Junkie and the JuiceheadAs we reach 1974, we begin to really hit diminishing returns in Johnny Cash’s still voluminous output. This is the 19th year since he first stepped into a Sun Records recording both, and 15 years since he signed with Columbia Records. Unfortunately, there’s not much to celebrate on the Junkie and the Juicehead Minus Me. While Cash was often highly focused on his musical projects, having released concept albums, gospel albums, Christmas albums, and more, but this release is a true hodge-podge.

For the second time, Cash is self-producing with the assistance of studio engineer Charlie Bragg in the comfort of his home studio in Hendersonville, Tennessee.  In some regards, the sound continues in the vein of his last few albums, offering the laid-back early 70s version of his boom chicka boom sound provided by the Tennessee Three plus Carl Perkins. A shift also begins, though, with session musicians entering the fray more frequently. While this allows Johnny to explore new styles, it pulls away from the cohesiveness that always marks Johnny’s best efforts.

What this is the Junkie and the Juicehead, Minus Me? That’s a hard one to answer. Old bluegrass tunes sit alongside seventies singer-songwriter story songs. His wife, daughter and stepdaughters share the mic. It’s got dark songs of struggle and flippant gospel numbers.  In short, it’s a mess.

Perhaps it is best viewed as another family album, although where Family Christmas saw Johnny’s inner circle sitting by the fire trading sentimental stories and songs, this one is far darker. In the middle of the album are two June Carter Cash numbers. The first, Ole Slew Foot, is a hoe-down take on the Johnny Horton tale of a bear, filled with banjo and fiddle. It concludes with Johnny’s girls roasting him, “He’s big around the middle and he’s broad across the rump… some folks say he looks a lot like Daddy.” The second is a by-the-numbers take of the Carter Family classic, “Keep on the Sunny Side” with everyone pitching in.

Where June’s tracks harken back to an older country style, the kids’ contributions push towards a modern folk-rock sound.  A teenage Roseanne Cash makes her recording debut singing Kristofferson’s Broken Freedom Song, a heart-breaking tale which lifts one Vietnam vet’s tragedy to a cosmic level.  Roseanne give it a poignant woman’s perspective, but hasn’t yet developed her voice. Rosie Nix Adams – June’s daughter from her second marriage – duets with Johnny on Cat Steven’s touching ballad, Father and Son, here rendered as Father and Daughter. Carlene Carter also makes her debut, listed here as Carlene Routh, following her recent marriage to songwriter Jack Routh. Already onto her second marriage and only eighteen, she gives a palpable sense of longing to her husband’s tune, Friendly Gates.

If the kids are pushing Johnny towards folk rock, he seems keen to pursue modern songs, as well. In addition to Broken Freedom Song, he also offers a further Kris Kristofferson tune in the title track. Junkie and the Juicehead is classic Kris, a tale of a down-and-out songwriter struggling to make it in Nashville. That said, the production on the tune is big and boomy with lots of reverb, and one can only wish this one had a simpler approach. Elsewhere, Johnny explores two more tunes by his son-in-law Jack Routh, beyond Carlene’s contribution. Crystal Chandeliers and Burgundy is the best of the three, a tale of hobo life with a strong Kristofferson influence. The closing track, Lay Back with My Woman, is the story of a cowboy who hangs his spurs up for good.  Played by studio musicians, it’s fine but lacking in character.

Johnny himself offers three tunes. The first is a new recording of Don’t Take Your Guns to Town played with a shuffle beat. It’s completely unnecessary, except that it’s the only track on the album that feels like Carl Perkins made any contributions. I Do Believe is a forgettable boom-chicka-boom number about a many trying to win his lover back. Last, Billy and Rex and Oral and Bob is a tribute to great gospel preachers (Billy Graham, Rex Humbard, Oral Roberts, and Bob Jones). While Cash’s admiration for these men is sincere, as a song it’s an awkward waltz that falls flat.

That leaves one final tune, a gospel duet with June entitled  J-E-S-U-S. It’s a corny, upbeat, alliterative tale of salvation that has hardly become a Sunday school classic in the intervening years. This one was recorded for Johnny Cash and his Woman, but was cut. It should have stayed that way.

All in all, this is a disappointing Cash release. While his children’s influence pushed him in new directions, Johnny ultimately feels lost on this one, unable to do anything inventive with 70s folk rock, unable to generate engaging material of his own, and mired in the same old, same old with his wife June.

2.5/5

Other songs from the era:

  • My Ship Will Sail – In October 1974, Johnny recorded nine songs in two days with his band. This is the only one to be released, and it’s a fine piece of southern gospel. Released on Ultimate Gospel.

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