Hello I'm Johnny CashReleased in January 1970, Hello, I’m Johnny Cash was an important start to a new decade for Cash. Since his days recording those hit singles for Sun Records back in the 50s, so much had changed for Johnny. He had released the biggest singles and albums of his career, only to watch it wash up. His traveling and drug addiction destroyed his marriage, and by 1967 he was living alone on a remote California property. Then, everything changed. He began kicking the drugs, married his sweetheart, June Carter, and released two hit albums: Live at Folsom Prison and Live at San Quentin. Tragically, in between those albums, his guitarist, Luther Perkins, died in a house fire. 1970 for Cash, then, represented a new start.

Thankfully, Hello, I’m Johnny Cash starts the decade on the right foot. Notably, it introduces a new Cash sound. As I’ve written about before, Cash had four key sounds in his career:

  1.  The Phillips Sound: The minimal boom-chicka-boom sound of Cash and the Tennessee Two from the early Sun years (1955-1958).
  2. The Law Sound: The filled out version of the boom-chicka-boom sound as his band grew to the Tennessee Three, augmented by the Carter Family, the Statler Brothers, and an assortment of musicians, including Bob Johnson and Johnny Western. This sound reached its apex in the mid 60s.
  3. The Johnston Sound: The more acoustic songwriter-oriented sound of his early 70s output.
  4. The Rubin Sound: The revisionist approach he would explore with Rick Rubin from the early 1990s through to his death.

Here, then, we have the first album in Johnny’s third phase. His early 70s was influenced by a few key sources. First, his new lead guitarist, Bob Wooten, although given the job because he was the best Luther Perkins’ copycat out there, also brought a new sound. His guitar tone had a little more edge, and he was more technically proficient than Luther ever was. Second, beginning with At Folsom Prison, he had looked to Bob Johnston, instead of Don Law and Frank Jones, as his producer. Don Law was forced to retire at age 65 (not common practice in the music industry), and Columbia passed on promoting his protege, Jones, into the producer’s chair.  This was fortuitous for Cash.  Bob’s work with songwriters including Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel would bring a simpler approach to his sound. Third, Johnny’s relationships with the new generation of singer-songwriters would bolster his already strong penchant for story-based songs and social commentary.

All of Cash’s own contributions are provided on side one, and they hit a number of different themes. Southwind is a fine song integrating two of Johnny’s favourite themes: trains and heartbreak. Wooten’s brittle acoustic lead plays fine tribute to Luther, but the addition of dobro hints at the new acoustic direction in which Johnny was headed. ‘Cause I Love You is a soft, acoustic ballad sung with his new bride June, a song of unending devotion. See Ruby Fall is perhaps the most dated song of the bunch. Co-written by Roy Orbison, it’s a tale of a man abandoning his wandering woman, accentuated throughout by honky tonk piano. His final contribution is the somber Route No. 1, Box 144, a sad tale of a soldier killed in action, obviously influenced by Cash’s recent trip to Vietnam.

The rest of the material explores these themes further. Devil to Pay is a Merle Travis tune, here sung with Carl Perkins, about another wandering woman. In Sing a Traveling Song, the tables are reversed: this time it’s Johnny doing the wandering. The song is sung in a bitter tone reminiscent of his cover of Dylan’s It Ain’t Me Babe. The live version on At Madison Square Gardens reminds of the tragic circumstances behind the song: it’s composer, Helen Carter’s son Ken Jones, died in a car crash a year previous at the age of 17.

If I Were a Carpenter is an absolute classic Cash single, a Grammy-winning duet about his undying love for June. Blistered, by contrast, is a song of sheer lust, and serves to break up what is for the most part a laid-back mellow album. Other tunes remember a simpler time. Wrinkled, Crinkled, Wadded, Dollar Bill reflects on the freedom that can come with poverty (must have been written by a rich man!), and Jack Clement’s I’ve Got a Thing About Trains laments the passing of the age of rail.

Two songs on side two stand out above the rest, though. Jesus Was a Carpenter is a stark acoustic tune that asks what it would be like if Jesus were here today, and emphasizes the humility that Christ embodied. Cash sings softly but firmly:

Oh, come again now Jesus be a carpenter among us
There are chapels in our discontent, cathedrals to our sorrows
And we dwell in golden mansions with the sand for our foundations
And the raging water’s rising and the thunder’s all around us
Won’t You come and build a house on rock again

Then, on Kris Kristofferson’s To Beat the Devil, he asks:

If you waste your time a-talkin’ to the people who don’t listen,
To the things that you are sayin’, who do you think’s gonna hear?
And if you should die explainin’ how the things that they complain about,
Are things they could be changin’, who do you think’s gonna care?

The song is a tribute to Johnny written by Kris, remembering their first conversation, when both were facing harder times. You can imagine a battered Johnny being pressured for another Ring of Fire when he wanted to sing about the injustices towards Native Americans.  Like the new generation of songwriters he admired so much, Johnny saw himself in some ways as a prophet, a theme made explicit in the 1968 b-side The Folk Singer, and one that would be soon be cemented as his central persona with the release of The Man in Black a year later.

Hello, I’m Johnny Cash is a reintroduction to Cash. It reminds the listener of everything that made him great: his lust for life, his humility and simplicity, and his ability to see the humanity in dark places. It’s not undeserving that this was his first no. 1 studio album in quite some time (1964’s I Walk the Line to be precise).

4.5/5

Other Songs from the Era:

  • What is Truth: Released as the follow-up single to If I Were a Carpenter, this tune stands tall alongside To Beat the Devil and Jesus Was a Carpenter. A talking blues employing the new acoustic sound, it is a bold questioning of America’s place at war with Vietnam. Not surprisingly, Johnny sides with the long-haired youth! “Yeah the one’s that you’re calling wild, are gonna be the leaders in a little while… You better help that voice of youth find/what is truth.” This one went to #2 on the Country charts, with Sing a Travelin’ Song on the b-side.

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