Look at them Beans

With John R. Cash we saw the real beginning of Johnny Cash’s long decline and, to be blunt, I find many of his late 70s and 80s releases downright depressing.  It’s not that there’s nothing of value in these albums, in fact when he was clean in the late 70s he gave many fine vocal performances.  What’s said is that the excellent tracks seem to be a fluke. He floundered around with so many producers looking for creative inspiration it’s like he was panning for gold, hoping to get lucky. What happened to the man who had a vision of mariachi horns that led to Ring of Fire? What about the passionate campaigner for Indian rights that produced the bold Bitter Tears concept album? Sadly, Look at Them Beans, Johnny’s fourth release in 1975 was just another shot in the dark.

John R. Cash’s attempt at working with LA-based studio musicians didn’t work, so this time around, Cash brought Detroit-based R&B producer Don Davis to his Hendersonville studio to help him out (friend Charlie Bragg also produced two of the tracks). For inspiration, Cash looked to simple rural themes. And, given one of the only tracks that worked on his previous album was written by Texan Billy Joe Shaver, it’s not surprising that Johnny turned to the Lone Star state, with its red-hot outlaw scene, for material.  Perhaps then Look at them Beans should be remembered as “the Texas album.”

The opening track, Texas-1947, was written by emerging songwriter Guy Clark, who would later become a mentor to Lyle Lovett.  It’s a worthy song about a child’s wonder at the dawn of high-speed trains. Joe Tex provides the enthusiastically delivered Look at them Beans, about a year of bumper crop. In my mind it’s a shadow compared to Five Feet High and Rising. Another Texan, Don Williams, provides Down the Road I Go, which is a fine a country-blues as Cash had sung since the mid-sixties, complete with boom-chicka-boom rhythm and honky tonk piano. Johnny’s son-in-law Jack Routh again contributes a song, All Around Cowboy, which evokes that Texan atmosphere. And, last, Johnny himself penned Down at Drippin’ Springs, a tribute to Texan hill country and its wonderful music:

“Down at Dripping Springs down at Dripping Springs
There’s Willie and Waylon, Kris and Tom, have you heard Gatlin sing”

The other material on the album is highly sentimental and fits the albums rural themes well. What Have You Got Planned Tonight, Diana, which would be released by Merle Haggard the next year, is a powerful ballad about love’s twilight years. The story of a dying widower looking forward to joining his wife in death  now seems eerily prophetic knowing how soon after June Carter Johnny died. No Charge is a spoken word narrative of a parent’s love for a child. June and her sister Helen Carter provide Gone which is a San Francisco prison song complete with weeping pedal steel (an unusual instrument in Cash’s music).

Two more Cash songs remain. I Hardly Ever Sing Beer Drinking Songs is quite catchy, but doesn’t ring true:

“I never ever sing the blues I’ve forgotten Born to Lose
And I hardly ever sing beer drinking songs.”

A great boom chicka boom number, again with honky tonk piano, it’s paired back-to-back with the tear-in-my-beer weeper Down the Road I Go. They’re in the same key, have a similar arrangement, but offer complete opposite messages, which just makes Johnny seem insincere.  This plays poorly for Johnny because his appeal has always been his ability to connect with the downtrodden.  Last, I Never Met a Man Like You Before is the best gospel song Johnny had produced in a while, with it’s simple message:

“If worldly riches fail me, but I have you how can I be poor?
I’ve never met a man like you before.”

All in all, we have a decent set of tunes that suit Johnny well. Many of the basic arrangements work well too. Carl Perkins had moved on from Johnny’s band, which brought the Tennessee Three back to their minimalist roots. Bob Wootton’s guitar playing produces some crystal clear leads over the classic boom chicka boom sound. A few tunes sound like they’re straight out of Johnny’s mid-60s heyday with Columbia…

Until Don Davis coats everything in syrup.  Every nook and cranny is filled with a string backing, a brass intrusion, or a soaring choir. Add in a few attempts at contemporary styles, such as the outlaw-style shuffle of Texas-1947, and the album is left sounding dated.

An improvement over John R. Cash, but all in all a mediocre release.

3.5/5

Other Tracks from the Era:

  • Beautiful Memphis: An acoustic-led waltz that was left unreleased. Left in unadulterated form, it’s a fine nostalgic number. Available on the Reader’s Digest box set The Great Seventies Recordings.

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