one piece at a timeWe’ve begun to see Johnny flirt with hot producers in the 70s in search of renewed commercial success, generally with very limited results. As he would continue to do throughout his career, these experiments were generally countered with “a return to the classic Cash sound”.

Lo and behold, we have an album not credited to Johnny Cash but to… Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Three. If you haven’t got the hint, this should be one old-school boom chicka boom album. And, to Cash’s sure delight, this one was marked by a #1 hit… the title track, “One Piece at a Time”. Yay for Cash!

But how does the album actually pan out?

Opening track Let There Be Country serves as a pretty good mission statement for the album. The song indeed brings back, if not the classic Tennessee Three sound, at least the 70s version driven by loping acoustic guitar and boom chicka boom leads. The song is a catchy number that taps into Nashville’s anxieties of the day: Countrypolitan was leaving past superstars in the dust for the first time, and Cash’s recent attempts at commercial success bore this out. The old rural life was changing and country music was beginning to speak to a new urban experience not rooted in farming and the long shadow of the Great Depression that so marks the songs of Cash’s generation. Cash names off a hall of fame-like list of country greats but then argues that the new sounds are ok because today’s new songwriter stepped off a bus into Nashville the same as all those greats did one day a long time ago. Times change, but the tradition continues.

This is clearly Gentleman Cash, then. Looking at the dark days of post-Vietnam America facing a large recession due to the oil crisis, his view is, “everything’ll be ok”. This is nowhere clearer than on Sold Out of Flagpoles, a renewed take on patriotism for Cash (compared to say his America album) in which he again argues that the frightening changes of time are really the same old patterns repeating themselves. This time the musical accompaniment adds Jew’s Harp and mandolin for variety, but the underlying boom chicka boom is a reassuring motif for the worried listener.

Elsewhere, the songs are a bit of a missed bag. In a Young Girl’s Mind is a beautiful ballad drawing on mandocello and harmonica (courtesy of the great Charlie McCoy), yet marked by restraint in its arrangement, drawing the listener close to Johnny’s words. The same can’t be said for Side B’s ballad, Love Has Lost Again, which drowns in syrupy strings. A sad choice, given that Johnny was trying to showcase the songwriting of his daughter Rosanne (yet to be a star herself). Mountain Lady is another laidback tune about the fading down home life that again is swamped by the strings. Oh yeah, and they also dominate an upbeat tune about a freewheeling rich girl, Daughter of a Railroad Man.

Obviously I’m not a fan of overblown arrangements, but the recording of the album is an important step in Cash’s work. He’s now found his own sound in his home studio. The strings are pastoral, and amidst the choral voices, you can clearly hear his wife June in the mix. The basic sound of the Tennessee Three is locked in, and Cash now starts to draw on a broader pool of musicians to fill out the sound. Take the harmonica which is all over this album, clearly drawing on Willie Nelson’s sound.

When the strings aren’t overdone, this has interesting results. Michigan City Howdy Do would be a fabulous outlaw country tune. Drop D lead guitar winds back and forth through the melody like a slithering snake, all to a pretty awesome strutting rhythm that would make Waylon proud. If only the choir didn’t come in on the chorus…

Oh well… almost all is forgiven on the title track One Piece at a Time, which revisits the Boy Named Sue template to tell a humorous tale of a Cadillac built from parts smuggled out of the factory over twenty years. An instant classic. Ironically Boy Name Sue author Shel Silverstein co-wrote opening number Let There be Country, while this Silverstein-by-the-numbers tune is penned by little known writer Wayne Kemp

The highlight of the album, though, is Committed to Parkview. In the midst of the tumultuous 70s post-hippie haze, Johnny tells a compassionate tale of the many patients of a mental institution. He would revisit this tune with the Highwaymen, but the version here is perfect.

That takes us to closing track Go On Blues, which is the closest to the 50s Cash sound we’ve gotten on a studio album in a long while. Again, Cash’s optimism comes to the fore as he sings, “Go on blues, go on lonesome, get your dark clouds off of me”… Classic Cash.

All in all it’s a decent album noted by some real energy from Johnny. He penned over half the songs himself. It was recorded at his home studio. And production was handled by a Nashville outsider – Detroit native Don Davis – assisted by Johnny’s personal engineer Charlie Bragg. Light on contemporary tricks, nods to Cash’s past, and the Man in Black singing a few songs he really cares about. I’m glad this one hit the charts.

4/5

Other songs from the era:

  • No Earthly Good – a song Cash returned to many times in the 70s. This version features up-and-comers the Oak Ridge Boys on background vocals with Johnny on lead vocals. From the Oak Ridge Boys’ album Old Fashioned Down Home
  • Temptation – the ballad with June that could have made this album. Strange that it remained unreleased given how often they sang the tune live. A worthy successor to Jackson. Released on the Reader’s Digest The Great Seventies Recordings box set.
  • Behind The Walls of a Prison – A televised prison special brought Johnny together with Linda Ronstadt (who’s totally on fire), Roy Clark, and a comedy duo whose work has not stood the test of time. A few decent, if predictable, live tracks here (Folsom Prison Blues, Sunday Morning Coming Down, Hey Porter, Wreck of the Old Ninety Seven, Orange Blossom Special, A Boy Named Sue and a fabulous Jacob Green). It’s interesting hearing Cash’s set interplay with the other guests, but not essential. Also interesting as I think this is the first time we hear synthesizer on a Cash song.
Comments
  1. Layko says:

    Thanks for another very interesting review! I hope we do not have to wait another one and a half year for the next one… 🙂

    • Thanks very much. A new baby in the family last month suggests it may be a while before I finish this beast. Sorry!

      On a Cash note, last week I stumbled across a copy of Highwaymen Vol 3, which means I now have three albums left to track down in hard copy. If you haven’t heard Highwaymen 3, it’s surprisingly good, particularly the bonus tracks on the deluxe edition.

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