Album Review: Johnny Cash – På Österåker

Posted: May 21, 2015 in 1970's, 4/5, 5/5, Artist, Country, Johnny Cash
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Pa OsterakerAt Folsom Prison and At San Quentin are two of the greatest live albums, period. In fact, it’s quite astonishing that after the massive success of Folsom, Johnny could come back with an entirely new set of material in a similar context so quickly. På Österåker, then, is a strange beast because it begs the question, “do we really need another live prison album?!?” And, of course, the next question is obviously, “and what’s the deal with Sweden?” The answer to the first is, yes, and to the second, because he could.

På Österåker is a 1973 live album from Johnny Cash recorded in a Swedish prison. Just as San Quentin was entirely different from Folsom, På Österåker is yet another entirely different document of Johnny’s live show. The biggest difference between Folsom and Quentin was the death of guitarist Luther Perkins, replaced by Bob Wooten with additional support from the great Carl Perkins. Where in ’69 Wooten got the job because he was an impeccable Perkins copycat, by ’73 the band had released seven studio albums (several produced by pianist Larry Butler), a handful of singles, and hosted a successful TV variety show (with an accompanying soundtrack). Factor in the strong influence of Kris Kristofferson’s songwriting, and in a very short time span, a new Johnny Cash sound had emerged. The early 70s Johnny Cash sound was relaxed and comfortable, well suited to the narrative approach to songwriting he was increasingly adopting. Clean from drugs, the frenetic, minimalism of his boom-chicka-boom sound had evolved into a friendlier beast. Folsom had brought Johnny unprecedented success for a country artist (a compilation released the previous year was entitled International Superstar), and so he found himself singing in a Swedish Prison.

The album, while lacking the fire of his two previous prison albums, is fantastic and entirely fresh. Of the twelve songs included on the original release, only two were previously released: his recent single Help Me Make It Through the Night and an obscure track from his 1959 gospel album Hymns, I Saw a Man. The rest is all original material, a concept he tested on the San Quentin album, but that few other artists dare attempt. The rich vein of new songs makes this an essential part of any Johnny Cash collection.

So what do we get song-wise? Again, of his three prison albums, this one goes the farthest in focusing on prison matters.  Indeed, there are seven prison songs on the album, and four tunes written by inmates themselves. Album opener Orleans Parish Prison – written by Dick Feller, who also penned Cash’s Any Old Wind That Blows – is a cracking tune about missing an imprisoned brother. It’s followed by Jacob Green, a brutal acoustic tune about a man who kills himself after suffering the indignities of jail while locked up on a drug charge. The Prisoner’s Song and The Invertebraes, both written by prisoners, are a longing ballad and a somber poem, respectively. City Jail finds Johnny rehashing his Starkville City Jail story to an improved upbeat melody. Life of a Prisoner is another convict-written tune, this time about prison farms, and Glen Sherley (of Folsom’s Greystone Chapel fame) and Harlen Sanders return to Cash’s songwriting fold with Looking Back in Anger, a confessional tale of turning away from a life of crime. The best really is saved for the last, though. June Carter Cash’s Nobody Cared is a brutal tale of a prisoner’s revenge on a sadistic guard, all set to a bouncy tune. In a mere two minutes Johnny tells as harrowing a story as he ever has.

The non-prison songs cast a veil of longing and sadness.  When Johnny takes on Kristofferson’s Me and Bobby McGee, the classic chorus, “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” takes on unmined layers of depth that even Janis Joplin hadn’t explored. Gene Autry’s classic son-to-father apology, That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine, again takes on a fresh perspective when sung in a prison. The desperation of Help Me Make It… is masterfully told, and then the album closer I Saw a Man is a glorious hymn of redemption, leading to a an instrumental fade-out of Folsom Prison Blues.

Top to bottom, it’s a great album. Yes, Larry Butler’s piano playing is schmaltzy, but it’s kept under reins this time around. My only other criticism would be the fade outs between songs, leaving for a sometimes disjointed feeling. Again, though, Cash succeeds this time round because, rather than rehashing the past for a bit of extra cash, he presents a unique artistic vision. Plus, it’s fun to hear Cash try his hand at a Swedish greeting…

4.5/5

Other songs from the era:

  • Orleans Parish Prison/Jacob Green – this was the single from the album and both tunes are consistent with the album versions. The presence of the fiddle on Orleans Parish Prison is a hint that this had been tampered with in the studio. Indeed it had. Both the album and single had a verse cut and the fiddle overdubbed. The unedited version is restored for the 35th anniversary edition, while the single/original album version is available on the Complete Columbia Album Collection and the Murder compilation.
  • The 35th Anniversary Edition  is a wonderful value, offering the unedited concert. How does it differ? First, we get a traditional Cash concert opening through an instrumental I Walk the Line. Then we’re treated to a few classic hits: a blistering version of A Boy Named Sue, his recent hit Sunday Morning Coming Down, and the prison tune San Quentin here refashioned to great applause as Österåker. This version of Sunday Morning, stripped of the orchestral accompaniment of the original single (taken from The Johnny Cash Show),  is the definitive version. With the audience now in the palm of his hands, we move into many of the new songs Johnny released on the original album. Me and Bobby McGee precedes rather than follows Orleans Parish Prison and Jacob Green, likely because the latter two served as the album’s single. Life of a Prisoner and The Prisoner’s Song are followed by Folsom Prison Blues, which while still great is missing Luther’s magic touch, and then wraps up a quintet of prison songs with City Jail. Help Me Make It Through the Night and That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine become a little respite from the jail songs, before returning to The Invertebraes. That poem becomes a turning point, leading into the final two reflections in the main set: Lookin’ Back in Anger and I Saw a Man. It’s a well thought out setlist that flows very well, especially given half of the songs are new. Carl Perkins then gives Johnny a break, performing High Heel Sneakers and Blue Suede Shoes, using a much cleaner tone than on previous live releases. Johnny then returns with a few fun numbers: a full-band version of Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog, a relaxed, loose take on Wreck of the Old ’97, and a tribute to June in his A Thing Called Love ballad I Promise You (written on their wedding day). The encores then close on a dark note, returning to prison life again with June’s Nobody Cared, a faithful take on San Quentin, and the instrumental Folsom Prison Blues to close it out. The original LP can be hard to find as it received limited release outside Europe (I shouldn’t have passed on a copy spotted at the great Sister Ray’s while on a visit to London). Recent years have remedied this. The 35th Anniversary Edition is easily found (I got it cheap in Walmart), and the original album is included in the Complete Columbia boxset.

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