Album Review: Sings the Ballads of the True West – Johnny Cash

Posted: August 8, 2013 in 1960's, 4/5, Artist, Country, Era, Genre, Johnny Cash, Music Reviews
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Sings the Ballads

With 1965’s Sings the Ballads of the True West, we come to the end of Johnny’s run of top-notch studio recordings for Columbia. Sonically it is a fitting end. Where Blood, Sweat and Tears, Ring of Fire, I Walk the Line, Bitter Tears, and Orange Blossom Special all feature the magic combination of the Tennessee Three’s sound augmented by the Carter Family (and the Statler Brothers), the bookends – 1962’s The Sound of Johnny Cash and, now, Ballads – feature a more acoustic, folksy sound which highlights these narratives of life in the West.

As with his other concept, Cash obviously poured his heart and soul into producing this double album, whose goal was to give an accurate depiction of life in the west. As with Ride This Train, he opens with an aboriginal perspective of the settling of the wild west in Hiawatha’s vision:

The man with bearded faces, the men with skin so fair

With their barking sticks of thunder drove the remnants of our people

Farther westward, westward, westward then wild, wild and wilder

Grew the west that once was ours

From there, Cash paints a picture of the West as one of trials, sadness, and death. These are themes he had already explored in the Rebel – Johnny Yuma EP and songs like Hank and Joe and Me. Here, though, he gives them unprecedented coverage. Apart from the boom-chicka-boom sound on 25 Minutes to Go, there is little on this album that could be called country music; instead, Cash gives us Western tunes through and through.

With 20 songs in all, as well as six inter-song dialogues, there is a lot for the listener to wade through. Many of the songs are enjoyable on their own, but the album is best enjoyed like Cash’s other concept records, listened to attentively from start to finish.

The songs cover a wide variety of topics: the dangers settlers faced (Road to Kaintuck, Sweet Betsy from Pike), cowboy life (I Ride an Old Paint, Stampede), the violent life of outlaws (Hardin Wouldn’t Run, Sam Hall, 25 Minutes), the comforting role of religion (Letter from Home), political assassinations (Mr. Garfield), and the Civil War (1959’s Ballad of Boot Hill – originally released on the Johnny Yuma EP – and Johnny Reb).

The music at time veers into schmaltz, be it the syrupy strings on the Shifting Whispering Sands, or the bombastic harmonies of the Statler Brothers (never my favourite in Cash’s music), although both would have been fitting in a Western movie soundtrack of the day. Even still, what remains is beautiful – a largely acoustic soundtrack that creates a great deal of space for Cash to growl out these stories in his deepest baritone.

Looking at the album as a whole, two features in particular stand out. First, is the incredible contribution of Bob Johnson, here playing 12-string guitar, mandocello, flute and banjo, each of which provide that real Western air to the album. Second, is the dark humour only Cash could make work. The majority of these tales end in death – take for example the narrator of Blizzard who freezes to death steps from safety because he waits loyally beside his friend who could walk no further – and yet Cash makes you truly want to inhabit these places. As he draws you into his world, you begin to side with the brutal criminal in Sam Hall, laugh at the gallows in Shel Silverstein’s 25 Minutes To Go, and cheer for the wife who kicks out her husband, even after he helped her fight through the desert on their settlers’ journey in Sweet Betsy.

In the closing Reflection, Cash states his intention was to help the audience, “Ponder on the things that happened as we gazed so very briefly… seeing now the West as it really was.” In many ways, then, he succeeds. The Shifting, Whispering Sands (a simplified remix of an unreleased 1962 recording which originally featured Lorne Green) evokes the beauty of the deserted ranch Cash often retreated to in this era. Equally, Mean as Hell is a witty narrative about the making of the west by the Devil, who put hell in everything :

He began by putting thorns all over the trees

He mixed up the sand with millions of fleas

He scattered tarantulas along the road

Put thorns on cactus and horns on toad

As with Cash himself, the West was a complex, contradictory beast. Violent, religious, free, and yet oppressive. Johnny would revisit many of these songs throughout his career, likely because in the West he saw the fullness of America, both its hope and its terror.

Looking at the photo on the cover, you can see the toll drug abuse was taking on him, and by the next year his releases would sound worn out and exhausted. Thankfully, he had the energy to invest his all into this labour of love.

4.5/5

Note: The Legacy CD release of this album was designed to be released as 26 tracks with the narratives separated out from the musical numbers. An error was made when it went to press, resulting in a 20-track release. This has been corrected in the 2012 mono version included with the Complete Columbia Collection.

Other songs from the era:

  • Mean as Hell! – With an expensive double album on their hands, Columbia re-cut the album as a 12-song single release. With many of the narratives removed, it loses Cash’s larger vision, although as an album it works surprisingly well.
  • Rodeo Hand – An outtake from the sessions (and another Peter LaFarge tune which would have complemented Stampede), this is a boom-chicka-boom tune that is about exactly what the title suggests. Sam Hall was a better choice for a mid-album lift. Available on the Legacy Edition of Ballads.
  • Stampede (Instrumental) – The album take is dominated by vocals. This minute-long version highlights the fabulous musicians backing Cash up with a banjo-led romp. Available on the Legacy Edition of Ballads.
  • The Sons of Katie Elder – Cash sang this theme to the famous John Wayne film. It wasn’t included in the movie, but is on the soundtrack. Big and bombastic, as you’d expect a John Wayne theme to be. Available on Singles, Plus.
  • A Certain Kinda Hurtin’ – the b-side to Katie Elder, this is a mid-paced tearjerker featuring barroom piano and (unusual for Cash) whistling. A typical 60’s country-pop tune, with a fine vocal. Available on Singles, Plus.
  • Thunderball – Yes, Cash actually recorded a theme song to a James Bond movie. We’re lucky it was ditched. Musically, it sounds close to Katie Elder. Available on Bootleg Vol. II.
  • One Too Many Mornings – Sometime in ’65 Cash took a stab at this unreleased Dylan song. It’s a great acoustic reading, likely left unreleased because it didn’t fit any of his albums at the time. That fact that Dylan was sharing unreleased songs with him, though, shows how close they must have been.
  • Kleine Rosemarie/Besser So Jenny-Joe – Cash’s first 1965 single recorded for Germany features two songs he never recorded in English.  Both are upbeat love songs featuring the boom-chicka-boom sound, augmented with German-sounding accordion and anonymous choral vocals.  Neither are particularly well recorded and both are forgettable. Available on Bear Records compilations.
  • In Virginia/Wer Kennt Der Weg – The second German single from 1965 continues the pattern of the first.  In Virginia is an ode to home that, again, Cash doesn’t seem to have recorded in English.  The sound is akin to Rosemarie and Jenny-Joe.  The b-side, is a German vocal slapped on top of Columbia’s existing backing track for I Walk the Line.  The backing vocals are particularly bad. Available on Bear Records compilations.

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