John R Cash

In 1975 it had been several years since Cash had had a real hit. His lengthy Gospel Road album reached #12 in 1973 and seemed to be the public’s last straw. The five albums since then had seen diminishing returns and had no big singles. With a children’s album and gospel album already released earlier in the year, you can imagine why Columbia might have been getting a bit frustrated.

Their impatience, though, led to a very poor decision. Some executive had the bright idea of shipping him off to LA to record a bunch of singer-songwriter material with an anonymous batch of session musicians.  There are indeed some fine players on this album (Ry Cooder, James Burton, and a young David Foster), but the performances are completely anemic.  Some might  enjoy this bland batch of seventies easy listening, but I’m not one of them.

Across ten tunes, you can feel producer Gary Klein grasping at straws. Anything that might be “cool” gets thrown at Cash.  A few things stick, but most fall flat, and this despite the fact that Johnny gives many absolutely stellar vocal performances.

So what do we have? The opener is a Randy Newman tune – that wry, sardonic piano player who went on to fame writing theme songs for Pixar – that’s interesting as an unsentimental look at southern life. Elsewhere, they take a shot at The Band’s epic tale of the south, The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down, and ruin it with an overblown gospel choir and stilted rhythm. They try a number by “Wild Thing” composer Chip Taylor, Clean Your Own Tables, and turn Johnny Cash into Jimmy Buffet.

Elsewhere, they concede some of Cash’s personal favourites. His new stepson-in-law Jack Routh, featured prominently on the Junkie and the Juicehead Minus Me, provides a tune called Hard Times Comin’. It’s a completely generic tune about the power of love through life’s difficulties, and cribs its melody from The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.  Johnny and June had success with folk singer Tim Hardin’s If I Were a Carpenter (number 2 on the charts!), so why not go back to him? The first shot is The Lady Came from Baltimore, a forgettable ballad of a poor man who falls in love with a woman he intended to rob and comes away empty-handed. The second is Reason to Believe which is good, but can’t touch Rod Stewart’s 1971 version. Johnny himself provides one tune, the Kris Kristofferson-style Lonesome to the Bone which he recorded for Ragged Old Flag… just one year earlier! Without the Tennessee Three, it commits all the same sins as Johnny’s recording of Sunday Morning Coming Down. A harrowing tale neutered by an overdose of saccharine strings.

The only real interest here comes from a pair of songs on side two. The first is up and coming Texas songwriter Billy Joe Shaver’s Jesus Was Our Saviour and Cotton Was Our King. This one fits Cash like a glove and he shows wonderful command of the material. The second comes from David Allan Coe who was a wild, underground country rocker before he struck gold writing Tanya Tucker’s 1973 hit Would You Lay with Me (In a Field of Stone). By 1975, he was signed to Columbia writing for others and releasing his own material as well. I’m not sure who Columbia was trying to benefit on this tune – building Cash’s youth appeal by paring him with an up-and-comer, or trying to give Coe some credibility by pairing him with a veteran. Either way, this duet is about the only song on the album that works, even though its edgy content is smothered (once again) by the schmaltzy arrangement.

These two gems are too little, too late, and whenever I listen to this album I’ve fallen asleep or changed the record long before I get to the closing number, Smokey Factory Blues, a decent tune about the drudgery of factory life.

It would take almost another 20 years for anyone to figure out with this album tells us about what makes Johnny work. Stick him in a studio with “hit” songs and crack session musicians? Nope. Give him some raw material by gritty songwriters living on the edge? Yep. It worked with Kristofferson. It works with Shaver and Coe. And it worked with a great deal of the material Rick Rubin would give him in the 90s. It’s too bad we had to wait so long for anyone to get it right.

2.5/5

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