Album Review: Keep on the Sunny Side – The Carter Family with Special Guest Johnny Cash

Posted: April 5, 2013 in 1960's, 4/5, Country, Gospel, Johnny Cash, The Carter Family
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Keep on the Sunny SideKeep on the Sunny Side is a unique release for Johnny Cash as it’s his first release playing the role of sideman (except for those couple of 45s by the Tennessee Two). Billed as “The Carter Family with Special Guest Johnny Cash”, the credits are indeed correct. What we have here is Johnny using his growing clout at Columbia to help out his touring mates.

In country music history, The Carter Family are arguably the most important early act. They began as a trio in the 1920s featuring AP Carter, his wife Sara, and his sister-in-law Maybelle. Through the early 40s they would play a key role in documenting the country sounds of folk and country music from their Virginia home. Their recordings were largely limited to 78’s. By the late 30s, they relocated to Texas and drew their children into the fold for regular radio appearances.

By the time Johnny Cash was working the country music circuit in the 50s and 60s, The Carter Family were a different beast. AP and Sara split in 1944, leaving Maybelle to carry the torch with her daughters, Anita, June and Helen. They toured constantly, but rarely recorded. As Cash frequently found himself sharing a bill with the Carter Family, he quickly befriended them – and ultimately began an affair with June. For him, the Carter Family were royalty; here he was playing music alongside those voices he heard over the radio as a child in his humble home of Dyess, Arkansas. In the liner notes, Cash’s reverance for AP is clear.  He states he avoided trying to sing like the great AP on this release because, in such light he himself was anything but “a good singer”.

The truth is, Cash had now established himself as one of the great singers. Using his pull as a top-selling recording star, Cash managed to muster the support from Columbia to record a full-length Carter LP. While this would be a one-off, the recording is a wonder, and sounds exactly as you might expect: a collection of Carter family classics played simple and straight, with Cash piping in for a verse or two, gussied up with a bit of big-studio echo.

The song choice is wonderful. There are gospel tunes – Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Woody Guthrie’s Lonesome Valley, Working on a Building – murder ballads – The Banks of the Ohio, Gathering Flowers from the Hillside – songs of longing and heartache – Worried Man Blues, Broken-Hearted Lover, Brown Eyes, Guthrie’s When the Roses Bloom Again – a paean to Virginia – My Clinch Mountain Home – and their definitive classic Keep on the Sunny Side.

It’s interesting to hear Johnny’s approach to this release. In general, he sings in a low register, often pushing his baritone down towards a bass. He has moments of glory, particularly his lead on The Banks of the Ohio and When the Roses Bloom again, but for the most part he is singing background harmony, or the second part in call-and-response passages. It should be said that his harmonies aren’t perfect, perhaps the result of his growing drug dependency, but the Carters were never known for finesse anyways and he fits right in.

This recording is an important recording in the Carters’ catalogue, demonstrating what their recording career might have been like had someone honoured them for the institution they were. Their 1930s-40s recordings are sparse, often with AP’s weary voice calling out over gentle acoustic guitars. Later radio recordings add another dimension of comedy thanks to the kids’ contributions (take June’s Root, Hog or Die). The 60’s touring incarnation was another beast altogether. The sound is still rustic, but filled out thanks to 12-string guitars and Maybelle’s (and later June’s) autoharp. The four-part women’s harmonies are lush, and blend magically. June was never known for having a beautiful voice – her tone was nasally and her pitch could be wild – but she made up for it with pure chutzpah. Anita’s voice, as I discussed in my review of Ring of Fire, however, sounds like it’s from heaven. Mother Maybelle ties their sound to the past and Helen was always reliable if not distinctive (sort of like the third sister in Downton Abbey).

Thank God, then, that Cash used his fame to ensure that they were recorded so well just this once. Their presence on his later live recordings was always nice, but never truly “them” – the Carter Family with electric guitar, bass, and drums just isn’t the same. Here we are blessed with a perfect acoustic album.

As part of the Cash canon, Keep on the Sunny Side is a unique but important entry. First, it documents how unique Cash’s own sound was. His country wasn’t the Appalachian hillbilly music of the Carters, the increasingly technical bluegrass sounds of Kentucky, the sophisticated swinging Western music from Texas, or even the pure rockabilly sound of his Sun records compatriots in Memphis. Growing up in Arkansas he was exposed to, and even part of, all of these, yet came up with something all his own. Hearing him on a traditional Carter Family record reminds us of that. Even their approach to gospel music is different. On Lonesome Valley they sing of Biblical prophets John the Baptist and Daniel, and how each believer is accountable for themselves:

“I’m gonna walk that lonesome valley, I’m gonna walk it by myself, Don’t want nobody to walk it for me, I’m gonna walk it for myself.”

Cash’s spirituality, born on the desperate cottonfields of the depression, was usually more communal, with God offering comfort to the weary, and calling each person to be generous to their neighbor in need.

Second, it shows just how important the Carters were to Cash’s music. Will the Circle be Unbroken would lead to one of Cash’s great hits (penned by Carl Perkins), Daddy Sang Bass. Also, Wabash Cannonball was certainly an influence for Rock Island Line, and would later be recorded by Cash himself. Moreover, the Carter approach to throw spirituals and murder ballads side by side surely led to Cash’s own approach to setlists – look at the Folsom Prison LP, where he swings from finding peace in the valley to shooting a man in Reno. As the lives of the Carters and Cash continued to intertwine, their mutual influence would continue to grow.

If you’re looking to connect with Johnny’s roots, or simply enjoy early country music, this is the album for you.

4.5/5

Other songs from the era:

  • How Did You Get Away from Me – An unreleased track with June singing lead and Johnny singing back-up, this one’s in an entirely different vein. Featuring the boom-chicka-boom sound of the Tennessee Three and a flute solo (!), this one shows what might have happened had the album been the Carter Family trying to appropriate Johnny’s style. Thankfully, they didn’t and this one was left on the floor! If you enjoy June’s raucous delivery style, though, you’ll like this one. Available on Bear Records compilations.

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