Ragged Old FlagReleased in 1974, Ragged Old Flag is a solid if unremarkable release for Cash, as would be a great deal of his remaining 1970s output. In the liner notes, Cash expressed a great deal of enthusiasm for the release and the album is notable for being Johnny’s first release with all songs penned by himself.

The album is a classic example of his 70s sound. When Luther Perkins died in a house fire in 1968, he was replaced in the Tennessee Three (Marshall Grant and WS Holland) by Bob Wooten, but it should be noted that Carl “Blue Suede” Perkins joined the band at the same time and was still playing with Cash in ’74. That 70s Cash sound, then, was defined by the classic boom-chicka-boom drive, but now built upon dual lead guitar, and often acoustic guitar backing (here provided by Nashville session whiz Ray Edenton). Having built his home studio, House of Cash, in 1972, and now being clean and sober for a few years, Johnny also built a very laid-back feel into his 70s sound.

There are some new elements creeping into the sound, too. First, after a string of albums produced by gospel pianist Larry Butler, and then a brief reunion with his old producer Don Law, Cash self-produced this number with engineer Charlie Bragg, a collaboration that would carry on through the seventies. Second, he seems to have parted ways with the Statler Brothers and had talked up-and-coming gospel country quartet the Oak Ridge Boys into joining him on this release (they first appeared on Praise the Lord and Pass the Soup, a single-only release with him the year before). I find them far more tasteful than the brash Statler Brothers, and a welcome addition to Cash’s laid-back seventies feel.

So, what of the songs? The opening narrative, Ragged Old Flag, suggests that this album is going to be (another) reflection on the history of America. It speaks of a visitor to a town who inquires about the town flag which appears to be far past its prime. The narrator describes the trials the flag has seen, from the Civil War, through world wars, Korea, and now Vietnam. Importantly it hints at the turmoil America was facing in the wake of Watergate. Historical accuracy notwithstanding (the 50-star flag didn’t come about until 1960), it’s a poignant tale that re-affirms Johnny’s admiration for America’s strength of character (“she’s been through the fire before”) and his sadness over her moral failings.

The album quickly changes gear, though, indicating that this is not just “America” part two. The opening tune, which opens with military drums and ends with orchestral bombast, is revealed to be a live recording (actually recorded on Johnny’s front lawn for an audience of Columbia Records staff with Earl Scruggs on banjo). The remaining eleven tracks were all recorded inside and share that laid-back sound with more down-to-earth vocals.

The dominant picture of America is one of hard working people. All I Do is Drive puts in the seat of a long-haul trucker and gives us a magnificent harmony lead guitar part. Southern Comfort is a catchy waltz about love lost and found while working in a tobacco factory (the lost lover amusingly runs away for another kind of tobacco). King of the Hill opens with the Oak Ridge Boys’ rich harmonies and reflects on the struggle of working in a cotton mill. I’m a Worried Man was inspired by a phrase Johnny heard while at his vacation home in Jamaica, and speaks of the worries of providing for a family.

Elsewhere, there are songs of struggle. Lonesome to the Bone sees Johnny reinventing Kris Kristofferson’s Sunday Morning Coming Down. This time the morning hangover makes the narrator reminisce of love lost. Please Don’t Let Me Out is the obligatory prison song, and offers a new perspective – this time the prisoner is terrified at the thought of release, seeing the outside world as an unknown and frightful place.

While I’ve Got It On My Mind is unique in Johnny’s catalogue. Although not dirty like the unreleased early sixties’ ditty Lovin’ Locomotive Man, it finds Cash feeling randy for his woman.

The album also offers three gospel tunes. Where as in the sixties found Cash singing classic hymns, he’s now begun penning his own in a modern southern gospel style. In general the results aren’t pretty. Pie in the Sky (“There’ll be pie in the sky/by and by when I die/and it’ll be alright”) and Good Morning Friend (“Good morning friend, good morning friend/Yes, I’m feeling like a million since I’ve got you livin’ in) come across as trite and flimsy. The final tune, heard previously on his home recordings, comes across better. What on Earth (Will You Do for Heaven’s Sake) challenges the believer to have their faith make a difference in this world (rather than just waiting for the pie in the sky). He would revisit this one throughout his career and rightfully so.

That leaves one last song, and it’s the real highlight. Don’t Go Near the Water is an environmental song for the everyman, putting the emerging issue (at the time) of pollution into the everyday context of a father and son fishing together. It’s catchy and brilliant.

All in all, this is a fine album if you’re looking for that 70s Cash sound.

4/5

Other songs from the era:

  • Sixteen Tons/While I’ve Got It On My Mind/Sold Out of Flagpoles – Johnny continued to demo songs in his own studio, but these three have only seen limited release. While I’ve Got It… was re-recorded for this album, Flagpoles would be re-recorded in for 1976’s One Piece at a Time (but would have fit well on this album), and Sixteen Tons would wait over a decade to be re-recorded for Johnny’s Mercury debut Johnny Cash is Coming to Town. These three acoustic versions were released on a limited edition cd included with some printings of John Cash’s book House of Cash.
  • Virgie – A moving acoustic tribute to a friend of Johnny’s.  Released on Personal File.

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