Album Review: Orange Blossom Special – Johnny Cash

Posted: July 15, 2013 in 1960's, 5/5, Country, Johnny Cash
Tags: , , ,

Orange Blossom SpecialJohnny Cash’s 1965 release Orange Blossom Special is the 5th in a string of top-notch releases starting with 1962’s The Sound of Johnny Cash.  After a few years of exploring a new, expanded, sound with Columbia’s big budgets, he had finally found his grove: The Tennessee Two had grown to the Tennessee Three with the addition of W.S. Holland on drums, and the down-home voices of the Carter Family replaced the anonymous choirs found on his early Columbia releases (and some of the horrific overdubs on Sun reissues).

Of the dozens of albums Cash released, though, Orange Blossom Special stands out for several reasons:

  1. It features three Bob Dylan songs, a rare outré for a country star of the time
  2. The “Cash sound” is augmented by the glorious harmonica of Charlie McCoy, as well as a few sax solos by Boots Randolph
  3. It’s the first time we get to hear Cash duet on record with his then-lover (and future wife) June Carter.

1964 built great anticipation for the record with the hit single “Orange Blossom Special” and rightly so.  In the course of a year, Cash turned this fiddle tune into a country standard and a staple of his live set until the day he died, while also unearthing its forgotten writer, Ervin Rouse, giving him newfound fame by pulling him on stage when he passed through Florida.  This is one of Cash’s greatest singles, pushing his baritone to the limit as he drawls, “I don’t care if I do die, do die, do die…”

The Dylan tunes on this album are particularly interesting.  By 1965 Dylan was facing rejection from the traditional folk community for “going electric,” let alone the conservative world of country.  Perhaps Cash identified with him as his recent Bitter Tears album had been boycotted by country radio.  Regardless, they had struck up a friendship during Dylan’s early days in Greenwich Village, and respected each other’s songwriting deeply.

Here, Cash covers 1964’s It Ain’t Me Babe, 1963’s Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right, and Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind which was dropped from 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan, remaining unreleased until 1991.  The first is another Cash classic if only for introducing the fiery dynamic as he duets with June Carter.  Built-up with Ring of Fire-style trumpets, and sung with intensity and vitriol, the backdrop of their tempestuous love affair creates just the right tension for Dylan’s bitter tale of rejecting a lover.  Don’t Think Twice remains my favourite Dylan song, and here Cash does it justice, keeping it to a simple, tender Tennessee Three, boom-chicka-boom reading.  Mama sits somewhere between the two, like a slow-burning fire.  Cash’s delivery of Dylan’s complex meter is pure joy (slurring, “Maybe it’s the weatherrrrrr’r something like that”), and the Dylan-esque harmonica and a brief, spastic sax solo, keep it interesting.

Cash’s own songwriting on this album is limited but notable.  You Wild River (Colorado), a brief paean to the Colorado River, would be largely forgettable if not for its simple delivery.  Just Johnny and his guitar, it hints at the personal recordings he made in the 70s and his later work with Rick Rubin. “All of God’s Children Ain’t Free” is the prototype for his later Man in Black song and persona.  Social justice for the poor and oppressed was emerging more and more in Cash’s lyrical themes, particularly on the recent Bitter Tears LP.  Here he echoes Jesus’ parable of the children in the marketplace:

I’d be happy walking any street, but all God’s children ain’t free

I’d have a smile for all I meet, but all God’s children ain’t free

I’d whistle down the road but I wouldn’t feel right

I’d hear somebody cryin’ out at night

From a sharecropper shack or penitentiary

All God’s children ain’t free

Elsewhere, there’s not a bad tune on the album.  His version of The Long Black Veil is perfect, balancing a delicate vocal performance against bass notes plucked on his acoustic guitar with absolute verve.  All the while, the Tennessee Three, Charlie McCoy, and the Carter Family show up at all the right points.  The Wall is a gentle tune that would become another concert regular.  On Springtime in Alaska, Johnny and June coo over a soft acoustic background in this beautiful rendition of the late Johnny Horton’s no. 1 hit.  One of Cash’s idols, Horton was killed in a head-on crash that also left Springtime co-writer Tillman amputated at the legs.  Cash had refused Horton’s call earlier that day, and you can still hear the sorrow and regret in his voice as he sings this song 5 years later.

The Irish folk song Danny Boy is probably the weakest of the bunch, a bit overwrought at times.  Thankfully he avoids the syrupy strings that would have been there had he recorded this a few years earlier.  The simple backing along with a spoken word intro linking the tune to his childhood in Arkansas create the requisite wistful mood. Wildwood Flower is a straightforward take on what would become June’s signature tune.  The album then closes with a gospel tune, Amen.  Boisterous and fun, with rollicking piano, it highlights the family-like atmosphere that was taking shape in Cash’s touring outfit.

All in all, this is a magical Cash album and, freed from the thematic restraints of several of his early 60s releases, is perhaps the best representation of early 60s Johnny Cash apart from a Best Of compilation.

5/5

Other songs from the Era:

  • Time and Time Again – A happy-sounding song of loss marked by jaunty pianos, the Carter Family backing Johnny up, and, notably, a bouncy saxophone throughout.  Released a few months before the album as an a-side, with Orange Blossom Special on the b-side. Available on Singles, Plus.
  • My Old Faded Rose – Recorded at the same time as Bitter Tears, this is a song about how the grass is always greener… a man leaves his girl only to realize he should have stayed with her.  It’s notable for the use of a dobro, and a bright, twangy guitar solo that doesn’t sound much like Luther’s style.  Sounds interchangeable with Time and Time Again. Available on Love.
  • Engine 143 – Another Carter family tune that was left on the cutting room floor.  Sung acoustically by Cash, it’s finely sung with a weary feel, but ultimately Wildwood Flower was the better choice of the two for the LP. Available on the Legacy edition of Orange Blossom special
  • (I’m Proud) The Baby is Mine – A Cash-penned song about a man who marries a woman with a bad reputation: “If you’d mind your own business we’d make it fine.” Also on the Legacy edition.
  • Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind – A more upbeat take, complete with the Herb Alpert-style trumpets again.  I’m glad they chose the other version for the album, as this one’s too close to It Ain’t Me Babe, but simply not as good.  It also drops the Carter Family echo found on the released version, which loses some of the wistful interpretation Cash gives to Dylan’s conflicted lyric. Also on the Legacy edition.
  • Cattle Call/Bill’s Theme – In 1965 the Tennessee Three released another instrumental 45.  Cattle Call is an upbeat tune driven by W.S. Holland’s shuffling drums. A sax fills out the melody (Boots Randolph again), but also begins to take it into lounge-act territory.  Bill’s Theme is similar, although Luther’s lead sticks out better, complete with uncharacteristic harmonics.  Available on Bear Records compilations.

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