Man in Black

Man in Black

For its title alone, Man In Black, is a classic album as it set in stone the moniker that Cash would use for the rest of his life.  Yet, while it may have created an indelible image for Cash, I’ve always found it to be a less than memorable release.

From start to finish, the album is a clear exposition of how Johnny viewed himself (or at least wished he were perceived) in the early 70’s: following his 40 days… or decade-plus… in the wilderness of addiction, he was now a man of redemption, saved by the grace of God, and the love of his new wife, June.  That said, he was no holy roller. Instead, he was a man of the people, a troubled man himself who could understand the failings of others.

A good starting point, then, is the title track which features at the end of side one.  As Cash piercingly conveys the troubles of modern society, he speaks out against Nashville’s flashiness, stating:

“I’d love to wear a rainbow every day and tell the world that everything’s ok,

But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back, ‘til things are brighter, I’m the man in black.”

Around that tune, Cash pulls the listener in two directions.  On the one hand, he speaks for the weary and downtrodden for whom he casts himself in black.  In Orphan of the Road it’s the wandering son of a “cowboy and a carnie queen” who didn’t stay together more than three nights.  In Ned Kelly, it’s the vicious Australian outlaw hanged at the age of 25, here cast as a victim instead of a villain.  In Dear Mrs., it’s a prisoner waiting for a letter from home, who ultimately dies of loneliness (in many ways a sister tune to Give My Love to Rose).  Talkin’ Vietnam Blues continues the political agenda raised on the earlier Hello, I’m Johnny Cash LP, crying out against the tragedy of war.  Most importantly, on If Not For Love, Cash places himself squarely amongst the hard done by, acknowledging the factors beyond their control which have cast their fate, and recognizing that only the love of a gracious woman has saved himself from a similar end.

The other half of the album is filled with a unique set of gospel tunes.  During the 60s, Cash often included gospel tunes on his releases, but these were generally old-time nuggets, the simple folk hymns from the late 19th century that Cash sang in his youth, or, on occasion, his own compositions.   It is clear from this release, though, that Cash was now running in new religious circles, and it’s a trajectory that would continue through most of his life.  The opening number, The Preacher Said Jesus Said, is unique in Cash’s catalogue.  It opens like a follow-up to What Is Truth – “Well with everybody tryin’ to tell us what to do, You wonder how are you to know whose word is true,” – before the booming voice of Billy Graham bursts in reading the words of Jesus.  If ever two baritones belonged together, it’s Cash and Graham, however, the performance comes across as stilted and awkward.

Cash, however, had had a profound conversion experience when he wandered into a Tennessee cave to die only a few years earlier.  And, while more recent tellings from friends and family confirm that he was not as perfectly transformed as his public image might have conveyed, he obviously resonated with stories of redemption.  Further, the emergence of modern evangelism, and friends like Billy Graham, allowed a context for Cash to express his newfound hope.  Thus, Cash’s own You’ve Got a New Light Shining in Your Eyes expresses this transformation narrative near perfectly.  I Talk to Jesus Everyday is an old Ernest Tubb tune that further emphasizes Johnny’s new dependence on God.  It is Look for Me, however, that is, perhaps the most interesting gospel tune here, in part because of its provenance.  Written by Glen Sherley and Harlan Sanders, Sherley was the perennial convict who wrote Greystone Chapel as recorded by Cash on his Folsom Prison album.  Cash had taken Sherley under his wing, to disastrous results later in the decade.  Sanders was another Folsom inmate, whom it has since been rumoured was the true author of Greystone, and probably the real talent of the two.  Regardless of who wrote what, their contribution here is a comforting song of looking to God for guidance and support, while also a reflection of the apocalyptic theological influence Cash’s spiritual compadres were beginning to have on him.

Despite being an interesting, if not important, album thematically, this one falls flat musically.  In general it follows the pattern set out on Hello, Johnny  Cash: most of the tunes are mid-paced, driven by acoustic rhythm guitar, and gentle, laid-back electric leads.  While Carl Perkins is still featured on this release, there’s none of his fire; instead, he and Bob Wooten are happy to remain in the background.  Likewise, June’s two appearances – Look for Me and I Talk to Jesus – are relegated to harmonies on the choruses, and so we are offered neither their fiery nor romantic interplay.  Last, the production is terrible, which may be due to the fact that Johnny took the helm for the first (and I believe, last, on his own at least) time. Instruments and vocals are often recorded too hot, resulting in unwanted distortion, and a few tracks, particularly You’ve Got a New Light, are victims of wide stereo separation, a mixing practice that most artists wisely dropped by 1966.

In so many ways this album should work – it’s Cash’s statement of his raison d’etre.  Moreover, the album exemplifies the Man in Black so well.  Six of the ten tunes are penned by Cash himself. Others brought together his world of spiritual friends, and struggling companions.  Orphan, in fact, was written by Dick Feller, a struggling songwriter who was apparently relentless in sending new tunes to Cash. As Johnny was no longer the wild rebel of his youth, introducing the Man in Black persona just as he became deeply religious was a stroke of genius, allowing him to be both saint and sinner at the same time.  Yet, this album lacks simply because it is bland.

3/5… 3.5/5 if I’m being generous.

Other Songs from the Era:

  • Little Bit of Yesterday – “Our love has been too precious to let it slip away…” This b-side to the Man in Black single is another mid-paced, loping ballad, although a pretty one.  Available on Singles, Plus.
  • Song to Mama – a forgettable a-side recorded with the Carter Family. Available on Singles, Plus.
  • No Need to Worry/I’ll Be Loving You – A single recorded with June Carter, the a-side is a raucous Southern gospel tune that’s livelier than anything on the Man in Black LP.  This song develops Cash’s 70s gospel leanings even further than the Man in Black LP – Cash would continue to sing hokey tunes like this through the decade, a style that’s still peddled today by groups like the Gaithers.  The b-side, I’ll be Loving You, is perhaps Johnny and June’s best ballad, a sentimental number led by beautiful acoustic guitar work.
  • A Front Row Seat to Hear Old Johnny Cash – Shel Silverstein, the writer of A Boy Named Sue and Boa Constrictor, released this novelty single with guest vocals from Cash.  Pure hilarity.
  • Children, Go Where I Send Thee (Live in Denmark) – Released released on Johnny  Cash’s America (not to be confused with America), this track further highlights Johnny’s immersion into Southern gospel.  The Carters and a wild Carl Perkins make this 6-minute-plus live track an enjoyable listen.

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