Album Review: Johnny Cash – A Thing Called Love

Posted: June 17, 2014 in 1970's, 4/5, Artist, Country, Johnny Cash
Tags: , , , , , ,

Following the mixed bag of the self-produced Man in Black, A Thing Called Love is largely a return to form, thanks in part to the introduction of Larry Butler to Johnny’s production team.  Larry would play a recurring role in Cash’s 70s career.  Sadly, this would be one of Johnny’s last hit records, reaching number 2 in the 1972 country charts.

At this point, Johnny’s life had finally hit a smooth patch.  His TV series – now cancelled – had a thing called loveput him front and centre in front of the eyes of America.  His marriage to June Carter was stabilizing and they had welcomed their son John to the world.  And, despite claiming he went clean in 1968, accounts from his inner circle report that it wasn’t until about this time that he actually finally quit his pill habit.

A major change was happening for Cash, then.  He was shifting from being a bad boy to America’s darling.  Through this period, he reconnected with his faith in a new way, as well.  In the past it had been a thing of desperation – a desire in turbulent times to return to the Christian roots his mother raised him with.  Now, it was a new thing he was developing for himself.  Only a year earlier he collaborated with famed evangelist Billy Graham on The Preacher Said (Jesus Said).  Now, he was beginning to attend Evangel Temple semi-regularly, a growing Nashville church pastored by Hank Snow’s son, Jimmie Rodgers  Snow.

A Thing Called Love, then, is an interesting album with one foot firmly planted in each world.  On the one hand, it’s filled with some excellent bad boy tunes.  The opener, Kate, went to number 2 and it’s as fine a murder ballad as Johnny ever put to record. What makes this tune of a man facing the gallows for murdering his cheating woman, is the stereo guitar attack of Bob Wooten and Carl Perkins, Bob laying down a solo reminiscent of Folsom Prison Blues, and Carl vamping wildly over the verses.  Arkansas Lovin’ Man is a lesser version of Lovin’ Locomotive Man, but an effective rambling tune nonetheless.  Tear Stained Letter is a beautiful Cash-penned ballad in which he tries to blackmail his lover into returning to him. Sung quietly over acoustic guitar, it’s dark, bitter and twisted – perfect morbid Cash.  Things get really brutal, though, in June Carter’s Mississippi Sand, a tale of a singer who comes to town, only to seduce the narrator’s virginal love.  Johnny then hunts the man down and murders him in cold blood, asking:

Will the water roll it all way this secret that I hold
Will the water roll it all away will it cleanse my aching soul
But a man’s gotta make it sometime a man’s gotta take a stand
Or he’ll get left in the Mississippi sand

Dark stuff, indeed.

The flip side of the album, though, is Cash the inspirational figure.  A Thing Called Love was the other no. 2 single from the album.  Here, Cash is his most buoyous, singing gleefully of the wonders of love, all while backed by the Evangel Temple choir.  It’s a fine tune, but the arrangement is overdone and saccharine sweet.  Papa Was a Good Man is the tale of a loyal wife who looks to Jesus to cure her husband’s alcoholism, and Daddy is a tribute to simple, humble fathers who never receive public recognition.  Daddy is the better of the two, nailing Cash’s laid-back 70s style perfectly, a mix of his old boom-chicka-boom sound, with soft acoustic strumming and gentle lead guitar added in.  Both feature quotations from hymns, the former with Rock of Ages, and the latter with Nearer My God To Thee.  Stripped of Papa’s choral backing, Daddy works better, even making Cash sound a bit like George Jones.  It’s a forgotten track that’s a true gem in Johnny’s catalogue.  Cash’s own I Promise You is a wonderful love ballad, although overdone with the choral backing again.  Melva’s wine is a quiet reminiscence of days gone by.  Then, album closer, The Miracle Man, is a tune unlike any other in Cash’s vast repertoire.  A moving tribute to Jesus, this one stands out from similar Cash tunes because of its gorgeous gospel piano backing, giving Johnny an opportunity to stretch his vocal abilities.

As a whole, the album is an improvement over The Man in Black, yet still isn’t perfect.  It is a nice summation of Cash’s duality, and features some fine 70s country with easy-going, meandering guitar leads over that old boom-chicka-boom sound.  The addition of the Evangel Temple choir, however, sadly results in an overblown sound.  Some of the vocal recordings, too, are lacking in quality.  Despite being recorded in Columbia’s big Nashville studios, they are thin and distorted at times.  Recent remasters reveal this to be a problem sourced back to the original tapes. Despite this, Larry Butler does a fine job of helping Cash get some of his mojo back, resulting in one of his best 70s albums.

4/5

Other songs from the era:

  • Kate (Canadian version): Until 2010 with the Great Seventies Recordings set, and then the 2012 Complete Columbia Collection, A Thing Called Love was unavailable on CD. Like many, my first copy of this album was a used lp bought from a dusty bin of old records. What I didn’t realize until the CD release was that as a Canadian, I was listening to an enitrely different version of the first track! This version is played slower and the lyrics are different, most notably, the narrator kills Kate’s lover, not Kate herself. Now available on the Reader’s Digest compilation, The Great Seventies Recordings.
  • A Gunfight: In the same year, Johnny starred in a forgettable Western with Kirk Douglas.  Johnny also wrote the unissued title song, a brief but enjoyable Western tune that begins a capella.  Find it on YouTube.
  • The World Needs a Melody: Johnny helped the Carter Family out with this single. Again, this one has that fine early 70s Cash sound: acoustic guitar leads and a boom chicka boom rhythm driven by WS Holland’s fierce drumming.  Unfortunately, Cash largely just scat sings on this one. The Carters sound great, though!
  • Call of the Wild/Miss Tara/I Got a Boy and His Name is John: In 1972, Cash began recording songs that would ultimately become his children’s album in 1975.  I’ll cover these songs later on, but it reflects how much energy Cash put into some of his projects.
Comments
  1. Thom Hickey says:

    Thanks. Love your blog topics. Regards from Thom at the immortal jukebox (drop a nickel sometime).

  2. steveinphilly says:

    As a big Johnny Cash fan, I’ve been enjoying your reviews for the past year or so, and I look forward to continuing to read them for many years. After you post one, I pull the CD out of my box and listen to it again. I have been trying to get my hands on the Canadian version of Kate for a couple years now. Readers Digest Canada wouldn’t sell that box set to me in America, and I’ve never seen it on Amazon or eBay. I have a daughter named Kate who loves the song (despite Kate being the victim in the song), and I’d love to surprise her one day by playing a version where Kate _isn’t_ shot by JC! Is there any way we could work a digital trade for that song, or you could post it on YouTube or something? I’ve never had this much difficulty getting my hands on a particular song! I guess this is what music collecting was like in the pre-Internet era….

    Steve

    • Hi Steve,

      Glad you’re enjoying the blog. Becoming a dad this winter has severely slowed my output, but I still intend to at least make it through the Columbia years! I had hoped that these more detailed reviews might be a helpful listeners guide.

      I’ll send a copy of the Canadian Kate to the email in your user profile – I hope you enjoy it. It’s a needledrop from a record I paid about $5 bucks for in a used shops or flea market, similar to most of my 70s Cash. I’m so glad they finally released all of these albums on CD with the complete box set! The Reader’s Digest box set on the other hand is far too expensive, in my opinion. I often see these RD sets used for far less… I recently bought a 4-disc Louis Armstrong set for $4. I can’t justify spending $70 plus tax for only a few new tunes, most of which are more home recordings. I’ll hold my breath for the day I find the Cash set in an old junk shop, or perhaps one of the bootleg series will gather up these more obscure 70s recordings (e.g., House of Cash bonus CD, More Songs from Johnny’s Personal File).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s