Cash’s song choices. The same could be said years later for Rick Rubin. For Don Law and Frank Jones, his go-to producers at Columbia, often struggled to find an appropriate sound for Cash in those monstrous big-label studios.

On his previous release, The Sound of Johnny Cash, they seemed to be acknowledging they had lost their way with big slick arrangements. Ironically, that album didn’t quite capture what it set out to do, although it was a step in the right direction. Instead, I would argue that it is here, on Blood, Sweat and Tears, that they nail the “new” Johnny Cash Sound.

Several factors led to this arrival. First, it’s the first album where WS Holland plays drums throughout (he’d previously appeared on one track on Hymns from the Heart). His galloping snare expanded the Tennessee Two to the Tennessee Three, giving Cash a bigger sound, without sacrificing minimalism. The Two were fine for county fairs, but needed something more to fit in the big arenas they were moving towards.

Second, it marks the addition of the Carter Family as his backing singers. Although they had toured together, Cash’s backing vocals on records were usually by anonymous session singers. Cash’s band, however, was anything but anonymous. Luther and Marshall, while far from virtuosos, had a guitar-bass sound unlike any other in country. Cash obviously had a voice unlike any other. The Carter’s now gave them a backing unlike any other. Mother Maybelle’s autoharp also added an old-world charm that reflected the earthiness of Cash’s lyrics.

Third, it marks the introduction of Bob Johnson on guitar and banjo. They had previously attempted more complex acoustic guitar parts with tour mate Johnny Western, but, again, they needed an idiosyncratic voice that could become part of the family. Bob fit the bill. His fills float beautifully above the Tennessee Three’s musical centre. It would only take the addition of the Statler Brothers a couple of years later to cement Cash’s musical entourage.

What, then, about the music? On Blood, Sweat and Tears, we have nine magical songs reflecting on the misery of manual labour. The album opens with the epic The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer. Over nine minutes, Cash tales the tale of the West Virginian who out-paced a steam-powered hammer driving railway spikes. He saved his friends’ jobs at the expense of his own life. The song builds on the sonic model first heard in Rock Island Line, adding just the right amount of flourishes through Holland’s drums, Johnson’s banjo, and the sound of a driving spike.

From then on, poverty, toil and death pervade. Tell Him I’m Gone is a bluesy Cash original. Luther slows down the Big River riff to give a slow-burning, twangy minor-third foundation upon which Johnson can solo. It’s another tale of escaping the chain gang despite the threat of the captain’s ninety-nine caliber gun. Another Man Done Gone takes the vocal interplay of the previous year’s gospel single “Were You There…” to new heights. Cash and Anita Carter have an a cappella duel, telling the tragic tale of the hanging of a sharecropper.

Busted (the album’s single) is a moaner of monumental proportions. The narrator’s cotton crop doesn’t come in, cows run dry, hens won’t lay, and his brother can’t spare a dime because his family’s sick. Written in ’62 by Country Music Hall of Famer Harlan Howard, and driven to #4 in ’63 by Ray Charles, Cash’s rendering is made all the more mournful by that distinct autoharp.

The banjo in Casey Jones gives the album a more upbeat turn. This rail song is mixed perfectly, the background vocals adding energy. The misery quickly returns, though. Merle Travis’ Nine Pound Hammer is a loping acoustic tune in which Johnny’s bellowing baritone drawls about the misery of driving a hammer. Chain Gang is carefree and catchy, despite its desperate chorus:

“I dig that ditch, I chop that corn, I curse the day that I was born, I believe it’s better for a man to hang, than to work like a dog on a chain gang”

Jimmie Rodgers’ Waiting for a Train adds a breath of fresh air with some barroom piano, and on the closing Roughneck, Cash laments, “I’ll never amount to nothing.”

Usually, when singing of hardship, Cash offers comfort through faith. In Blood, Sweat and Tears he sings of nothing but the sheer misery of forced manual labour, be it through slavery, poverty or imprisonment. What makes this album so memorable, though, is the sound, the sound, the sound. The Boom-Chicka-Boom sound is back in all its glory, yet perfectly complemented through backing vocals, acoustic lead guitar, banjo, and autoharp. There are a lot of found sounds on this one, too – driving spikes, train noises and the like permeate. Not surprisingly, Another Man… comes from found sound guru Alan Lomax.

No classic singles on this one, and yet a perfect 5/5!

Other Songs from the Era:

  • Send a Picture of Mother – The b-side of Busted, this is another autoharp accompanied tune. Pleasant enough, although the story of a prisoner thinking of his family retreads the superior Give My Love to Rose (both of which were sang at Folsom Prison). Available on Bootleg Vol. 2.
  • I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight – An outtake from the sessions, this is a Carter-family enhanced tale of heartbreak that would have closed the album nicely, although would have broken the manual labour theme. Available on the Legend boxset.
  • Ring of Fire/I’d Still Be There – If there’s a Johnny Cash song, this is it, matched only by I Walk the Line and Folsom Prison Blues. This one was famously co-written by June Carter and stands to this day as a testimony of their burning, tempestuous romance. The mariachi trumpets are now legend, but when listened to in the context of his career to date, entirely innovative. Finally Law and Jones’ production experiments succeed. The b-side, I’d Still be There, is a piano-led tearjerker. It’s nice enough but absolutely overshadowed. Available on Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash.
  • The Matador – The follow-up single to Ring of Fire, The Matador tries to capitalize on the Mexican sound, but fails dramatically. For one, the echo is overdone. Second, the Carter Family’s backing vocals revert to the overblown choral sound found on his early 60’s work. Last, the recording quality is just abysmal. Where Ring of Fire was clear and punchy, this one is filled with unwanted distortion, sounding like a scratched record even on modern remasters. Available on the Legend boxset and many compilations.
  • El Matador/Fuego D’Amour – Johnny re-records the vocals to The Matador and Ring of Fire in Spanish. These are just as clunky and awkward as his earlier German-language 45’s. It should be noted, however, that the backing track to El Matador sounds better than the English-language original. The trumpets are still distorted, but the reverb is dialed back, and the flamenco-style acoustic strumming is cleaned up and brought to the fore. Available on Bear Records Sets.
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