Album Review: Johnny Cash – America: A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song

Posted: July 3, 2014 in 1970's, 4/5, 5/5, Country, Johnny Cash
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AmericaI recently saw Brad Paisley on a late-night talk show previewing tunes from his forthcoming album, Moonshine in the Trunk.  Paisley is one of the few modern country artists I can tolerate – he is a clever songwriter, he pays a great deal of respect to country music history, and, above all, he is such a phenomenal guitar player he often makes me never want to play again.  His chick’n pick’n is just mindblowing.  That said, the two new tracks he debuted – River Bank and the title track – were disappointing.  Both were filled with contemporary country clichés of driving fast to the middle of nowhere and havin’ a good ol’ time with drinks and friends.  Nothing wrong with that per se, but what frustrates me to no end is that the bro-country movement repeatedly puts forth this reduction as the essence of America.

While Johnny Cash could be trite and cliché himself, his 1972 album America: A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song could be no further from this vision: although limited in its perspective, it is Johnny’s attempt to tell the rich story of the development of America.  When you hear Johnny strive towards such a rich, thoughtful presentation, it is just sad to see modern talents like Paisley squander their talents on another plastic single.

Although America features 21 tracks, it really comprises 10 songs with narrative weaving one to the next.  Several of these we’ve heard before, but are re-recorded for this outing.  Road to Kaintuck is June Carter’s excellent tale of settlers first told on Ballads of the True West.  Mr. Garfield is another reprise from that previous concept album, a raucous tale of the 1881 assassination of President James A. Garfield.  Others are more obscure tunes from Cash’s back catalogue.  The Big Battle was a civil war story told in a forgotten 1962 single.  Remember the Alamo and Lorena were included on 1959’s Johnny Yuma EP (and Alamo re-released on the better known Ring of Fire compilation).

What strikes me, though, is that all of these match if not exceed the quality of the originals.  In most of Johnny’s war and western material from the 60s, the production was usually big and bombastic, with military drums, angelic choirs and echoing brass sections detracting from Johnny’s delivery.  Here, though, they are stripped back to quiet acoustic readings.  As Cash had also recently put his addictions to rest (for the time being), his voice is in as fine form as ever.  Thus, America offers us a clear window into Cash’s America.

The other half of the album is filled with traditional tunes and a few Cash originals.  The Battle of New Orleans is Johnny Horton’s hit single about America’s victory over England in 1815 which drew the War of 1812 to a close.  Come Take a Trip in my Airship is a 1904 tune Cash remembers his mother playing often.  It’s a brief, sentimental look into turn of the century America.

The three new Cash tunes, however, are where the album really gets interesting.  Opener Paul Revere is the runt of the litter.  Serving to open the album and telling of America’s rebellion against King George, the lyrics are stilted and embarrassing, sounding like an eighth-grader’s “creative” history assignment.  Thankfully, he succeeds elsewhere.  Big Foot is another tale of the tragedy of America’s native peoples, this time of the massacre at Wounded Knee.  The plight of the American Indian was a frequent refrain in Cash’s stories of America – opening the Ride This Train travelogue, gaining sole attention in the Bitter Tears LP, and recurring again in Ballads of the True West.  Here again he reminds us that America’s success was built at the expense of the people who lived there before the white man.

Album closer These Are My People ultimately becomes the star of the album.  Reflecting on the stories of America’s settling, he opines:

These are my people, this is the land where my forefathers lie

These are my people, in brotherhood we’re heirs of a creed to live by

A creed that proclaims that by loved ones’ blood stains

This is my land and these are my people

Cash enjoyed a beer by the old fishing hole as much as any of today’s hot country stars, but he never forgot the cost it took to build America.

In his excellent biography of Cash, Robert Hilburn is not very kind to this album.  Timed with America’s bicentennial, it sadly wasn’t a hit.  Like many of Cash’s concept albums, it didn’t have a single.  With bad boy outlaw country beginning to emerge, as well, Johnny was becoming out of step with the times.  I, however, can’t agree with Hilburn. Apart from the opening track, the song selection is excellent.  The instrumentation, too, is fantastic.  Returning to produce his second Cash album, Larry Butler continues to develop the Cash acoustic sound.  The opening and closing tracks feature full band arrangements, the Tennessee Three tic-tocking along with Carl Perkins’ wonderful fills playfully flirting in and around the tunes.  Then, the rest of the album is made up of simple acoustic arrangements. Oh, and while the narration is largely forgettable, it does lead us to the centerpiece of the album: Cash reading the Gettysburg address.  If most people would be happy listening to him read the phonebook, then we’re lucky to hear his voice recite this piece of history.  It’s truly wonderful stuff.

My only critique is that Cash’s story of America remains focused on the South.  I raised this before with Ride This Train and Sea to Shining Sea.  Paul Revere speaks of the original colonies, and the inter-song dialogues tell of the addition of each state, but really we’re given stories of the deep south and the settling of the west.  And, although the story of Native Americans is held up for reflection, slavery is ignored.  If you accept this as an extension of Johnny’s personal historical passions, though, it is an interesting view of America’s growth and one of his best concept albums.


Note: This original album is not to be confused with the posthumous compilation album Johnny Cash’s America, the fine companion disc to a 2008 A&E documentary.


Other Songs from the Era:

  • A solo version of These are My People is available on the hard-to-find PBS promotional CD More Songs from Johnny’s Personal File.

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