Archive for the ‘5/5’ Category

Pa OsterakerAt Folsom Prison and At San Quentin are two of the greatest live albums, period. In fact, it’s quite astonishing that after the massive success of Folsom, Johnny could come back with an entirely new set of material in a similar context so quickly. På Österåker, then, is a strange beast because it begs the question, “do we really need another live prison album?!?” And, of course, the next question is obviously, “and what’s the deal with Sweden?” The answer to the first is, yes, and to the second, because he could.

På Österåker is a 1973 live album from Johnny Cash recorded in a Swedish prison. Just as San Quentin was entirely different from Folsom, På Österåker is yet another entirely different document of Johnny’s live show. The biggest difference between Folsom and Quentin was the death of guitarist Luther Perkins, replaced by Bob Wooten with additional support from the great Carl Perkins. Where in ’69 Wooten got the job because he was an impeccable Perkins copycat, by ’73 the band had released seven studio albums (several produced by pianist Larry Butler), a handful of singles, and hosted a successful TV variety show (with an accompanying soundtrack). Factor in the strong influence of Kris Kristofferson’s songwriting, and in a very short time span, a new Johnny Cash sound had emerged. The early 70s Johnny Cash sound was relaxed and comfortable, well suited to the narrative approach to songwriting he was increasingly adopting. Clean from drugs, the frenetic, minimalism of his boom-chicka-boom sound had evolved into a friendlier beast. Folsom had brought Johnny unprecedented success for a country artist (a compilation released the previous year was entitled International Superstar), and so he found himself singing in a Swedish Prison.

The album, while lacking the fire of his two previous prison albums, is fantastic and entirely fresh. Of the twelve songs included on the original release, only two were previously released: his recent single Help Me Make It Through the Night and an obscure track from his 1959 gospel album Hymns, I Saw a Man. The rest is all original material, a concept he tested on the San Quentin album, but that few other artists dare attempt. The rich vein of new songs makes this an essential part of any Johnny Cash collection.

So what do we get song-wise? Again, of his three prison albums, this one goes the farthest in focusing on prison matters.  Indeed, there are seven prison songs on the album, and four tunes written by inmates themselves. Album opener Orleans Parish Prison – written by Dick Feller, who also penned Cash’s Any Old Wind That Blows – is a cracking tune about missing an imprisoned brother. It’s followed by Jacob Green, a brutal acoustic tune about a man who kills himself after suffering the indignities of jail while locked up on a drug charge. The Prisoner’s Song and The Invertebraes, both written by prisoners, are a longing ballad and a somber poem, respectively. City Jail finds Johnny rehashing his Starkville City Jail story to an improved upbeat melody. Life of a Prisoner is another convict-written tune, this time about prison farms, and Glen Sherley (of Folsom’s Greystone Chapel fame) and Harlen Sanders return to Cash’s songwriting fold with Looking Back in Anger, a confessional tale of turning away from a life of crime. The best really is saved for the last, though. June Carter Cash’s Nobody Cared is a brutal tale of a prisoner’s revenge on a sadistic guard, all set to a bouncy tune. In a mere two minutes Johnny tells as harrowing a story as he ever has.

The non-prison songs cast a veil of longing and sadness.  When Johnny takes on Kristofferson’s Me and Bobby McGee, the classic chorus, “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose” takes on unmined layers of depth that even Janis Joplin hadn’t explored. Gene Autry’s classic son-to-father apology, That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine, again takes on a fresh perspective when sung in a prison. The desperation of Help Me Make It… is masterfully told, and then the album closer I Saw a Man is a glorious hymn of redemption, leading to a an instrumental fade-out of Folsom Prison Blues.

Top to bottom, it’s a great album. Yes, Larry Butler’s piano playing is schmaltzy, but it’s kept under reins this time around. My only other criticism would be the fade outs between songs, leaving for a sometimes disjointed feeling. Again, though, Cash succeeds this time round because, rather than rehashing the past for a bit of extra cash, he presents a unique artistic vision. Plus, it’s fun to hear Cash try his hand at a Swedish greeting…


Other songs from the era:

  • Orleans Parish Prison/Jacob Green – this was the single from the album and both tunes are consistent with the album versions. The presence of the fiddle on Orleans Parish Prison is a hint that this had been tampered with in the studio. Indeed it had. Both the album and single had a verse cut and the fiddle overdubbed. The unedited version is restored for the 35th anniversary edition, while the single/original album version is available on the Complete Columbia Album Collection and the Murder compilation.
  • The 35th Anniversary Edition  is a wonderful value, offering the unedited concert. How does it differ? First, we get a traditional Cash concert opening through an instrumental I Walk the Line. Then we’re treated to a few classic hits: a blistering version of A Boy Named Sue, his recent hit Sunday Morning Coming Down, and the prison tune San Quentin here refashioned to great applause as Österåker. This version of Sunday Morning, stripped of the orchestral accompaniment of the original single (taken from The Johnny Cash Show),  is the definitive version. With the audience now in the palm of his hands, we move into many of the new songs Johnny released on the original album. Me and Bobby McGee precedes rather than follows Orleans Parish Prison and Jacob Green, likely because the latter two served as the album’s single. Life of a Prisoner and The Prisoner’s Song are followed by Folsom Prison Blues, which while still great is missing Luther’s magic touch, and then wraps up a quintet of prison songs with City Jail. Help Me Make It Through the Night and That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine become a little respite from the jail songs, before returning to The Invertebraes. That poem becomes a turning point, leading into the final two reflections in the main set: Lookin’ Back in Anger and I Saw a Man. It’s a well thought out setlist that flows very well, especially given half of the songs are new. Carl Perkins then gives Johnny a break, performing High Heel Sneakers and Blue Suede Shoes, using a much cleaner tone than on previous live releases. Johnny then returns with a few fun numbers: a full-band version of Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog, a relaxed, loose take on Wreck of the Old ’97, and a tribute to June in his A Thing Called Love ballad I Promise You (written on their wedding day). The encores then close on a dark note, returning to prison life again with June’s Nobody Cared, a faithful take on San Quentin, and the instrumental Folsom Prison Blues to close it out. The original LP can be hard to find as it received limited release outside Europe (I shouldn’t have passed on a copy spotted at the great Sister Ray’s while on a visit to London). Recent years have remedied this. The 35th Anniversary Edition is easily found (I got it cheap in Walmart), and the original album is included in the Complete Columbia boxset.

commonwealthFull disclosure: I am a huge Sloan fan.  Been following them since their debut EP, Peppermint, and fell in love them when they released Coax Me as a single from their masterpiece second album, Twice Removed.  Back in high school, I made a pilgrimage to their headquarters in Halifax (bought the split 7” with Eric’s Trip from Patrick’s hands, then walked across the street to Sam the Record Man and picked up the smashing Stood Up/Same Old Flame 7”. Didn’t buy the clear vinyl first pressing of Twice Removed with lyric sheet, though…. Whoops!).

A lot’s happened since then, most notably, we’ve all grown old.  Sloan’s sound has developed from shoegaze, to retro-slacker pop, to 70s rock, to 80s rock, and now into an amalgam all their own.  The key to their shapeshifting and perhaps their longevity, though, has been the fact that all four members write and sing their own songs.  Which leads us to their latest release, Commonwealth.  In an interview last year I believe it was drummer Andrew Scott who mentioned that for an indie band today, you need to do something interesting to convince listeners to actually buy an album.  This time round, they’ve done something interesting for sure: inspired by Kiss’ solo record project in the late 70s, they’ve crafted a double LP with one side each by each member. Oh yeah, and each side is named for a suit of cards and if you order now, you get a custom deck of Sloan playing cards!

To be honest, this isn’t much of a departure.  Beginning with their third LP, One Chord to Another, drummer Andrew began recording his songs in full himself (he had moved from Halifax to Toronto, spent two days in Halifax recording drums for the other boys’ tracks, then returned home to the Big Smoke to record his own, then mailed them in).  It may sound a bit business-like, but it seems to be the glue that has held this band together all these years after a near-implosion amidst big label pressures to dismantle Twice Removed (“Make it sound like Nirvana” the execs said!).

I’ll get to the point – apart from one side, this LP is superb.

The first disc features guitarist Jay Ferguson on side 1 and bassist Chris Murphy on side 2.  In and of itself you’d be hard pressed to find 10 better tracks of power pop.  In a sense, Jay has often been the odd one out in the band.  Never rocking as hard as the others, drummer Andrew once called his songs “fruity”.  Over the years, though, he’s developed a pop sensibility that comes to perfection here.  All those years of hand claps, on-the-beat piano stomping, glistening guitar lines, and ooh-aah harmonies come together magically.  We’ve Come This Far is a quick glam rocker asserting Sloan’s commitment to follow their own path, You’ve Got a Lot on Your Mind is a blazing quick pop rocker, Three Sisters flips the coin for a softer, yet still upbeat pop tune, and Cleopatra is one of the catchiest tunes Sloan have ever released.  He wraps up his side with an acoustic ballad, Neither Here Nor There.  Throughout, he upholds his nostalgic romanticism, dreaming of bygone Hollywood, wistful tours of Europe, and the comforts of home.

On the flip side, Chris continues the pop extravaganza with a slightly harder edge.  Closing track You Don’t Excuses to be Good seems to present his view of the Sloan mythology: again, they’ve gone over 20 years as an independent band, blazing their own path and managing to pay the bills without being L.A. superstars.  Get Out is a quick rocker, So Far So Good is a mournful piano ballad with a beautiful switch from minor to major key, and Misty’s Beside Herself is full of clever chord changes and catchy melodies.  It’s opener Carried Away that is the absolute gem of the whole album, though.  In many ways this is the sister track to one of Chris’ past hits, The Other Man.  Where he was once the man a woman was cheating with, now he is the one being cheated on.  Despite the dour subject matter, it’s presented in a perfect 3-and-a-half minute pop tune that will be stuck in your head for a long time.  Absolute perfection.

Side three, unfortunately, is where things go slightly amiss.  Guitarist Patrick Pentland has been behind many of the band’s bigger hits.  He’s got a knack for a catchy rock tune as well as the occasional heartwarming ballad. The bad news is this time out he gives us a mere 4 tracks spanning 12 minutes of sludgy 70s rock lacking any notable hooks, and bogged down by a whole lot of bitterness.  Apparently, Pat is becoming a grumpy old man.  13 (Under a Bad Sign) and Take it Easy are almost indistinguishable, two 70s rockers that drag on, devoid of any notable riffs or solos.  It seems he has been taking his advice to “Take it Easy” too seriously.  I wish a bit more work were given here.  What’s Inside is a sluggish psychedelic ballad with none of the vulnerability that have made past love songs of his (I Can Feel It, It’s In Your Eyes) so charming.  Last, despite being released as the advanced single, Keep Swinging (Downtown) is just boring. It sounds like the stuff they used to toss off as a bonus track for the Japanese release (see Out to Lunch from Navy Blues).  The acoustic outro is interesting, but by this point, I’ve largely lost interest. In terms of lyrical themes, it seems to me that the crustier Pat gets, the more ironic his songs become. “Unkind” was an infection rocker off of 2012’s The Double Cross, but it seems that it’s far more unkind to write a pop single about someone being unkind, than to simply “suck the life out of the room”, as the lover he points his finger at unforgivably does.  Beginning with 2001’s If It Feels Good (another catchy rocker), Patrick has returned time and time again to his laissez-faire manifesto, all the while become nastier towards those who don’t share his carefree ways (ex-girlfriends, believers in 2000 year-old magical carpenters…). I wish he would lighten up a bit or at least put his bitter pill to a memorable riff.

The fourth side, then, is where things get really interesting.  Andrew gives us an epic 18-minute long suite unlike anything Sloan have ever attempted before.  His arc as a songwriter is an interesting one.  He was too timid to sing his sole contribution to their debut album (500 Up on Smeared), so Patrick did the honours.  That tune, however, is the one I revisit the most from their shoegazer days.  Since then, he’s grown in confidence and has a sound all his own.  He tends towards modalism, often sitting on a chord (usually A) for most of a verse or chorus.  He was the first to use tape splicing to build mini-suites.  Where the others tend towards melodic lead guitar, when Andrew pulls out his big old Grestch 6120 (or recently a Telecaster Deluxe), he scratches out wild, unbridled solos.  He can veer towards wordiness (apparently the first draft of People of the Sky had ten+ verses).  He experiments with dissonance.  While some dismiss him as the oddball in the band, he has remained my favourite from day one.  In recent years, though, I have found his contributions somewhat lacking.  On the oft-maligned Pretty Together, I think he reached his apex, contributed three tracks which had a sound as big as a prairie sky.  Then, on Action Pact, he had no songs at all!  Since then, he has been pushing in new directions without, in my opinion, quite getting where he wants to go.  He contributed mostly song fragments to Never Hear the End of It, and then on the last two releases has veered towards Dylanesque lyricism with a couple of experiments in garage rock and reggae along the way.

This time round, though, he gets it absolutely right.  As the title suggests, Forty-Eight Portraits, is influenced as much by his recent explorations as a visual artist as his life as a musician.  He uses the music as a canvas to paint a series of interconnected impressions of life as an independent artist.  He’s grown content raising his kids, hacking out songs in his band, and painting in his garage. Rather than looking down on the rest of the world (hello, Patrick!) invites the world to come along with him – He opens this epic with, “I say we’re going together,” and by the end speaks to the unbelievers, “we’re saying a prayer for you.”  The music moves from abstract piano and dog barking, into driving rock, a ballad duet with Chris, garage riffing, grandiose string passages, a children’s chorus, and then a hard rock instrumental conclusion.  Following the songs many changes takes some getting used to, but is ultimately rewarding.

While Patrick’s side is disappointing, the other three are so inspiring, I have to applaud Sloan and give them a 4.5/5.  Truly excellent.

AmericaI recently saw Brad Paisley on a late-night talk show previewing tunes from his forthcoming album, Moonshine in the Trunk.  Paisley is one of the few modern country artists I can tolerate – he is a clever songwriter, he pays a great deal of respect to country music history, and, above all, he is such a phenomenal guitar player he often makes me never want to play again.  His chick’n pick’n is just mindblowing.  That said, the two new tracks he debuted – River Bank and the title track – were disappointing.  Both were filled with contemporary country clichés of driving fast to the middle of nowhere and havin’ a good ol’ time with drinks and friends.  Nothing wrong with that per se, but what frustrates me to no end is that the bro-country movement repeatedly puts forth this reduction as the essence of America.

While Johnny Cash could be trite and cliché himself, his 1972 album America: A 200-Year Salute in Story and Song could be no further from this vision: although limited in its perspective, it is Johnny’s attempt to tell the rich story of the development of America.  When you hear Johnny strive towards such a rich, thoughtful presentation, it is just sad to see modern talents like Paisley squander their talents on another plastic single.

Although America features 21 tracks, it really comprises 10 songs with narrative weaving one to the next.  Several of these we’ve heard before, but are re-recorded for this outing.  Road to Kaintuck is June Carter’s excellent tale of settlers first told on Ballads of the True West.  Mr. Garfield is another reprise from that previous concept album, a raucous tale of the 1881 assassination of President James A. Garfield.  Others are more obscure tunes from Cash’s back catalogue.  The Big Battle was a civil war story told in a forgotten 1962 single.  Remember the Alamo and Lorena were included on 1959’s Johnny Yuma EP (and Alamo re-released on the better known Ring of Fire compilation).

What strikes me, though, is that all of these match if not exceed the quality of the originals.  In most of Johnny’s war and western material from the 60s, the production was usually big and bombastic, with military drums, angelic choirs and echoing brass sections detracting from Johnny’s delivery.  Here, though, they are stripped back to quiet acoustic readings.  As Cash had also recently put his addictions to rest (for the time being), his voice is in as fine form as ever.  Thus, America offers us a clear window into Cash’s America.

The other half of the album is filled with traditional tunes and a few Cash originals.  The Battle of New Orleans is Johnny Horton’s hit single about America’s victory over England in 1815 which drew the War of 1812 to a close.  Come Take a Trip in my Airship is a 1904 tune Cash remembers his mother playing often.  It’s a brief, sentimental look into turn of the century America.

The three new Cash tunes, however, are where the album really gets interesting.  Opener Paul Revere is the runt of the litter.  Serving to open the album and telling of America’s rebellion against King George, the lyrics are stilted and embarrassing, sounding like an eighth-grader’s “creative” history assignment.  Thankfully, he succeeds elsewhere.  Big Foot is another tale of the tragedy of America’s native peoples, this time of the massacre at Wounded Knee.  The plight of the American Indian was a frequent refrain in Cash’s stories of America – opening the Ride This Train travelogue, gaining sole attention in the Bitter Tears LP, and recurring again in Ballads of the True West.  Here again he reminds us that America’s success was built at the expense of the people who lived there before the white man.

Album closer These Are My People ultimately becomes the star of the album.  Reflecting on the stories of America’s settling, he opines:

These are my people, this is the land where my forefathers lie

These are my people, in brotherhood we’re heirs of a creed to live by

A creed that proclaims that by loved ones’ blood stains

This is my land and these are my people

Cash enjoyed a beer by the old fishing hole as much as any of today’s hot country stars, but he never forgot the cost it took to build America.

In his excellent biography of Cash, Robert Hilburn is not very kind to this album.  Timed with America’s bicentennial, it sadly wasn’t a hit.  Like many of Cash’s concept albums, it didn’t have a single.  With bad boy outlaw country beginning to emerge, as well, Johnny was becoming out of step with the times.  I, however, can’t agree with Hilburn. Apart from the opening track, the song selection is excellent.  The instrumentation, too, is fantastic.  Returning to produce his second Cash album, Larry Butler continues to develop the Cash acoustic sound.  The opening and closing tracks feature full band arrangements, the Tennessee Three tic-tocking along with Carl Perkins’ wonderful fills playfully flirting in and around the tunes.  Then, the rest of the album is made up of simple acoustic arrangements. Oh, and while the narration is largely forgettable, it does lead us to the centerpiece of the album: Cash reading the Gettysburg address.  If most people would be happy listening to him read the phonebook, then we’re lucky to hear his voice recite this piece of history.  It’s truly wonderful stuff.

My only critique is that Cash’s story of America remains focused on the South.  I raised this before with Ride This Train and Sea to Shining Sea.  Paul Revere speaks of the original colonies, and the inter-song dialogues tell of the addition of each state, but really we’re given stories of the deep south and the settling of the west.  And, although the story of Native Americans is held up for reflection, slavery is ignored.  If you accept this as an extension of Johnny’s personal historical passions, though, it is an interesting view of America’s growth and one of his best concept albums.


Note: This original album is not to be confused with the posthumous compilation album Johnny Cash’s America, the fine companion disc to a 2008 A&E documentary.


Other Songs from the Era:

  • A solo version of These are My People is available on the hard-to-find PBS promotional CD More Songs from Johnny’s Personal File.

Hello I'm Johnny CashReleased in January 1970, Hello, I’m Johnny Cash was an important start to a new decade for Cash. Since his days recording those hit singles for Sun Records back in the 50s, so much had changed for Johnny. He had released the biggest singles and albums of his career, only to watch it wash up. His traveling and drug addiction destroyed his marriage, and by 1967 he was living alone on a remote California property. Then, everything changed. He began kicking the drugs, married his sweetheart, June Carter, and released two hit albums: Live at Folsom Prison and Live at San Quentin. Tragically, in between those albums, his guitarist, Luther Perkins, died in a house fire. 1970 for Cash, then, represented a new start.

Thankfully, Hello, I’m Johnny Cash starts the decade on the right foot. Notably, it introduces a new Cash sound. As I’ve written about before, Cash had four key sounds in his career:

  1.  The Phillips Sound: The minimal boom-chicka-boom sound of Cash and the Tennessee Two from the early Sun years (1955-1958).
  2. The Law Sound: The filled out version of the boom-chicka-boom sound as his band grew to the Tennessee Three, augmented by the Carter Family, the Statler Brothers, and an assortment of musicians, including Bob Johnson and Johnny Western. This sound reached its apex in the mid 60s.
  3. The Johnston Sound: The more acoustic songwriter-oriented sound of his early 70s output.
  4. The Rubin Sound: The revisionist approach he would explore with Rick Rubin from the early 1990s through to his death.

Here, then, we have the first album in Johnny’s third phase. His early 70s was influenced by a few key sources. First, his new lead guitarist, Bob Wooten, although given the job because he was the best Luther Perkins’ copycat out there, also brought a new sound. His guitar tone had a little more edge, and he was more technically proficient than Luther ever was. Second, beginning with At Folsom Prison, he had looked to Bob Johnston, instead of Don Law and Frank Jones, as his producer. Don Law was forced to retire at age 65 (not common practice in the music industry), and Columbia passed on promoting his protege, Jones, into the producer’s chair.  This was fortuitous for Cash.  Bob’s work with songwriters including Bob Dylan and Simon & Garfunkel would bring a simpler approach to his sound. Third, Johnny’s relationships with the new generation of singer-songwriters would bolster his already strong penchant for story-based songs and social commentary.

All of Cash’s own contributions are provided on side one, and they hit a number of different themes. Southwind is a fine song integrating two of Johnny’s favourite themes: trains and heartbreak. Wooten’s brittle acoustic lead plays fine tribute to Luther, but the addition of dobro hints at the new acoustic direction in which Johnny was headed. ‘Cause I Love You is a soft, acoustic ballad sung with his new bride June, a song of unending devotion. See Ruby Fall is perhaps the most dated song of the bunch. Co-written by Roy Orbison, it’s a tale of a man abandoning his wandering woman, accentuated throughout by honky tonk piano. His final contribution is the somber Route No. 1, Box 144, a sad tale of a soldier killed in action, obviously influenced by Cash’s recent trip to Vietnam.

The rest of the material explores these themes further. Devil to Pay is a Merle Travis tune, here sung with Carl Perkins, about another wandering woman. In Sing a Traveling Song, the tables are reversed: this time it’s Johnny doing the wandering. The song is sung in a bitter tone reminiscent of his cover of Dylan’s It Ain’t Me Babe. The live version on At Madison Square Gardens reminds of the tragic circumstances behind the song: it’s composer, Helen Carter’s son Ken Jones, died in a car crash a year previous at the age of 17.

If I Were a Carpenter is an absolute classic Cash single, a Grammy-winning duet about his undying love for June. Blistered, by contrast, is a song of sheer lust, and serves to break up what is for the most part a laid-back mellow album. Other tunes remember a simpler time. Wrinkled, Crinkled, Wadded, Dollar Bill reflects on the freedom that can come with poverty (must have been written by a rich man!), and Jack Clement’s I’ve Got a Thing About Trains laments the passing of the age of rail.

Two songs on side two stand out above the rest, though. Jesus Was a Carpenter is a stark acoustic tune that asks what it would be like if Jesus were here today, and emphasizes the humility that Christ embodied. Cash sings softly but firmly:

Oh, come again now Jesus be a carpenter among us
There are chapels in our discontent, cathedrals to our sorrows
And we dwell in golden mansions with the sand for our foundations
And the raging water’s rising and the thunder’s all around us
Won’t You come and build a house on rock again

Then, on Kris Kristofferson’s To Beat the Devil, he asks:

If you waste your time a-talkin’ to the people who don’t listen,
To the things that you are sayin’, who do you think’s gonna hear?
And if you should die explainin’ how the things that they complain about,
Are things they could be changin’, who do you think’s gonna care?

The song is a tribute to Johnny written by Kris, remembering their first conversation, when both were facing harder times. You can imagine a battered Johnny being pressured for another Ring of Fire when he wanted to sing about the injustices towards Native Americans.  Like the new generation of songwriters he admired so much, Johnny saw himself in some ways as a prophet, a theme made explicit in the 1968 b-side The Folk Singer, and one that would be soon be cemented as his central persona with the release of The Man in Black a year later.

Hello, I’m Johnny Cash is a reintroduction to Cash. It reminds the listener of everything that made him great: his lust for life, his humility and simplicity, and his ability to see the humanity in dark places. It’s not undeserving that this was his first no. 1 studio album in quite some time (1964’s I Walk the Line to be precise).


Other Songs from the Era:

  • What is Truth: Released as the follow-up single to If I Were a Carpenter, this tune stands tall alongside To Beat the Devil and Jesus Was a Carpenter. A talking blues employing the new acoustic sound, it is a bold questioning of America’s place at war with Vietnam. Not surprisingly, Johnny sides with the long-haired youth! “Yeah the one’s that you’re calling wild, are gonna be the leaders in a little while… You better help that voice of youth find/what is truth.” This one went to #2 on the Country charts, with Sing a Travelin’ Song on the b-side.

At Madison Square GardenRecorded live in December, 1969, but not released until 2002, At Madison Square Garden documents Cash at the height of his commercial, and arguably artistic, success. After a few less-than impressive studio albums, Johnny hit record-setting numbers with 1968’s live album At Folsom Prison and the 1969 follow-up At San Quentin. In summer 1969, ABC took a gamble and gave Cash a variety show, which became a minor hit. Cash seemed to take particular pride in mixing Hollywood stars and country legends with the songwriters his friends in Nashville usually cast off as long-haired freaks – Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Linda Rondstadt, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot. Johnny’s personal life was on a roll too: drugs were out of his life, and his new bride June Carter Cash missed this show because she was six-months pregnant with their future son, John.

It is in this context that we’re given a 22-song set (plus 4 more songs from his entourage) which reveal a different side of Johnny from the wild and raucous prison albums. That said, New York is not known as a country music town and might be just as strange a place to record a Cash live album as a prison. What Cash proves over 77 minutes is that he was a consummate performer and storyteller, able to engage any audience anywhere.

After his traditional set opener, Big River, Cash quickly proves that he is going to take a different approach from his recent prison albums. On those prison stages, Cash won the audience over by entering their world:

“Well, the song of the prisoner is a kind of a sad song… I asked a man on death row what it was like being on death row, living life on death row, he said, ‘Hell, man, it ain’t like nothing. You don’t live for tomorrow or next month or next month, ‘cause you don’t that you got tomorrow or next week or next month, so you live for today. And that’s a kind of a lonely life.”

He made each and every convict feel as if he knew their loneliness. On At Madison Square Garden, however, he invites the audience to enter his world:

“Thank you very much, it’s good to be with you in New York… you know, we come from the flat, black, delta land in Arkansas… and, after I got into the music field and started writing and recording and singing songs about the things I knew, I wrote a lot of songs about life as I knew it as a little, bitty boy.”

Cash structures his set, then, like one of his travelogue LPs, guiding the audience through places and stories, interspersing the hits amongst clusters of thematically-grouped songs:

  • Songs of Country Life: I Still Miss Someone/Five Feet High and Rising/Pickin’ Time all carry a strong note of Cash reminiscing on simpler times in his childhood home of Dyess, Arkansas.
  • Songs of War: Cash had recently played for the troops in Vietnam and he was deeply affected by the experience (see below). He recasts Remember the Alamo and the folk tune Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream to protest the war. His introduction to Alamo is stirring: “History lesson, 1835… 180 Americans against 5,000. Mr. President, that’s the kind of odds we got today.” He then goes on to play the definitive version of the tune. With the military drums stripped away, it’s far more stirring than his studio version.

A whiplash version of Wreck of the Old ’97 – a song which doesn’t seem to have left his set since the day he wrote – makes sure things don’t get too dour.

  • Songs of the Prisoner: Cash sings a trio of ballads, The Long Black Veil/The Wall/Send a Picture of Mother, which challenge the listener to look at these men and women with compassion. Another roaring version of Folsom Prison Blues, and Cash walks offstage for a break (as the band plays an extended outro).

During his break, Johnny’s touring entourage play their hits: Carl Perkins plays a by-the-book Blue Suede Shoes, The Statler Brothers play their cheesy hit Flowers on the Wall, and the Carter Family sing Wildwood Flower and Worried Man Blues. With June back at home, it’s wonderful to hear Mother Maybelle be the focus once again. Cash then returns to fire through a Boy Named Sue and Cocaine Blues. Interestingly, the biggest cheers of the night erupt in the first line of Sue, demonstrating just what a hit it had become for Cash. Sadly, it would be one of his last truly monumental singles. In this version, Cash hilariously censors himself with a “beep”, and then turns around and quips, “You can’t say ‘son of a bitch’ on stage.”

  • Songs of Justice: Cash introduces Jesus Was a Carpenter, a new song from his forthcoming LP, Hello, I’m Johnny Cash, that places Jesus in the social turmoil of the late 60s. He then turns to two of his great narratives on the plight of the Native American, The Ballad of Ira Hayes and As Long as the Grass Shall Grow. Despite only singing the first two verses of As Long…, he delivers them with a deep, mourning passion, pausing emphatically as he sings of Indian graveyards flooded by the Allegheny River dam.

Sing a Travelin’ Song is another new one, this time written by his sister-in-law Helen Carter’s son Kenny who was killed in a car accident earlier that year at the age of 16. Despite his young age, this lonesome tune would have been worthy of any of Cash’s Sun releases.

  • Songs of Faith: Cash concludes his show by drawing the audience into the world of his simple faith. As with San Quentin, his tales of his recent tour of Israel are far warmer in person than on the studio LP, The Holy Land. He Turned the Water into Wine/Were You There/Daddy Sang Bass all paint a picture of a man seeking humble solace in the story of Jesus.

With that, the whole group joins him for a medley of hits – including snippets of Ring of Fire and I Walk the Line – and Johnny then closes the evening with his 1959 lullaby of life back home, Suppertime. From beginning to end, it’s a brilliant set that both appeases and challenges the listener. With Bob Wooten settling into his role in the famed Tennessee Three following the death of guitarist Luther Perkins, the music is wonderfully played. While it lacks the amphetamine-induced wildness of early 60s sets, and the on-the-edge feeling of the prison concerts, this release sits shoulder-to-shoulder with the greatest releases in Cash’s canon.


Other Releases from the Era:

  • Live at Annex 14 NCO Club – In At Madison Square Garden, Cash comments on his recent tour of Vietnam. Finally, on Bootleg Vol. III, Columbia has given us his live set played before the troops! His autobiographies document the difficulty he had playing this show – the trip left him with a blistering fever – yet Cash wouldn’t let anything stop him from entertaining these men he respected so deeply. We have a 9-song set full of hits: Big River/Wreck of the Old ‘97/Tennessee Flat Top Box/Remember the Alamo/Cocaine Blues/Jackson/Long-Legged Guitar Pickin-Man/Ring of Fire/Daddy Sang Bass. The sound quality is lacking, but not bad for something recorded in a war zone over 40 years ago! None of these are definitive versions, but they are essential for fans wanting to hear more of Johnny’s astounding ability to connect with people wherever he went.
  • Girl from the North Country – In 1969, Bob Dylan released Nashville Skyline, one of many albums in which he made a major stylistic shift from his past. The album opens with a glorious re-imagining of a tune from his debut album, this time a duet with Cash. Their admiration for one another was already documented. Here, their duet is wild, ragged, and absolutely unforgettable. Bootlegs (now available on YouTube) reveal they recorded a host of other tunes as well: One Too Many Mornings, Good Ol’ Mountain Dew, I Still Miss Someone, Careless Love, Matchbox, That’s Alright Mama, Big River, I Walk the Line, You Are My Sunshine, Ring of Fire, Guess Things Happen That Way, Just a Closer Walk with Thee, and T is for Texas. They also sang a masterful live version on The Johnny Cash Show that summer. Available on Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline.
  • Six White Horses – A beautiful acoustic demo recorded by Cash, this song was a tribute to JFK, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Cash’s brother Tommy had a hit with it that same year. Available on Bootleg Vol. II.
  • Come Along and Ride This Train – Cash took his 1960 concept album Ride This Train as a model for a series of story-based medleys he played on many episodes of The Johnny Cash Show. Each version was a unique set of stories threaded together by this new tune. Two versions of this song were recorded, an acoustic demo, as well as full-band, boom-chicka-boom version. Both are wonderful, yet unreleased. The demo is available on Bootleg Vol. II. The studio version is on Johnny Cash’s America (not to be confused with the 1972 album America).

“They say old Johnny Cash works good under pressure… Put the screws on me, and I’ll screw right out from under you… I’m tired of all that [bleep]. .. I’ll tell you what, the show is being recorded and televised for England… they said, you gotta do this song, you gotta do that song, you know, you gotta stand like this, you gotta act like this, and I just don’t get it man, you know? I’m here, I’m here to do what you want me to and what I want to do, all right?”

At San QuentinSo goes Johnny’s rambling interaction with an audience of convicts on his second prison album, At San Quentin. Recorded in early 1969 and released later that year, it shows the duality of a man who had just released a full album in tribute to the Holy Land. With the massive success of At Folsom Prison the year earlier, it’s not surprising that Columbia would release a copy-cat cash-in shortly thereafter. What is truly surprising is that At San Quentin stands equally with Folsom, offering deeper insight into Cash the performer, songwriter and man.

Where 1968 had been a bumper year for Johnny, 1969 was far more difficult, largely because of the death of guitarist Luther Perkins in a tragic house fire. Since 1967, though, Cash’s studio and live performances had been augmented by Carl “Blue Suede Shoes” Perkins, a far more virtuosic player than Luther. Nevertheless, it was Luther’s tic-tock shuffle that was crucial to the boom-chicka-boom sound. Ever the professional, though, Cash continued on both in the studio and on stage. Rather than seeking out a Nashville pro, he turned to superfan Bob Wooten, who had once filled in when a travel mix-up prevented Luther from making a gig. Wooten impressed everyone, playing Luther’s riffs note-for-note without missing a beat. At San Quentin, then, marks the debut of Wooten, who would remain in Johnny’s band until his death.

While At San Quentin may be another prison album, it is different in feel from Folsom. First, it’s shorter, offering only 10 tracks (two of which are the same song played again!) compared to Folsom’s sixteen. Second, where Folsom did introduce one new tune (Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart), San Quentin, is loaded with new material, in fact it only offers two-and-a-half hits and one hymn familiar to listeners at the time. Third, there is a lot more audience interaction, with Cash winning his rough-cut audience over one story at a time.

This is the magic of Cash. Yes people love the hits – and I Walk the Line and Wreck of the Old 97 are played wonderfully – but more than anything, they love the man in all his complexity. And so it is that a man, hot of a gospel album, can come into a prison and, yes, sing a few hymns, but also sing tales of love, loss, and murder, and make you somehow feel like he’s just like everyone else in the room.

The set opens with an unreleased Bob Dylan tune that Cash would record a year later for the Little Fauss and Big Halsy movie soundtrack. Wanted Man is brief, catchy tune about a man on the lam, sure to resonate with the crowd. It’s wonderful to hear now guitarist Wooten flub a note on the opening riff, reminding us how nervous he must have been to step into Luther’s shoes. Cash then whips through a couple of hits, and brings out his wife, June Carter Cash, to sing a duet on John Sebastian’s Darlin’ Companion. It’s a cute tune they often sang but never recorded in the studio. It also shows how far Johnny was moving from the Nashville establishment, playing San Francisco hippie music!

Side one closes with Johnny pulling out his acoustic for a solo tune. As the band walks off-stage, Cash continues his conversation with the crowd. He pays tribute to Luther, he jokes about stealing songs, and then he introduces a new song about one of his visits to jail, Starkville City Jail. It’s a simple little story song that plays perfectly to the audience. Cash failed to record this one in the studio too, but you can’t help but sense that this was an offhand song written just for these boys. He asks for the lyric sheet to be brought to him, and he steals the melody from Statler Brother Lee DeWitt’s The Ten Commandments, recoded by Cash earlier in the year. It’s these little moments that make Cash so special.

Side two is even fiercer. He opens with a special tune he wrote just for the concert, San Quentin, which he calls out to the stone walls around him, “San Quentin may you rot and burn in hell.” The crowd loves the song so much, he plays it again. When’s the last time you saw a performer do that? Cash quips, “I kind of like it myself, now,” and then turns to a new lyric by comedian-poet Shel Silverstein that Cash put to music. A Boy Named Sue is absolutely ridiculous, but where his Boa Constrictor – on Everybody Loves a Nut – was a throwaway tune on a lightweight comedy album, this time round their collaboration makes for a poignant moment. It’s full of laughs, yet full of truth, the story of a hard-knocked boy facing up to his deadbeat father and finding an ounce of respect.

The crowd hollering, Cash then draws them into a moment of inspiration, singing the reverential Peace in the Valley with Carl Perkins and the Carter Family helping out. With a partial run through Folsom Prison Blues, Cash greets the prisoners still in their cell, and Johnny’s on his way. It’s a quick 35-minute album, but perfect from start to finish.  It is also a testament to the lean sound new producer Bob Johnston was helping Cash find, after years of over-production.


Notes on Subsequent Reissues:

  • At San Quentin (The Complete 1969 Concert) (Released 2000): This version was actually my introduction to the album, and it’s a fine one-disc version. Expanded to 18 tracks, it fills in many of the gaps. The songs are restored to their original running order, namely by moving Wanted Man to the middle of the set. Big River and I Still Miss Someone are revealed as Cash’s true openers, and an unreleased song, I Don’t Know Where I’m Bound” is added to the acoustic set. We’re also given five closing songs that were cut: Folsom Prison Blues-Ring of Fire-He Turned the Water Into Wine-Daddy Sang Bass-The Old Account Was Settled Long Ago. On the one hand we’re given a few more hits, but we’re also given a gospel set. Ring of Fire is a little strange with the trumpet parts sung by the Carters, but the gospel set is marvelous. He tells stories from Israel in a far more natural way than on The Holy Land, and you can imagine how these songs of spiritual longing and grace would have spoken to the men of San Quentin. Last, the closing number is unedited, adding energetic contributions from the whole band to medley that not only included the previously released Folsom, but also snippets of I Walk the Line, Ring of Fire, and the Rebel Johnny Yuma. If you’re going to buy one version of the album, this would be my pick.
  • At San Quentin (Legacy Edition) (Released 2006): The title of the first reissue is a bald-faced lie. One evening I stumbled across a documentary of Cash at San Quentin which included Orange Blossom Special, a tune not on “the Complete 1969 Concert.” Lo and behold, a few years later a 2-disc box set emerged which added even more tunes. Here then we have the actual “complete concert.” This version adds a Long Black Veil/Give My Love to Rose medley, his yet-unreleased single Blistered plus two more hits, Jackson and, of course, Orange Blossom Special. If you already have At Folsom Prison, then you’re really only missing a live version of Blistered. It’s a lively tune, a lot of fun, but not entirely essential. Elsewhere, we get the contributions of Carl Perkins, the Statler Brothers, and the Carter Family. Carl’s guitar shines on all three of his contributions – Blue Suede Shoes, Restless, and the fabulous instrumental Outside Looking In. As for the Statler Brothers, I’ve never been fond of their Southern Gospel style, so I usually skip their tunes, despite fine Carl’s fine guitar on Glen Campbell’s Less of Me. In my mind, though, it’s the Carters who shine, not only because of their stellar version of Wildwood Flower, but because of their interactions with the crowd. Cash had a formidable physique and could certainly hold his own, but imagine these beautiful women in their puffy skirts getting up in front of a roomful of sex-starved men. June, though, teases them and turns them to putty in her hands in two short minutes. Hearing her work the crowd is sheer delight. Ultimately, though, this edition is for completists only. It’s also packaged with that documentary I saw on TV that time, although it’s not something most people would watch more than once.

A note on censorship: Johnny cusses at times, and the original 10-track album employs bleeps. The two reissues are uncensored, so parents take note.

At Folsom PrisonAt Folsom Prison is both the easiest and hardest of Johnny Cash’s albums to review. Easy because if you only own one Cash album, it’s this one. In fact, if you only own one country album, or perhaps even only one live album, this is the one. Simply put, this record encapsulates everything there is to know about Cash – the rebel, the country boy, the lover, the loser, the entertainer and the religious devotee. The performances are raw and visceral, yet tender and personal at the same time. From start to finish, the album is bursting with electricity.

The hard part comes in getting to what makes this album so special. From start to finish, there’s not a dull track. Recorded live in California’s infamous Folsom Prison, Johnny actually played two sets that day, one in the morning, the other around lunch time. Here Cash is backed by his regular touring entourage: The Tennessee Three (Marshall Grant, WS Holland and Luther Perkins), his girlfriend (and soon to be fiancée, then wife) June Carter, the Statler Brothers. Years on the road with this group meant they were comfortable playing together even if it was first thing in the morning in front of a group of convicts. The recent of addition Carl “Blue Suede Shoes” Perkins on guitar alongside Luther (unrelated) meant some hot licks could be expected on top of the Three’s steadfast boom-chicka-boom backing.

The first set features just Johnny and the Tennessee Three. Not surprisingly, they come blazing out of the gate with Cash’s early hit, Folsom Prison Blues, and here it bristles and cracks with violence appropriate for a song about shooting a man just to watch him die. In an instant, they have spun around for a couple of ballads – Dark as the Dungeon which applies equally to prisoners as it does to coal moaners, and the soft longing of I Still Miss Someone – which are played with such emotion that it’s hard to imagine even this rough-and-tumble audience losing attention for even a moment. He then rips into Cocaine Blues which is so fiery it makes his 1960 studio recording (the censored Transfusion Blues) entirely irrelevant, and then has the gall to sing the brutally dark-humoured gallows tale, 25 Minutes to Go, to a room full of convicts. They don’t seem to mind, in fact, they absolutely love it, cheering at every spare moment in the music. Only then do they take a moment’s rest, long enough for Johnny to joke about playing the “harmoni-cai” for their 1965 hit Orange Blossom Special. Again, they wipe the floor with the studio version, Holland’s drums whip-cracking like a runaway train.

From there, the band is dismissed and Johnny plays a few tunes on his acoustic guitar. The heartbreak is palpable in the Long Black Veil (another gallows tune!), and Send a Picture of Mother (another prison tune!), and yet it seems entirely natural for him to crack jokes about the prison’s drinking water. Cash had a magical ability to bridge the reverent and the ridiculous, and his charm very quickly wins the audience over. The acoustic set continues with the prison escape tale The Wall, and the hilarious Dirty Old Egg-Sucking Dog and the then-unreleased Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart. By now, the audience is eating out of Cash’s hand!

The band returns for a duet with June, the tempestuous cheatin’ tune, Jackson. Johnny and June had an incredible rapport on stage and you can imagine how the prisoners would react to such a beautiful, feisty woman teasing Johnny mere feet from them!

He then begins rounding third base. First it’s the tender Give My Love to Rose, followed by the upbeat hit prison lament, I Got Stripes. Incredibly, stripped of the big studio echo, the Statler Brothers actually sound good behind Cash. The concert then ends on a meditative note, first with the reminiscent Green, Green Grass of Home, and finally with a song Cash wrote by putting to words a lyric written by one of the prisoners: Greystone Chapel. Having gone through an epiphany of his own only a year earlier, following a near suicide, he sings a convict’s revelation: “Inside the walls of prison my body may be/but the Lord has set my soul free.” On this last track, everyone’s clapping, the band is singing, and Carl’s playing some rocking lead, turning a prison cafeteria into a religious revival if only for a few, fleeting minutes. With a brief instrumental and some closing announcements from the Warden, the prisoners are sent back to their cells, and the whole thing is forgotten. Except that it’s not. Newly sober and reinvigorated, Johnny had the foresight to bring in the adventuresome Bob Johnston to record this concert and make sure it would last forever. Thank God he did.


Other Songs from the Era:

  • 1999 Legacy Edition – In 1999, the album was re-released with several bonus tracks. These include a great version of Busted, an acoustic Joe Bean, a full-band version of John Henry’s Hammer played by request, plus some salty dialogue inappropriate for a 1968 release. These only make a perfect album better.
  • 2008 Legacy Box Set – In 2008, the album was released again as a two-disc set revealing the bigger picture behind the concert. What Sony has provided are both the morning and noon-hour sets in their entirety, and they play quite differently from the edited live album. Instead of a straight Cash concert, we get the full travelling roadshow feel of his performances. The first concert opens with Carl Perkins playing Blue Suede Shoes, followed by a Statler Brothers number. The crowd suitably warmed up, Cash comes out for a 19-song set, most of which was used for the album. Left out is a great version of Hank Snow’s “I’m Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail”, in which Cash flubs the last verse, and a second duet with June, their silly take on Ray Charles’ I Got a Woman (in which June flubs a verse). We’re also given “June’s Poem” which highlights what an entertainer she was in her own right. The second set finds Cash a little more tired. He trims his set to 16 tunes, looking to his entourage to fill out the hour. Carl plays three tunes – this time adding The Old Spinning Wheel and Matchbox – as do the Statlers, including their big hit Flowers on the Wall. Johnny adds Give My Love to Rose and I Got Stripes (both of which were included on the original album, but not the first set), and drops several ballads: Long Black Veil, Send a Picture, The Wall. The songs they messed up the first time around are cut, too. June gets another moment in the sun, though, this time with Long Legged Guitar Pickin’ Man – her growls and Carl’s blistering leads are absolute gold. Why it was left off the 1999 release, I can’t imagine! (Check out their similar 1969 performance caught on film at Cummins Prison on YouTube.) To round it out, they take two stabs at the new Greystone Chapel to ensure they have a version fit for the record, but it was the first set’s take that was used in the end anyways. The Box Set is just as it should be for completists: complete from start to finish. Casual listeners will prefer one of the single-disc versions, though.
  • The Folk Singer – The live version of Folsom Prison Blues was released as a single with this new track as a b-side. It’s unlike anything else Cash had ever recorded, sounding more like a San Francisco protest song, portraying the folk singer as a modern prophet. It’s interesting, but not essential. Available on Singles, Plus.

Orange Blossom SpecialJohnny Cash’s 1965 release Orange Blossom Special is the 5th in a string of top-notch releases starting with 1962’s The Sound of Johnny Cash.  After a few years of exploring a new, expanded, sound with Columbia’s big budgets, he had finally found his grove: The Tennessee Two had grown to the Tennessee Three with the addition of W.S. Holland on drums, and the down-home voices of the Carter Family replaced the anonymous choirs found on his early Columbia releases (and some of the horrific overdubs on Sun reissues).

Of the dozens of albums Cash released, though, Orange Blossom Special stands out for several reasons:

  1. It features three Bob Dylan songs, a rare outré for a country star of the time
  2. The “Cash sound” is augmented by the glorious harmonica of Charlie McCoy, as well as a few sax solos by Boots Randolph
  3. It’s the first time we get to hear Cash duet on record with his then-lover (and future wife) June Carter.

1964 built great anticipation for the record with the hit single “Orange Blossom Special” and rightly so.  In the course of a year, Cash turned this fiddle tune into a country standard and a staple of his live set until the day he died, while also unearthing its forgotten writer, Ervin Rouse, giving him newfound fame by pulling him on stage when he passed through Florida.  This is one of Cash’s greatest singles, pushing his baritone to the limit as he drawls, “I don’t care if I do die, do die, do die…”

The Dylan tunes on this album are particularly interesting.  By 1965 Dylan was facing rejection from the traditional folk community for “going electric,” let alone the conservative world of country.  Perhaps Cash identified with him as his recent Bitter Tears album had been boycotted by country radio.  Regardless, they had struck up a friendship during Dylan’s early days in Greenwich Village, and respected each other’s songwriting deeply.

Here, Cash covers 1964’s It Ain’t Me Babe, 1963’s Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right, and Mama, You’ve Been On My Mind which was dropped from 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan, remaining unreleased until 1991.  The first is another Cash classic if only for introducing the fiery dynamic as he duets with June Carter.  Built-up with Ring of Fire-style trumpets, and sung with intensity and vitriol, the backdrop of their tempestuous love affair creates just the right tension for Dylan’s bitter tale of rejecting a lover.  Don’t Think Twice remains my favourite Dylan song, and here Cash does it justice, keeping it to a simple, tender Tennessee Three, boom-chicka-boom reading.  Mama sits somewhere between the two, like a slow-burning fire.  Cash’s delivery of Dylan’s complex meter is pure joy (slurring, “Maybe it’s the weatherrrrrr’r something like that”), and the Dylan-esque harmonica and a brief, spastic sax solo, keep it interesting.

Cash’s own songwriting on this album is limited but notable.  You Wild River (Colorado), a brief paean to the Colorado River, would be largely forgettable if not for its simple delivery.  Just Johnny and his guitar, it hints at the personal recordings he made in the 70s and his later work with Rick Rubin. “All of God’s Children Ain’t Free” is the prototype for his later Man in Black song and persona.  Social justice for the poor and oppressed was emerging more and more in Cash’s lyrical themes, particularly on the recent Bitter Tears LP.  Here he echoes Jesus’ parable of the children in the marketplace:

I’d be happy walking any street, but all God’s children ain’t free

I’d have a smile for all I meet, but all God’s children ain’t free

I’d whistle down the road but I wouldn’t feel right

I’d hear somebody cryin’ out at night

From a sharecropper shack or penitentiary

All God’s children ain’t free

Elsewhere, there’s not a bad tune on the album.  His version of The Long Black Veil is perfect, balancing a delicate vocal performance against bass notes plucked on his acoustic guitar with absolute verve.  All the while, the Tennessee Three, Charlie McCoy, and the Carter Family show up at all the right points.  The Wall is a gentle tune that would become another concert regular.  On Springtime in Alaska, Johnny and June coo over a soft acoustic background in this beautiful rendition of the late Johnny Horton’s no. 1 hit.  One of Cash’s idols, Horton was killed in a head-on crash that also left Springtime co-writer Tillman amputated at the legs.  Cash had refused Horton’s call earlier that day, and you can still hear the sorrow and regret in his voice as he sings this song 5 years later.

The Irish folk song Danny Boy is probably the weakest of the bunch, a bit overwrought at times.  Thankfully he avoids the syrupy strings that would have been there had he recorded this a few years earlier.  The simple backing along with a spoken word intro linking the tune to his childhood in Arkansas create the requisite wistful mood. Wildwood Flower is a straightforward take on what would become June’s signature tune.  The album then closes with a gospel tune, Amen.  Boisterous and fun, with rollicking piano, it highlights the family-like atmosphere that was taking shape in Cash’s touring outfit.

All in all, this is a magical Cash album and, freed from the thematic restraints of several of his early 60s releases, is perhaps the best representation of early 60s Johnny Cash apart from a Best Of compilation.


Other songs from the Era:

  • Time and Time Again – A happy-sounding song of loss marked by jaunty pianos, the Carter Family backing Johnny up, and, notably, a bouncy saxophone throughout.  Released a few months before the album as an a-side, with Orange Blossom Special on the b-side. Available on Singles, Plus.
  • My Old Faded Rose – Recorded at the same time as Bitter Tears, this is a song about how the grass is always greener… a man leaves his girl only to realize he should have stayed with her.  It’s notable for the use of a dobro, and a bright, twangy guitar solo that doesn’t sound much like Luther’s style.  Sounds interchangeable with Time and Time Again. Available on Love.
  • Engine 143 – Another Carter family tune that was left on the cutting room floor.  Sung acoustically by Cash, it’s finely sung with a weary feel, but ultimately Wildwood Flower was the better choice of the two for the LP. Available on the Legacy edition of Orange Blossom special
  • (I’m Proud) The Baby is Mine – A Cash-penned song about a man who marries a woman with a bad reputation: “If you’d mind your own business we’d make it fine.” Also on the Legacy edition.
  • Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind – A more upbeat take, complete with the Herb Alpert-style trumpets again.  I’m glad they chose the other version for the album, as this one’s too close to It Ain’t Me Babe, but simply not as good.  It also drops the Carter Family echo found on the released version, which loses some of the wistful interpretation Cash gives to Dylan’s conflicted lyric. Also on the Legacy edition.
  • Cattle Call/Bill’s Theme – In 1965 the Tennessee Three released another instrumental 45.  Cattle Call is an upbeat tune driven by W.S. Holland’s shuffling drums. A sax fills out the melody (Boots Randolph again), but also begins to take it into lounge-act territory.  Bill’s Theme is similar, although Luther’s lead sticks out better, complete with uncharacteristic harmonics.  Available on Bear Records compilations.

Bitter TearsIf you follow Johnny Cash’s career, you’ll soon learn that apart from having one of the most distinctive voices in country music, and an often sublime gift for songwriting, he was also an archivist and champion for other songwriters as well.  His 1964 release, Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, is in many ways a tribute to Peter La Farge as much as it is a cry for the plight of indigenous peoples.

Like many folk singers, Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie included, La Farge arrived on the New York folk scene telling tall tales of an imagined past that helped them build them street cred amongst an increasingly hip, elitest scene.  Whether or not he was actually American Indian himself, La Farge carved out a niche for himself singing songs of American Indian life.

The Ballad of Ira Hayes – telling the tragic story of the man who helped raise the flag at Iwo Jima, only to wind up a forgotten, drunk veteran – debuted on his 1962 LP, Iron Mountain.  Bob Dylan put his poem As Long as the Grass Shall Grow to words and sang it at Carnegie Hall.  Then, in 1964 he released the first of two native-themed albums – As Long… and then On the Warpath.

Cash’s own Bitter Tears, then, certainly takes these releases as his starting point, although he predates the release of On the Warpath by a few months.  Five of the eight tracks here are written by La Farge, including Ira Hayes, which Cash took to number three.  Clearly something about La Farge’s words resonated with Cash and inspired his own writing.

Cash had already demonstrated an interest in aboriginal affairs.  The opening monologue to Ride this Train reminds the listener that America was taken from its native peoples by the white man.  Not surprisingly, then, this is an album of conflict.  Green Grass documents the flooding of Seneca nation land for the building of the Kinzua Dam.  Apache Tears and Custer speak of war between Indians and whites.  The Talking Leaves relates the clash of oral and written culture, with a father explaining to his son the white leaves with bird tracks on them – paper and pen – left behind by the dead soldiers after a battle. White Girl tells of an Indian man rejected by a white lover, and in The Vanishing Race, Cash takes on the perspective of the Navajao, lamenting their diminishing number.

Nowhere is the conflict clearer than in Drums:

Well you may teach me this land’s hist’ry but we taught it to you first

We broke your hearts and bent your journeys broken treaties left us cursed

Even now you have to cheat us even though you think us tame

In our losing we found proudness in your winning you found shame

Here La Farge is his most direct.  To hear, “in 500 years of fighting not one Indian turned white,” is still startling today.  While some of the images have dated with age, the message remains raw and haunting.   Cash himself commented, “By the time I actually recorded the album I carried a heavy load of sadness and outrage; I felt every word of those songs, particularly ‘Apache Tears’ and ‘The Ballad of Ira Hayes.’ I meant every word, too. I was long past pulling my punches.”  This was obviously a deeply personal project for Cash, and advanced his image as a campaigner for justice and the plight of the forgotten.

Musically, the album sees Cash in fine form.  Accompanied by the Tennessee Three and the Carters, the overall sound is sparse, sometimes stripped right down to Cash’s voice and drum accompaniment.  All told, then, it’s hard to fault this release, and you’d be hard pressed to find another one that better represents who Cash was, both musically and ideologically.


Other songs from the era:

  • Bootleg Vol. 3 features Johnny’s set from the Newport Folk Festival.  He was playing a day late, not realizing he couldn’t travel form Nevada to Rhode Island in a day!  The audio mix leaves a lot to be desired – we mostly hear Johnny’s voice and Luther’s lead guitar – but the set is great.  Big River opens with a thick, fat lead guitar sound, and the rest of the classics –  Folsom Prison Blues, I Still Miss Someone, and I Walk the Line – are played perfectly by the Tennesee Three.  Elsewhere in the set, we’re given a hilarious version of Rock Island Line: When he gets thirsty and it’s suggested he have a beer, he says, “I don’t drink any more… I don’t drink any less”.  He introduces Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright and plays a magical subdued version, far better than his forthcoming studio recording.  Ira Hayes is told softly and reverentially, and then he closes it off with a simple acoustic rendition of Keep on the Sunny Side filled out with a few key changes.  Despite the poor audio, it’s a great set.
  • Rock Island Line/I Just Don’t Like This Kind of Living – In 1965 a Johnny Horton 45rpm was released (5 years after his death) with Rock Island Line (feat. Johnny Cash) as the b-side. Bear Records has since released a CD single that also features Horton singing his own A Fishin’ Man, and a second song with Cash, Hank Williams’ I Just Don’t Like This Kind of Livin’.  These seem to be home demos with Horton singing lead.  Available on Bear Records sets

Blood Sweat and TearsTo be short and to the point, I Love This Album. In fact, I would peg this as the great unsung record of Johnny Cash’s career.

If you’ve been reading my reviews thus far, you’ll know that by 1963 Cash had released 7 albums, 1 EP, and a handful of singles since moving from Sun to Columbia. His Sun sound is instantly recognizable. After recording one song for Sam Phillips with a steel guitar (Wide Open Road) , they quickly threw poor Red and his steel out the door, and mastered the sparse, boom-chicka-boom sound: I-V-I bass patterns mimicked by a muted tick-tock electric guitar, brief, chiming arpeggio-style leads, and Johnny driving it all along by raking across his own muted acoustic guitar to give train-like percussion. Occasionally piano was added, as were 50’s style background vocals. Later compilations marred these recordings with overdubbed strings, too, but the core sound was minimal, innovative, and most importantly, distinctly Johnny Cash.

Moving to Columbia had both positive and negative effects. Certainly, Cash was allowed new creative freedom. He quickly explored his love of gospel music, as well as a number of concept records on various aspects of life in the rural south of his youth. A national label offering artistic freedom, however, also expected big sales. Not surprisingly, then, Cash’s Columbia records often work to conform him to contemporary trends, all in an effort to score that big hit. He experimented with folk, more acoustic country styles, and, most horrendously, a typical choir-and-vibraphone Gospel album (Hymns from the Heart). The problem with Cash is, while he has always maintained a clear artistic vision for the content of his music, he seems to resign the delivery of his music to the whims of his producers. Sam Phillips’ approach matched the sonics to Cash’s song choices. The same could be said years later for Rick Rubin. For Don Law and Frank Jones, his go-to producers at Columbia, often struggled to find an appropriate sound for Cash in those monstrous big-label studios.

On his previous release, The Sound of Johnny Cash, they seemed to be acknowledging they had lost their way with big slick arrangements. Ironically, that album didn’t quite capture what it set out to do, although it was a step in the right direction. Instead, I would argue that it is here, on Blood, Sweat and Tears, that they nail the “new” Johnny Cash Sound.

Several factors led to this arrival. First, it’s the first album where WS Holland plays drums throughout (he’d previously appeared on one track on Hymns from the Heart). His galloping snare expanded the Tennessee Two to the Tennessee Three, giving Cash a bigger sound, without sacrificing minimalism. The Two were fine for county fairs, but needed something more to fit in the big arenas they were moving towards.

Second, it marks the addition of the Carter Family as his backing singers. Although they had toured together, Cash’s backing vocals on records were usually by anonymous session singers. Cash’s band, however, was anything but anonymous. Luther and Marshall, while far from virtuosos, had a guitar-bass sound unlike any other in country. Cash obviously had a voice unlike any other. The Carter’s now gave them a backing unlike any other. Mother Maybelle’s autoharp also added an old-world charm that reflected the earthiness of Cash’s lyrics.

Third, it marks the introduction of Bob Johnson on guitar and banjo. They had previously attempted more complex acoustic guitar parts with tour mate Johnny Western, but, again, they needed an idiosyncratic voice that could become part of the family. Bob fit the bill. His fills float beautifully above the Tennessee Three’s musical centre. It would only take the addition of the Statler Brothers a couple of years later to cement Cash’s musical entourage.

What, then, about the music? On Blood, Sweat and Tears, we have nine magical songs reflecting on the misery of manual labour. The album opens with the epic The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer. Over nine minutes, Cash tales the tale of the West Virginian who out-paced a steam-powered hammer driving railway spikes. He saved his friends’ jobs at the expense of his own life. The song builds on the sonic model first heard in Rock Island Line, adding just the right amount of flourishes through Holland’s drums, Johnson’s banjo, and the sound of a driving spike.

From then on, poverty, toil and death pervade. Tell Him I’m Gone is a bluesy Cash original. Luther slows down the Big River riff to give a slow-burning, twangy minor-third foundation upon which Johnson can solo. It’s another tale of escaping the chain gang despite the threat of the captain’s ninety-nine caliber gun. Another Man Done Gone takes the vocal interplay of the previous year’s gospel single “Were You There…” to new heights. Cash and Anita Carter have an a cappella duel, telling the tragic tale of the hanging of a sharecropper.

Busted (the album’s single) is a moaner of monumental proportions. The narrator’s cotton crop doesn’t come in, cows run dry, hens won’t lay, and his brother can’t spare a dime because his family’s sick. Written in ’62 by Country Music Hall of Famer Harlan Howard, and driven to #4 in ’63 by Ray Charles, Cash’s rendering is made all the more mournful by that distinct autoharp.

The banjo in Casey Jones gives the album a more upbeat turn. This rail song is mixed perfectly, the background vocals adding energy. The misery quickly returns, though. Merle Travis’ Nine Pound Hammer is a loping acoustic tune in which Johnny’s bellowing baritone drawls about the misery of driving a hammer. Chain Gang is carefree and catchy, despite its desperate chorus:

“I dig that ditch, I chop that corn, I curse the day that I was born, I believe it’s better for a man to hang, than to work like a dog on a chain gang”

Jimmie Rodgers’ Waiting for a Train adds a breath of fresh air with some barroom piano, and on the closing Roughneck, Cash laments, “I’ll never amount to nothing.”

Usually, when singing of hardship, Cash offers comfort through faith. In Blood, Sweat and Tears he sings of nothing but the sheer misery of forced manual labour, be it through slavery, poverty or imprisonment. What makes this album so memorable, though, is the sound, the sound, the sound. The Boom-Chicka-Boom sound is back in all its glory, yet perfectly complemented through backing vocals, acoustic lead guitar, banjo, and autoharp. There are a lot of found sounds on this one, too – driving spikes, train noises and the like permeate. Not surprisingly, Another Man… comes from found sound guru Alan Lomax.

No classic singles on this one, and yet a perfect 5/5!

Other Songs from the Era:

  • Send a Picture of Mother – The b-side of Busted, this is another autoharp accompanied tune. Pleasant enough, although the story of a prisoner thinking of his family retreads the superior Give My Love to Rose (both of which were sang at Folsom Prison). Available on Bootleg Vol. 2.
  • I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight – An outtake from the sessions, this is a Carter-family enhanced tale of heartbreak that would have closed the album nicely, although would have broken the manual labour theme. Available on the Legend boxset.
  • Ring of Fire/I’d Still Be There – If there’s a Johnny Cash song, this is it, matched only by I Walk the Line and Folsom Prison Blues. This one was famously co-written by June Carter and stands to this day as a testimony of their burning, tempestuous romance. The mariachi trumpets are now legend, but when listened to in the context of his career to date, entirely innovative. Finally Law and Jones’ production experiments succeed. The b-side, I’d Still be There, is a piano-led tearjerker. It’s nice enough but absolutely overshadowed. Available on Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash.
  • The Matador – The follow-up single to Ring of Fire, The Matador tries to capitalize on the Mexican sound, but fails dramatically. For one, the echo is overdone. Second, the Carter Family’s backing vocals revert to the overblown choral sound found on his early 60’s work. Last, the recording quality is just abysmal. Where Ring of Fire was clear and punchy, this one is filled with unwanted distortion, sounding like a scratched record even on modern remasters. Available on the Legend boxset and many compilations.
  • El Matador/Fuego D’Amour – Johnny re-records the vocals to The Matador and Ring of Fire in Spanish. These are just as clunky and awkward as his earlier German-language 45’s. It should be noted, however, that the backing track to El Matador sounds better than the English-language original. The trumpets are still distorted, but the reverb is dialed back, and the flamenco-style acoustic strumming is cleaned up and brought to the fore. Available on Bear Records Sets.