Album Review: Happiness is You – Johnny Cash

Posted: August 9, 2013 in 1960's, 4/5, Country, Johnny Cash, Uncategorized
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Happiness is YouThis album is better than I remembered. My first Johnny Cash album was Giant Hits which included the ridiculous single Happy to Be With You. The cheesy mid-60s Farfisa organ – ubiquitous on British invasion hits of the day – branded itself on my brain. When I finally got a copy of this full album, opening track Happiness is You included that same organ, and I never really gave it a chance.

Hearing the album again with fresh ears, though, has given me new appreciation. As it turns out, those are the only two songs with that forsaken organ. Elsewhere, the album is classic boom-chicka-boom Cash. 1966 was the year that Cash’s wife Vivian finally filed for divorce after putting up with years of his cheating and drug abuse. Although Cash was still in his deepest depths of addiction, he was publicly dating June Carter, and it’s hard not to read this album apart from his personal saga. I’m sure Vivian wasn’t too happy to see his face beaming on the cover a record entitled, Happiness is You!

The themes of the album, then, are relatively unified: they are all songs of breaking up, moving on, and starting anew. The title track, which was co-written by Johnny and June communicates the message loud and clear:

I tried to doubt you

And live without you

Tried to deny

That I love you like I do

But I realize now

And I’ll admit it

You’ll always be a part of me

‘Cause Happiness Is You

On the beautiful breakup ballad Ancient History, Cash intones,

“Just walk on out the door, it’s all over

forgiving you is just a waste of time

I don’t think I’ll live to regret it

You’re ancient history to his old heart of mine.”

From time to time he laments lost love, be it on the Wanda Jackson hit (written by June’s sister Helen) Is this My Destiny?, Peter LaFarge’s tale of a mountain woman who just can’t settle down in the city with her man (She Came From the Mountains), or in the chilling lyric, “are you laughing in my face?” on A Wound Time Can’t Erase. In all of these songs, though, Cash comes off as lacking sincerity, and the listener can’t help but wonder if he’s putting himself in Vivian’s shoes, rather than expressing his own feelings.

Hearing him sing Gordon Lightfoot’s tale of a bitter, wandering , inconstant lover in “That’s What You Get”, instead feels far more real. We can really imagine Cash speaking such mean words to Vivian as he wanders off with June. (Although it wouldn’t take him another 40 years to actually best Lightfoot’s own recording, with the release of If You Could Read My Mind on American V). Likewise, in No One Will Ever Know – a flawless ballad marred only by a very dated piano solo straight out of a lounge act – it’s easy to believe Cash when he says, “I was glad the day you set me free.”

He seems natural, too, on the happier songs, singing joyfully in “Happy to Be With You,” and reveling in George Jones’ song of infatuation, “You Comb her Hair.” It’s simply too bad that Happy is presented in such a strange fashion, rendered as an awkward 60s pop tune sung (and drummed!) stiffly. You Comb Her Hair, a straight-up country ballad, plays far better to Cash’s strengths.

In time, the wounds would largely heal, and June would prove to be the love of Cash’s life, but at this time the scars were still fresh and filled with a heady mix of pain, relief, bitterness, and joy. This album is thus a fulcrum in Cash’s story. When he revisits his Sun hit, I Guess Things Happen That Way, he doesn’t tread any new musical ground, but you can’t help but see it in a new light when he asks, “Help me be a man/ and have the strength to stand alone.” The album closer, Wabash Cannonball, may seem a bit out of place, but this train song fits just perfectly alongside these love songs. Singing a Carter Family classic, complete with dobro, shows how much Cash felt at home in the Carter clan. His days in Memphis long behind, Cash was looking firmly to the future.

Despite a somewhat dated sound, there is much to appreciate in this collection of tunes. Apart from moments of flawed instrumentation, there are lots of fine Tennessee Three performances and gorgeous acoustic guitar picking from Norman Blake and Bob Johnson. Most importantly, it stands at a critical point in Cash’s life both personally and professionally.

4/5

Other Songs from the Era:

  • You Beat All I Ever Saw – A novelty song featuring mariachi trumpets, this reflects the newfound optimism Cash found in June. Available on Singles, Plus.
  • Put the Sugar to Bed – A hilarious b-side to You Beat All I Ever Saw, noted for it’s wild, fuzzed out steel guitar. This forgotten track is as fun as Cash ever got. Also available on Singles, Plus.
  • The Sound of Laughter – A barroom belter that makes for a classic murder ballad. Finally released on Murder.

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