Archive for the ‘The Carter Family’ Category

Johnny Cash and His WomanThe first Johnny Cash album I ever bought was a bargain-basement compilation called Giant Hits. Alongside classics like Ring of Fire and A Boy Named Sue, was a lesser-known tune The City of New Orleans. At the time I knew nothing of Cash’s history, or the rise-and-fall (and rise again) of his career). All I knew was it was a catchy little train song that sounded right at home amongst his truly giant hits. Like New Orleans, which opens side two, Johnny Cash and His Woman is an oft-forgotten entry in Cash’s catalogue that is surprisingly one of his better releases of the decade.

There are many strikes against this album. The cover – a live shot of June and Johnny with a black background – makes it look like a budget compilation, especially if you find a worn copy in a used shop. Don Law – Johnny’s main producer in the 60s – stepped behind the controls again and yet the album seems to be poorly recorded at times. Johnny only contributes two songs of his own, and the rest are from a mish-mash of lesser known songwriters. And, admittedly, it is mostly another laid-back seventies Johnny Cash album, with no real fireworks on display.

A natural comparator for this album would be the 1967 collaboration with June, Carryin’ On. Again, though, this release is a different breed. There’s no duet for the ages like they found in Jackson, but neither is there an absolute dud like Fast Boat to Sydney. Where he was wild and unfettered in ’67, he’s a much calmer family man in ’73. The album is largely just the Tennessee Three – with Carl Perkins still along for the ride and newly added third (!) guitarist, Johnny’s nephew David Jones contributing as well – and is left free (for the most part) of the syrupy arrangements that became increasingly frequent in the 70s. This is Johnny and his musical family enjoying their time together.

So why should we pay any attention to Johnny Cash and His Woman? In short, there are some great songs. Opener The Color of Love is a raucous, June-led barnburner by Jackson writer Billy Edd Wheeler that explores the realities of love:

And I thought love was spelled like a bell B-E-double L bell that you ring

Stead of wham bam hit your man with a pan

Hit him on the head and listen to the birdies sing

Oh you heart breakin’ love makin’ cut-me-a-piece-of-bacon man of mine

Oh you money shiftin’ flour siftin’ nose liftin’ rose of woman kind


June is wild again on Allegheny, hooting and hollering her way through a story of a love affair marked by theft, cheating and murder. And The City of New Orleans is as perfect a locomotive tune as Johnny every recorded. Penned by rising folk sensation Steve Goodman in 1971, and made a hit by Arlo Guthrie in 1972, Johnny performs a knock-out version of this song that seems custom tailored for Johnny. While June growls her way through the previous two upbeat numbers, she offers some of her most tasteful harmonies ever on this one’s chorus.

There are several strong ballads on here as well. Saturday Night In Hickman County, written by Johnny, showcases an acoustic guitar and Cash’s booming voice to create a truly classic Johnny Cash moment. An overlooked gem in Cash’s catalogue this is as plain and real as a document of small town life can get. It’s matched on the second side by Tony, another solo acoustic number, that is a brutally heartwrenching tale of a rodeo duo.  Three further love duets – Life Has Its Little Ups And Downs about a poor couple who are rich in love, Wheeler’s The Pine Tree about suspicion in love, and the syrupy We’re for Love – are somewhat forgettable, but better filler than the joke songs on Carryin’ On.

Sadly, the two gospel tunes included here are less than impressive. Musically, they’re both fun. With gospel pianist Larry Butler no longer providing the arrangements, Johnny has lost that “big 70s gospel sound” found on his previous few releases. Instead, Don Law manages to get a warm family feel to the gospel tunes. The problem is the songwriting. Johnny wrote Matthew 24 (Is Knocking at the Door), and its clearly influenced by the apocalyptic influence of 70s Southern evangelicalism to which he was increasingly exposed. He sings, “the Army ranks in red are near two hundred million deep”, seeing the rise of communism as a prophetic sign of Christ’s return. Although not an uncommon sentiment forty years ago, those links didn’t come to fruition… sadly most preachers of that ilk are now making the same links to events in the Middle East. I remain of the persuasion that if Jesus said he’d come like a thief in the night, his followers shouldn’t be guessing when he’s coming again… On the other hand, closing tune Godshine is innocuous enough, but filled with hoaky wordplay that is still found in Southern gospel today: “Well Jesus is the beam on the left of me, Comin’ right through the shadow on the right”. I wish he’d stick to those desparate hymns he sang so sincerely before…

Despite a couple of weak gospel numbers, a few forgettable ballads, some muddy production, and a crap cover, Johnny Cash and His Woman is actually a release to hunt down. Don Law strips back the orchestration and lets the Tennessee Three (and friends) just play. Cash’s voice is in fine form and when the material shines, it really shines.


Other Songs from the Era

  • Praise The Lord And Pass The Soup (with the Carter Family and the Oak Ridge Boys)/Ballad Of Barbara (with the Carter Family): In 1973 the Oak Ridge Boys were an established gospel quartet on the verge of major success. They solidified a line-up that would last for 15 years and they signed a deal with Columbia. Ready to shift towards mainstream country, Columbia had them back Johnny up on this loving gospel tribute to Christian soup kitchens everywhere. The b-side is a syrupy ballad about a country boy who moves north and marries a city girl, only to find his dreams suffocated by the world of concrete and steel.
  • Pick The Wildwood Flower (with Maybelle Carter)/Diamonds In The Rough (with Maybelle Carter): A fun single about hard country living, centred on Ma Carter’s classic guitar riff from her signature tune, Wildwood Flower. Don’t miss the glorious instrumental coda! Tucked away on the b-side is a waltz-time acoustic gospel song that tops anything else Cash released in 1973. In fact, I think it’s the best gospel tune Cash released between Hymns and My Mother’s Hymn Book.  A stone-cold classic not to be missed. Maybelle even sings harmony on this one.
  • Personal File: Now rebranded as Bootleg Vol. 1, in 2006 Columbia released a two-disc compilation of home recordings by Cash. The majority of Disc One was recorded in 1973 and gives a window into Cash’s world as a living songbook. Some of the songs are familiar to Cash fans: There’s a Mother Always Waiting was first recorded as an outtake from Hymns from the Heart, Drink To Me If Only with Thine Eyes was the inspiration for Songs of our Soil’s Drink to Me, and two Johnny Horton numbers recorded in the sixties – When It’s Springtime in Alaska and Girl in Saskatoon – pop up again. Others are numbers he would look to later in his career: Jim, I Wore a Tie Today (Highwaymen) and Tiger Whitehead (Children’s Album). And It’s All Over is a bit of both – first demoed in 1958, he would finally put it down as a single in 1976. The majority of these songs, though, are just Cash singing what he wants to sing and telling the stories behind them. We’re offered a smorgasbord of traditionals, and country/folk classics: The Letter Edged In Black, The Engineer’s Dying Child, My Mother Was A Lady, Far Away Places, Galway Bay, When I Stop Dreaming, I’ll Take You Home Again Kathleen, Missouri Waltz, Louisiana Man, I Don’t Believe You Wanted To Leave, Saginaw, Michigan, and the Robert Service poem The Cremation Of Sam McGee. Over the years a few more songs from this era have trickled out. A PBS promotion brought out More Files From Johnny’s Personal File which included House on the Hill, Doesn’t Anybody Know My Name, Miller’s Cave, and an early version of I’m Ragged but I’m Right. A bonus disc from House of Cash – written by Johnny’s son – also included Kathy.

Keep on the Sunny SideKeep on the Sunny Side is a unique release for Johnny Cash as it’s his first release playing the role of sideman (except for those couple of 45s by the Tennessee Two). Billed as “The Carter Family with Special Guest Johnny Cash”, the credits are indeed correct. What we have here is Johnny using his growing clout at Columbia to help out his touring mates.

In country music history, The Carter Family are arguably the most important early act. They began as a trio in the 1920s featuring AP Carter, his wife Sara, and his sister-in-law Maybelle. Through the early 40s they would play a key role in documenting the country sounds of folk and country music from their Virginia home. Their recordings were largely limited to 78’s. By the late 30s, they relocated to Texas and drew their children into the fold for regular radio appearances.

By the time Johnny Cash was working the country music circuit in the 50s and 60s, The Carter Family were a different beast. AP and Sara split in 1944, leaving Maybelle to carry the torch with her daughters, Anita, June and Helen. They toured constantly, but rarely recorded. As Cash frequently found himself sharing a bill with the Carter Family, he quickly befriended them – and ultimately began an affair with June. For him, the Carter Family were royalty; here he was playing music alongside those voices he heard over the radio as a child in his humble home of Dyess, Arkansas. In the liner notes, Cash’s reverance for AP is clear.  He states he avoided trying to sing like the great AP on this release because, in such light he himself was anything but “a good singer”.

The truth is, Cash had now established himself as one of the great singers. Using his pull as a top-selling recording star, Cash managed to muster the support from Columbia to record a full-length Carter LP. While this would be a one-off, the recording is a wonder, and sounds exactly as you might expect: a collection of Carter family classics played simple and straight, with Cash piping in for a verse or two, gussied up with a bit of big-studio echo.

The song choice is wonderful. There are gospel tunes – Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Woody Guthrie’s Lonesome Valley, Working on a Building – murder ballads – The Banks of the Ohio, Gathering Flowers from the Hillside – songs of longing and heartache – Worried Man Blues, Broken-Hearted Lover, Brown Eyes, Guthrie’s When the Roses Bloom Again – a paean to Virginia – My Clinch Mountain Home – and their definitive classic Keep on the Sunny Side.

It’s interesting to hear Johnny’s approach to this release. In general, he sings in a low register, often pushing his baritone down towards a bass. He has moments of glory, particularly his lead on The Banks of the Ohio and When the Roses Bloom again, but for the most part he is singing background harmony, or the second part in call-and-response passages. It should be said that his harmonies aren’t perfect, perhaps the result of his growing drug dependency, but the Carters were never known for finesse anyways and he fits right in.

This recording is an important recording in the Carters’ catalogue, demonstrating what their recording career might have been like had someone honoured them for the institution they were. Their 1930s-40s recordings are sparse, often with AP’s weary voice calling out over gentle acoustic guitars. Later radio recordings add another dimension of comedy thanks to the kids’ contributions (take June’s Root, Hog or Die). The 60’s touring incarnation was another beast altogether. The sound is still rustic, but filled out thanks to 12-string guitars and Maybelle’s (and later June’s) autoharp. The four-part women’s harmonies are lush, and blend magically. June was never known for having a beautiful voice – her tone was nasally and her pitch could be wild – but she made up for it with pure chutzpah. Anita’s voice, as I discussed in my review of Ring of Fire, however, sounds like it’s from heaven. Mother Maybelle ties their sound to the past and Helen was always reliable if not distinctive (sort of like the third sister in Downton Abbey).

Thank God, then, that Cash used his fame to ensure that they were recorded so well just this once. Their presence on his later live recordings was always nice, but never truly “them” – the Carter Family with electric guitar, bass, and drums just isn’t the same. Here we are blessed with a perfect acoustic album.

As part of the Cash canon, Keep on the Sunny Side is a unique but important entry. First, it documents how unique Cash’s own sound was. His country wasn’t the Appalachian hillbilly music of the Carters, the increasingly technical bluegrass sounds of Kentucky, the sophisticated swinging Western music from Texas, or even the pure rockabilly sound of his Sun records compatriots in Memphis. Growing up in Arkansas he was exposed to, and even part of, all of these, yet came up with something all his own. Hearing him on a traditional Carter Family record reminds us of that. Even their approach to gospel music is different. On Lonesome Valley they sing of Biblical prophets John the Baptist and Daniel, and how each believer is accountable for themselves:

“I’m gonna walk that lonesome valley, I’m gonna walk it by myself, Don’t want nobody to walk it for me, I’m gonna walk it for myself.”

Cash’s spirituality, born on the desperate cottonfields of the depression, was usually more communal, with God offering comfort to the weary, and calling each person to be generous to their neighbor in need.

Second, it shows just how important the Carters were to Cash’s music. Will the Circle be Unbroken would lead to one of Cash’s great hits (penned by Carl Perkins), Daddy Sang Bass. Also, Wabash Cannonball was certainly an influence for Rock Island Line, and would later be recorded by Cash himself. Moreover, the Carter approach to throw spirituals and murder ballads side by side surely led to Cash’s own approach to setlists – look at the Folsom Prison LP, where he swings from finding peace in the valley to shooting a man in Reno. As the lives of the Carters and Cash continued to intertwine, their mutual influence would continue to grow.

If you’re looking to connect with Johnny’s roots, or simply enjoy early country music, this is the album for you.


Other songs from the era:

  • How Did You Get Away from Me – An unreleased track with June singing lead and Johnny singing back-up, this one’s in an entirely different vein. Featuring the boom-chicka-boom sound of the Tennessee Three and a flute solo (!), this one shows what might have happened had the album been the Carter Family trying to appropriate Johnny’s style. Thankfully, they didn’t and this one was left on the floor! If you enjoy June’s raucous delivery style, though, you’ll like this one. Available on Bear Records compilations.