Carryin On1966’s Happiness is You found Cash beginning divorce proceedings with his wife, and singing of happiness he had found in someone else.  With his divorce nearly finalized, Johnny went very public in 1967 with the double-entendre album title Carryin’ On, an album full of duets with his new love, June Carter.  Credited to both of them, this 11-song album is a mixed-bag of performances, some absolutely breathtaking, others truly embarrassing.  The true spirit of the album is these two lovers having a lot of fun together.

Included in the album is their 1965 hit, Bob Dylan’s It Ain’t Me Babe, originally released on Orange Blossom Special.  That song’s big arrangement, with harmonica and mariachi trumpets, differs greatly from the sonics found on the rest of this album.  What it does do, however, is lay the groundwork for the type of duet the two would master over the course of their decades-long careers.  For the most part, this album is a stripped-back version of Cash and Carter’s travelling show.  The Tennessee Three are brought to the fore, the Statler Brothers are (thankfully!) left behind, and friends Carl Perkins, Bob Johnson, and Norman Blake add tasteful solo instruments to mix up the sound here and there.

The album’s two sides mirror each other, both opening with a fiery single, and closing with a Ray Charles cover.  The singles are both amazing. Side One’s Long Legged Guitar Pickin’ Man, written by Cash’s bass player Marshall Grant, features some hot lead guitar, and June’s greatest on-record growls.  The lyrics – John: “You big mouthed woman,” June: “You long legged guitar pickin’ man” – highlight the fiery relationship that had grown between the two.  Side Two’s opener, Jackson, is even better.  Not much can be said except that this is perhaps the greatest cheatin’ song ever, crackling from start to finish. 

Sadly, the same can’t be said for the closers.  While June’s sense of humour is enjoyable on the Charles sides, Johnny’s delivery is stiff and awkward.  I’m sure they had great fun singing along to these tunes on the tour bus, and Cash’s embrace of R&B is admirable for a 60’s country star, these should have been left on the cutting room floor. Plus, hearing a Ray-esque Wurlitzer electric piano on a Cash track is just wrong.

Elsewhere, the album includes five songs written individually or collaboratively by Cash and Carter.  The sound throughout is well produced, featuring clean arrangements which highlight the Tennessee Three’s sound well.  Side one’s original tunes are both hokey.  Shantytown is a soft love song of two lovers on differing sides of the tracks, yet it is the rich person who is ultimately drawn away from home.  Interestingly, it is never clear whether Johnny or June is the rich one!  The Carter Family provide backing vocals, and Luther provides gentle lead guitar.  Fast Boat to Sydney was written by June along with her sister Anita and mother Helen.  Cheesy kangaroo references aside, it again highlights the dynamic of Johnny and June’s relationship: “I’m a cheat and a liar/And you’re a lovin’ ball of fire.”

Side two’s original tunes fair better.  Oh, What a Good Thing We Had is a laid back love song that pushes the Tennessee Three sound further than ever before.  WS Holland’s tom-tom based drum motif is unlike anything in country music, and we’re treated to the hottest guitar solo on a Cash record to date thanks to none other than Carl “Blue Suede Shoes” Perkins.  You’ll Be All Right is a brief but pretty piano ballad.  Last, Cash’s No, No, No is another poor boy/rich girl love song, this time featuring 12-string acoustic guitar flourishes.

The remaining cover on the album is Richard and Mimi Fariña’s Pack Up Your Sorrows, which stands out thanks to thick harmonies and rolling dobro licks.  Given Richard’s recent death, one can’t help wonder if this was a tribute to another Greenwich Village songwriting idol of Cash’s, alongside Peter LaFarge and Dylan.  Although a country idol, Cash always sat outside the Nashville establishment.  By 1967 he had moved a long way from Now There Was a Song!, his album of country standards.  Instead, he developed his own sound, and drew songs from a wide variety of influences.  While sometimes that didn’t transfer into a workable result, as with his Ray Charles covers, his broad tastes would ultimately serve him well.

In a monstrous catalogue, Carryin’ On is not Cash’s finest record, but it’s an enjoyable one.  If one can let go of any pretensions and enjoy the silly songs for what they are – a young man having fun with his new love and his old musician friends – it’s an entertaining, if short, album.  Moreover, beyond the classic single Jackson, there’s some fine country playin’ on here, and a lot of great interplay between Johnny and June.

4/5

Other Songs from the Era:

  • Outside Lookin’ In/Spanish Harlem – The final 45rpm by the Tennessee Three, this one highlights their evolving sound, but just reveal the wizard behind the curtain.  When I first heard this, alongside the great lead guitar on Carryin’ On, I was amazed and how far Luther Perkins’ guitar talents had evolved.  The live version of Outside Lookin’ In on Live from Madison Square Garden reveals Carl Perkins (no relation) to be the lead player.  Regardless, it’s a pleasant little instrumental. Spanish Harlem brings in piano and nylon-string guitar for a Latin feel  unlike anything else they had attempted to date. Available on Bear Records compilations.
  • The Wind Changes – An upbeat single released  in 1967.  Where Carryin’ On had some restraint, this single unfortunately brings back the big choruses of the Statler Brothers. Elsewhere, the Tennessee Three offer up another fine performance, plus it’s not often you hear a 12-string guitar solo on a Cash recording! Available on the Legacy Edition of Carryin’ On.
  • Red Velvet – A mandocello-led ballad with Cash singing from his lower register another rich girl/poor boy love song. Cash’s first attempt at an Ian Tyson song, it’s not quite Four Strong Winds (as on American V).  Available on Singles, Plus.
  • Rosanna’s Going Wild – Strings and mariachi trumpets, along with a thinner audio quality, make this single sound like a lesser Ring of Fire, only four years too late.  Forgettable.  Available on Singles, Plus.
  • Roll Call – A big-production civil war song released as the b-side to Rosanna’s Going Wild.  A touching tale of counting bodies after battle, and a suitable companion to On the Line, but largely insignificant in Cash’s canon.  Available on Singles, Plus.
  • On the Line – An unreleased civil war narrative, employing mandocello for that real Western feel.  Available on Bootleg Vol. II. I
  • Tremble for You – An unreleased acoustic love song.  It’s nice to hear Cash sing so simply (as he would do throughout his career), but he also sounds like the drugs are taking their toll on him. Finally released on the Love compilation.
  • Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart – Johnny sang a great acoustic version of this on At Folsom Prison, but here it’s presented in full-band format complete with dobro.  A comedy song that would have fit well on Everybody Loves a Nut, this was left unreleased until the compilation album A Boy Named Sue and Other Story Songs was released.

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