Album Review: From Sea to Shining Sea – Johnny Cash

Posted: August 13, 2013 in 1960's, 3/5, Country, Johnny Cash
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

From Sea to Shining Sea1968 was a turning point for Johnny Cash. His divorce from his first wife, Vivian, final, he was free to openly pursue his romance with his new love June Carter. Nevertheless, the demons that destroyed his first marriage – endless life on the road, addiction to amphetamines, and the darkness that lingered from his brother’s childhood death – remained. Completely distraught, he crawled into the labyrinth of Nickajack Cave near his home in Tennessee, fixin’ to die.

Thankfully, he had a spiritual awakening in that cave that gave him the will to live. Shortly thereafter, June and her mother locked John into his bedroom for over a month. He may have torn the wallpaper off the walls searching for drugs, but the cold turkey approach worked. Johnny was clean, he proposed to June in February, they married a couple of weeks later, and the future was looking up.

Not surprisingly, his creative output stalled during this period. In most years, Cash released two albums and a handful of singles. After some experimentation in his early days with Columbia, by 1963 he had found a new sound appropriate to Columbia’s big studios, and he exercised his artistic freedom by exploring a wide range of historical and social issues previously untouched by country music. 1967, however, saw only the 27-minute duet album Carryin’ On, and two forgettable singles (The Wind Changes and Rosanna’s Going Wild).

Sadly, 1968 may have been a good year for Cash personally, but it didn’t start well professionally. The 11-track Sea to Shining Sea, released in January 1968, but recorded in the middle of 1967’s Carryin’ On sessions, was Cash’s sole studio offering for the year, and it’s a disappointing one to say the least.

From start to finish, the album sounds tired and retreads subject matter we’ve heard before with less impressive results. The opening and closing narrative, From Sea to Shining Sea, finds Cash extolling the virtues of the 3000 miles of America’s coastlands, while an orchestra and choir plays America the Beautiful in the background. While that might set the stage for another travelogue album, akin to Ride This Train, it really goes nowhere.

Instead of documenting the vast geographies of America, he instead takes a quick tour around the deep South, all familiar territory for Cash’s fans. There are clashes between settlers and Indians on the Tennessee River (The Whirl and the Suck); hard labour in coal mines (Call Daddy from the Mines), cotton fields (The Frozen Four Hundred Pound…), and shrimp boats (Shrimpin’ Sailin’); failed prison escapes (The Walls of a Prison); dusty gas stations bypassed by the Interstate (Cisco Clifton’s Filling Station); and the ghostly memory of the Natives who claimed this land long ago (The Flint Arrowhead).

While it might sound exciting at first to hear that Cash wrote all of these songs himself, they are virtually all lesser versions of past successes. The Walls of a Prison can’t hold a candle to the aching agony of The Wall, and he reuses the melody to The Streets of Laredo for the third time (1963’s We Are the Shepherds, and 1965’s Streets of Laredo). Hard labour was depicted perfectly on 1963’s Blood, Sweat and Tears, and the hardship of coal mining has never been given a more fitting tribute than in Dark as a Dungeon. Any number of Cash’s cotton songs – particularly 1958’s Pickin’ Time and 1962’s In Them Old Cottonfields Back Home – ring more authentic than the Frozen Four Hundred… And while the Flint Arrowhead continues Cash’s tradition of recognizing the role of Native Peoples in America’s history – “that I inherited this ground is denied by this stone I’ve found” – it lacks the complexity of Bitter Tears.

Musically, the album feels tired, as well. The majority of the songs lack an original, memorable melody, save a chorus. The arrangements, while tasteful, now feel like Cash has gone into a rut.  There are banjo-led interludes similar to past theme albums, a dobro song (Another Song to Sing), a barroom piano tune (Cisco Clifton), and a harmonica one as well (Shrimpin’). Not surprisingly, producer Don Law would be forced into retirement when he turned 65 that year, and his protégé Frank Jones, didn’t get the big promotion because their style had simply run out of steam.

That said, this album is not without its virtues. At times, the listener can hear a new sound emerging. Carl Perkin’s tasteful lead on Call Daddy hints at the laid-back, acoustic sound Cash would lean towards in the early 70s. You and Tennessee is a beautiful acoustic ballad, an evocative tribute to land and love:

Beside the Cumberland River
Where the grass is soft and sweet
We ran across the fields of cedar
Hiding from the noisy streets

And when the leaves fell from the cold
The stars were silver the moon was gold
I said it’s yours with love from me
I’m planting my roots in this ground

Likewise, Another Song to Sing, gives deeper insight into Johnny’s personality:

Well there’s always one more canyon to explore
To touch the things left by those gone before
At the top of the tiniest hill I can feel like I’m a king
And there’s always another song to sing

Just as the band hints at a new 70s sound, so too does Johnny seem to be reaching for the more expansive lyrical style he would adopt in the new decade. These were the early days of his friendship with Kris Kristofferson, a janitor he met at Columbia’s Nashville facilities, whose storytelling approach would have a profound effect on Cash. That said, for every beautiful image, there’s another dipped in saccharine, particularly the heavy-handed tale of a sculptor dying as he finishes his last carving in The Masterpiece.

The Masterpiece, however, points to what might be the most fascinating aspect to the album: a preoccupation with death. While Cash sets out to tell an inspiring, patriotic tale, all of the main characters on side one wind up dead! As Cash would attempt to end his life not long after recording this release, perhaps it’s himself he’s speaking of when the “bitter but broken” convict in Walls of a Prison embarks on a suicide mission to escape his 99-year sentence. Thankfully, Cash ultimately saw another way out.

With From Sea to Shining Sea we are shifting into what would become a common symptom of Cash’s output post-1966: a mixed bag. Cash fans will no doubt find elements, even whole songs, to appreciate on this release, but it lacks the spark that made so much of his output with Sun and his early days on Columbia so magical. This album isn’t bad, but there’s not much to pull me back for repeated listens.

3/5

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