Posts Tagged ‘Country’

Johnny Cash Childrens AlbumIn 1974, Johnny Cash appeared for the first time on the new children’s program, Sesame Street singing two songs: his tale of Arkansas floods, Five Feet High and Rising, and Nasty Dan, a humorous tale of a miserable man who marries a miserable woman and has a miserable son, written by Sesame Street staffer Jeff Moss. Nasty Dan made for some memorable dialogue with Oscar the Grouch and seems to have inspired Johnny to make an album for children.

Certainly children were part of his life in this time. His son John was born in 1970, and was immortalized in I Got a Boy (and His Name is John), released in 1972 on the International Superstar compilation. His step-daughter Rosie was a new mother as well, so one can imagine his Hendersonville home was a busy place.

Recent years, though, had been filled with challenges. His Jesus film project, The Gospel Road, failed commercially (he had to distribute it through Billy Graham’s organization rather than conventional channels), and he had split with long-time manager Saul Holliff. Recent releases found Johnny pulled in different directions, album sales were falling off, and his songwriting was increasingly lackluster. In this context, The Johnny Cash Children’s Album is a breath of fresh air, eleven short tracks, seven of which are written by Cash himself.

The covered material is culled from interesting sources. Nasty Dan serves as an amusing opening track, and is followed by sweet lesson in math and love, One and One Makes Two, also written by Jeff Moss. Famed steel guitarist Billy Mize – a founder of the Bakersfield sound – contributes Call of the Wild, a tribute to the migration of geese (and this being a country song, the papa goose dies). (Cash fans will note the melody cribbed from the Road to Kaintuck). And Mr. Country Music, Red Foley, provides Old Shep, a story about a boy and his dog (and this being a country song, of course the dog dies).

Johnny’s own contributions are amusing little vignettes perfect for children, but enjoyable for adults too. I Got a Boy is included here for the many who would not have picked up the earlier greatest hits package. Little Magic Glasses is a touching reflection on life’s direction and the blissful unknown of the future. Miss Tara continues his reflections on growing up, as Johnny wonders what will become of his youngest daughter.

Dinosaur Song does some incredible rhyming with long, awkward names. Little Green Fountain should be a classic campfire song. And the Timber Man is one of those perfect Johnny Cash tributes to the working way of life, this time to America’s logging heritage.  The leaves the centerpiece of the album and 3:13, the longest track too), Tiger Whitehead. Johnny wrote this with the psychiatrist who helped him with his addiction to amphetamines, and it’s a mighty tale of a Tennessean who killed 99 bears, but his haunted in his death by one last beast.

Music-wise, there’s nothing to object to here.  This is Johnny’s third co-production with Charlie Bragg, and they continue to turn out a varied sound. The upbeat numbers are rendered in his classic boom chicka boom style. Some of the ballads are very effective, rendered in a minimalist acoustic style; others have strings added and come across a bit sleepy. Like his previous album, The Junkie and the Juicehead Minus Me, it’s played by a mish-mash of musicians, including the Tennessee Three and numerous session players in Johnny’s circle. Despite being recorded sporadically over a few years, the sound is relatively cohesive.

This is a great album for kids and is far more relaxed compared to most modern children’s music. For any Johnny Cash fan, it’s an enjoyable listen.


Other Songs from the Era:

  • Nasty Dan, Five Feet High and Rising – The two performances from Sesame Street are enjoyable listen and featuring dialogue with characters Oscar the Grouch and Biff.  Available on the 1979 lp The Stars Come Out on Sesame Street
  • There’s a Bear in the Woods, My Grandfather’s Clock, Ah Bos Cee Dah, Why is a Fire Engine Red? – Some outtakes from the sessions have surfaced. There’s a Bear in the Woods is another bear hunting story (and is paired with Tiger Whitehead on the album’s reissue). My Grandfather’s Clock is a fine remake of his 1959 recording with a spoken word intro and rolling banjo throughout. Ah Bos Cee Dah is an amusing way to learn the alphabet. Why is a Fire Engine Red is an amusing, if dated, joke.  Available on the Legacy edition of The Johnny Cash Children’s Album.

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.

Hymns from the HeartOne reason Johnny Cash left Sun Records was because Sam Phillips wouldn’t let him record a gospel album – “they just won’t sell,” he claimed. Within months of moving to Columbia, Cash released Hymns by Johnny Cash and proved Sam wrong. Hymns was wonderful because it sounded like Cash: it was brash, it was vulnerable, and it reflected his worldview so closely. Over a dozen traditional, contemporary and original gospel tunes, Cash sang of the hope his faith brought to the weary and downtrodden.

The same cannot be said for 1962’s Hymns from the Heart, although, in principle it should work. Apart from one Cash original (I Got Shoes), it’s made up of standard hymns Cash sang in church growing up. My Presbyterian roots are a long way from Cash’s Southern gospel tradition, so I find the choice of tunes fascinating. Where my musical tradition was dry and intellectual, Cash’s spiritual world is one of folksy comfort, born of the American revivalist movements. The hymns are steeped in poverty and death, using simple images to inspire optimism and resilience. Just look at the titles: God Must Have My Fortune Laid Away, When I Take My Vacation in Heaven, When He Reached Down His Hand for Me. The message reaches its apex in closer, These Hands:

Now don’t try to judge me by what you’d like me be
For my life hasn’t been a success
Some people have power but still they grieve
While these hands brought me happiness
Now I’m tired and I’m old and I haven’t much gold
Maybe things ain’t been all that I planned
Lord above hear my plea when it’s time to judge me
Take a look at these hard working hands

Sadly, what should have inspired Cash to make a warm, intimate album, results in his worst album to date. More so, for an artist who usually released 1-2 albums a year, there were almost 18 long months between Now, There Was a Song! and Hymns from the Heart (thankfully, Sun cleaned out their vaults and released Now Here’s Johnny Cash in 1961). Given the amount of time he took between releases, it’s shocking that this was the best he could do… and this time round, there’s only one Cash original (I Got Shoes).

The real problem here is the arrangements. The choirs are thicker than ever and most songs are dominated by vibraphone. The result is an album that sounds more like Tennessee Ernie Ford than Cash. As a fan of gospel, I love so many of these songs, but the arrangements are so thick and treacly, I find them hard to listen to. There are glimmers of hope. When I’ve Learned Enough to Die has a gorgeous acoustic accompaniment, and My God is Real has some wonderful lead guitar, but sadly, they get both get bogged down by choirs and vibes.

The one moment of redemption is Cash’s own I Got Shoes. This one, with its call and response vocals, almost sounds like an outtake of Hymns. The one difference is the drums. When you hear that dominant snare sound, you know something has changed, and indeed it has. This marks the addition of WS Holland on drums, expanding the Tennessee Two to the Tennessee Three.

Thankfully many of these hymns have been reinterpreted much better elsewhere. Willie Nelson plays them fast and loose on The Troublemaker, and Cash plays them intimately and sensitively decades later on My Mother’s Hymn Book. Sadly, this album marks the direction Cash would generally turn to in his hymns from here on out. Take for instance the 1970 live version of this album’s closing track, These Hands, found on The Johnny Cash Show. The early ‘60s vibes are removed, but the choir remains, and a grandiose trumpet is added. As a gospel fan, I take comfort in the bookends of Cash’s gospel career – Hymns and My Mother’s Hymn Book are masterpieces. Hymns from the Heart, however, falls from grace.


Other songs from the era:

  • Forty Shades of Green – Cash re-released The Rebel –Johnny Yuma as a single in 1961. Featured as the b-side, this original tune about Ireland is hit-and-miss. The melody is memorable, and it’s interesting to hear Cash sing about a new landscape. The music, however, is far from country. Instead, Cash sings over another sickly-sweet arrangement of strings, vibes and angelic choruses. Found on Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash.
  • Tall Man/Tennessee Flat-Top Box – Cash recorded this jaunty tune in 1961 for the film, Cindy. His performance is innocuous enough, but the female backing vocals are just strange. Sounding vaguely like Alvin and the Chipmunks, one wonders if they’ve been sped up. Too much vari-speed is a bad thing. Found on Singles, Plus. The b-side, however, is flawless. No backing vocals, no vibes, no strings, just Cash, The Tennessee Two, and (assumedly) Johnny Western picking a wonderful acoustic lead. This one would have fit in with his Sun catalogue.
  • The Big Battle – Released as an a-side (with When I’m Old Enough… on the b-side), The Big Battle is a big production. Sounding like something out of a John Wayne western, this civil war tale with booming drums foreshadows what Cash would do later in the decade on Ballads of the True Wild West.
  • A Day in the Grand Canyon – In 1961, pop orchestra conductor Andre Kostelanetz released a recording of Ferde Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite. The final track on the LP was Johnny Cash reading a narrative about… A Day in the Grand Canyon. No music here, just sound effects and Johnny Cash’s deep baritone. Makes a nice bedtime story. Now available on budget iTunes compilations.
  • There’s Always A Mother Waiting – This one sounds like an outtake from Hymns from the Heart. A gentle, sentimental acoustic tune with – again – too much vibraphone. Available on Bootleg Vol. 2.
  • Blue Bandana/So Doggone Lonesome – An unreleased pair of tunes by The Tennessee Three. Just what you’d expect, Blue Bandana is a softly meandering instrumental, while So Doggone Lonesome is a rockin’ instrumental version of Johnny’s Sun-era tune, notable for its overdubbed electric guitars, and Holland’s unique snare sound. Available on Bear Records sets.
  • So Do I/Shamrock Doesn’t Grow in California – More unreleased tunes from the era. So Do I is an original Cash moaner with some nice lead playing by Perkins. Shamrock doesn’t come together quite the same way. This unfinished tune continues Johnny’s newfound interest in Ireland (see Forty Shades of Green). Background vocals were added to the mix, but the instruments drop out on the verses. Cash’s vocal is still quite rough, so one can’t wonder if he intended to re-record this tune, but never got around to it. Available on Bear Record Sets.
  • Folsom Prison Blues/I Walk the Line – Johnny recorded these demos in 1961, proving that he was still capable of that stark, minimal sound. No new ground is covered in these tracks, but perhaps this was the starting point for 1964’s I Walk the Line re-recordings of his Sun hits. Available on the promotional-only The Alternative Johnny Cash (given out when you purchased two or more Johnny Cash CDs when Live at Madison Square Garden came out).

songsofoursoilSongs of Our Soil seems to prove the theory that Cash was holding back his good material from Sam Phillips during the end of his tenure at Sun Records.  His third release for Columbia, still less than a year since the first, Songs demonstrates that Cash’s creativity really was stifled over at Sun.  While he wrote those great songs and crafted his signature sound over at Sun, Columbia gave him the opportunity to explore his whims and fancies with little restraint.

While Fabulous fit nicely into the Sun sound, except with added drums, Hymns was the gospel album Sam forbade.  Now on Songs of Our Soil, Cash strikes out into an entirely new vein – the concept album.  In twelve tightly crafted songs, Cash evokes a passing rural America.  Five songs clock in under two minutes, and six are originals written by Johnny, and two more are his revisions of traditionals (Clementine/Oh My Darling Clementine and Drink To Me/Drink To Me With Only Thine Eyes).

As many have noted, the album is filled with death.  His mother dies (Don’t Step on Mother’s Roses), his father dies (again, Roses), his grandfather dies (Grandfather’s Clock), a native warrior threatens murder (Old Apache Squaw), a carousing miner is murdered behind a saloon on the eve of his wedding (Clementine), three prospectors thirst to death in the desert (Hank and Joe and Me), a cemetery caretaker ponders his forthcoming lonely death (The Caretaker), and it’s all rounded with a meditation on the return of Christ (The Great Speckled Bird).  Other songs offer little cheeriness.  The farm gets flooded (Five Feet High and Rising), the family ponders asking the rich man in town for help as they starve (The Man on the Hill), and a sailor gets homesick (I Want to Go Home).

Despite the dour subject matter, the music throughout is upbeat.  Fans of the Sun sound will really enjoy this one.  Where they’re added, the drums are light, letting Luther’s Boom-Chicka-Boom picking carry the rhythm along.  Johnny’s acoustic guitar strums along throughout, most notably on Don’t Step on Mother’s Roses, where Luther steps out with some Hawaiian-esque lead guitar.

The contrast between the dark lyrics and the shuffling music belies Johnny’s character.  This album speaks of two worlds: the reality of life in the rural south he grew up in and the lore of the West that filled his imagination as a child on the farm.  That life was full of struggle, with poverty and natural disaster always looming at the door, threatening to take everything a hard working family had worked for.  Most things of value were a tribute to a lost loved one, be they a rose bush over mother’s grave, or a glorious clock memorializing grandfather.  And yet for those who ventured beyond the farm, the land of opportunity often resulted in tragedy.

Despite having grown up in such a world of toil, Cash was ever hopeful.  The landmarks of the album attest to as much: it opens with a hopeful love song (Drink to Me), closes the first side with a hopeful look towards redemption in Christ’s return, and then finally resolves the album with It Could Be You (Instead of Him), a plea for compassion towards one’s fellow man:

Befriend each stranger in the night help to make his burden light

Lift up the fallen ones and be a friend

Shed a tear share a sigh share his fears don’t pass him by

But for the grace of God it could be you instead of him

It is this code of charity that kept people alive in such a difficult world.

In a modern world, it can be hard to identify with the context of Cash’s songs, and yet all of these threats still loom.  In the past two months, New York City and Montreal have flooded.  We’re still living in war.  Many have lost their houses in recent years.  And when we face challenges, the same hope remains: the hope of love, the hope of a benevolent God, and the hope of goodwill from others when we’re in need.  To this end, Songs of Our Soil is a timeless success.


Other songs from the era:

  • I Got Stripes – This was the single, featuring Five Feet High and Rising.  This track would contribute to Johnny’s bad-boy image, offering a light-hearted take on prison life.  It’s a classic upbeat number (faster than anything on the Songs LP) that would feature regularly in Cash’s live set.  It can be found on the Legacy edition of Songs of Our Soil.
  • Wo Ist Zuhause Mama/Viel Zu Spat – On Oct. 25, 1959, Johnny recorded German versions of How High’s the Water Mama and I Got Stripes, linking Johnny to his days as a soldier deployed to Germany in the early 50s.  Purely interesting as a novelty item.  The backing vocals in Wo Ist Zuhause are particularly amusing.  Available on several different Bear Family releases.
  • Heartbeat/Relief is Just a Swallow Away/Hello Again – These tunes have popped up again on some of the Bear Family releases.  Apparently, Johnny’s nephew Roy Cash Jr. was trying to get a start as a country singer under the name of Roy Rivers.  Johnny was kind enough to open the studio to him and these are three recordings that have surfaced.  Johnny isn’t heard on any of these, and the sound is different from Cash’s own sound, so I’m doubtful if the Tennessee Two are on here either.  Instead it’s booming drums, jaunty steel guitar, and bouncy piano typical of the era.  Roy’s voice isn’t half bad, though!

hymnsFaith was central to Johnny Cash’s music and life. Read either of his autobiographies and you’ll hear the haunting story of his older brother Jack’s brutal death at age 15. Mauled by a power saw in a local mill, he died a week later, depleted by the injuries to his stomach. Despite dying young, Jack left a strong impression on Johnny. Johnny remembered his brother as a gifted, fiery preacher.

If you look at the cover of Johnny’s first album for Rick Rubin – which would resuscitate Johnny’s career one last time before his own death – the black-and-white imagery echoes Johnny and Jack, one the dark, troubled soul, the other the good and faithful servant. As Cash discussed, though, even that black dog had a white spot, a fleck of hope.

When Johnny recorded Hymns in 1958 he was no saint. A road warrior, travelling the highways and byways promoting his career, his addiction to pills was beginning, taking uppers to sustain him from concert to concert, and downers to help him sleep when he got home. Compounded by affairs on the road, one can imagine he was not much of a husband or father.

Yet, Cash was adamant in his desire to record a gospel record, so adamant, in fact, that it became one of the determining factors in his move from Sun Records to Columbia. With one album under his belt at Columbia, they made good on their promise to allow him to record a gospel album. The result is Hymns by Johnny Cash, which went on to sell 500,000 copies.

Hymns offers new insight into Cash’s psyche. On this release we see little of the spit-in-your-eye rebel described in Folsom Prison Blues or Don’t Take Your Guns to Town. Instead, we see a humble man looking back to the faith of his childhood. Cash’s faith is deeply sentimental, rooted in the folksy Christianity of the cottonfields. Take “Are All the Children In” , a poem read over a gently-played “Just As I Am”. In it, a man reflects on death, wondering if God will call him in, just like his mother used to at the end of each day.

Sentimentality, however, should not be confused with happiness. I often get frustrated with the credit Rick Rubin receives for “discovering” the dark side of Cash, because it’s been there throughout his career, even on this his first gospel album. Despite this being an album of hymns, it is more accurately an album of desparate prayers. Many of the songs present a broken, lonesome and rejected man looking to a faithful God for hope. In Lead Me Father, he cries, “When my hands are tired and my step is slow/Walk beside me and give me the strength to go/Fill my face with your courage so defeat won’t show/Pick me up when I stumble so the world won’t know.” The Bible heroes are loners – Noah and Samson on He’ll be a Friend – and Jesus is the one who can feed, heal, and give life (It Was Jesus).

The songs are a mix of traditionals (The Old Account; Swing Low, Sweet Chariot), contemporary tunes (I Saw a Man, Lead Me Gently, Snow in His Hair, These Things Shall Pass, God Will), and four Cash originals. These four are all wonderful. It Was Jesus is a bouncy call-and-response number. Lead Me Father is a comforting ballad with beautiful backing vocals by the Jordanaires. I Call Him is a bouncy number co-written with his father, Roy Cash. Last, He’ll be a Friend is a memorable Bible lesson put to song.

Audience reactions to this release will vary. Many who don’t share Cash’s faith will find this collection tedious. As someone who does enjoy gospel, this is not just another hymn collection. Regardless, great value is found in his perspective on faith. Johnny isn’t a squeaky-clean Pat Boone, he’s a troubled man turning to faith for hope. This is the perspective that resonates throughout.

Musically, there is no other Cash album quite like this one. The core of this album is the boom-chicka-boom sound of Cash and the Tennessee Two. Sometimes gentle, sometimes rollicking, it is always Luther’s simple guitar lines racketing over Marshall’s back-and-forth bass, with Cash’s voice booming over the top. Throughout, their foundation is augmented by now-dated background choruses, and at times piano and drums. This is Cash in transition. He is shifting from the simple sound of the Tennessee Two, to a more orchestrated approach that would ultimately dwarf his signature sound.

Next to the stripped-back My Mother’s Hymn Book released shortly before his death, this is my favourite Cash gospel album. Many of these would carry through his live sets over the years (The Old Account absolutely rocks on At San Quentin). Here, though, they are clear, focused and incisive.

5/5 (If you don’t like gospel, 3/5?)

Other songs from the era:
The 2002 Legacy Edition of Hymns includes an alternate, mono mix of It Was Jesus. Stripped of the background vocals and with echo added to Cash’s vocal, this version just doesn’t work. Instead of being a sprite album opener, it turns into a plodding single.

The Fabulous Johnny Cash is Cash’s first LP for Columbia Records. Released late in 1958, it foreshadows the many new directions he would take in his 25+years with Columbia. Johnny’s canon from Sun Records (1955-1958) is legendary. Backed only by the Tennessee Two, their sound was raw and minimal. Despite each musician’s limited technical ability, and with producer Sam Phillip’s “no drums” restriction, they developed their unique Boom-Chicka-Boom sound. Johnny’s acoustic guitar was, more often than not, a percussion instrument. Luther Perkin’s guitar and Marshall Grant’s bass tick-tock in the background, Luther stepping out only for the most sparse of guitar solos. At times they were complemented by standard 1950’s vocal choruses, but for the most part, it was three men hammering out rockabilly, blues and ballads about life in the South.

fabulousFabulous is the most akin to the Sun releases of any Columbia album, and yet begins to expand the palette. All of Cash’s favourite themes are here: rural Southern life (Pickin’ Time, Suppertime), heartbreak (I’d Rather Die Young, That’s All Over), sentimentality (Shepherd of My Heart), the life of a musician (Frankie’s Man, Johnny, The Troubadour), a fascination with trains (One More Ride) and old-time gospel (That’s Enough). Over the course of his career he would revisit all of these again, and again, sometimes in theme albums (Ride This Train, America, Precious Memories), other times all mixed together (almost every album he released, even Folsom Prison, had a hymn or two).

For fans at the time, however, this album must have felt like a cool glass of water at the end of a walk through the desert. While he exploded out of the gate with Sun, Johnny quickly grew frustrated with Phillip’s imposed limitations (No drums! No gospel!). By the end of his Sun days, Johnny kept his originals to himself, offering Sam nothing but sub-par covers. The covers here are anything but. That’s All Over and I’d Rather Die Young are as sad and lonesome as anything you’ll ever hear, the latter laying a template for his classic 1960 cover of Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry (minus the pedal steel). That’s Enough is a bluesy gospel number, Cash’s drawl moaning about human rejection and divine comfort, all while punching out lines more direct and comical than anything I’ve ever heard in church (“He’s the great Emancipator/my heart regulator”). Suppertime is a gorgeous closer, with subtle additions of weeping steel guitar.

While Cash would prove himself as a master interpreter over the next few decades (Rick Rubin anyone?), it is his originals that stand out here, five in all. The opener, Run Softly Blue River, comes kicking out of the gate with a rough and ready one note guitar riff from Luther, announcing the arrival of the Johnny Cash. Frankie’s Man, Johnny is a worthy follow-up, a humourous tale of a failed attempt at cheating on the road (“Be good but carry a stick/sometimes it looks like a guitar picker just can’t tell what to pick”). Pickin’ Time makes a wonderful pair with Suppertime, both paying tribute to Cash’s Arkansas cotton field roots. Ultimately, though, it’s the twin originals of I Still Miss Someone and Don’t Take Your Guns to Town that are the focal point of this album. Two classic songs that are definitive Cash, one is a broken-hearted love song, the other a tragic tale of rebellion, both expressed in the most minimal of terms, lyrically and musically.

In Fabulous, then, we have a taste of Cash’s entire legacy, a summation of his past and a window into his future. Other albums may have bigger hits, or clearer visions, but if you’re looking for an album with the Johnny Cash sound, then this is the one for you.

A classic. 5/5

Other songs from the era:
Six outtakes are featured on the 2002 Legacy edition. Some point backwards towards the minimal Sun sound (Fool’s Hall of Fame, Cold Shoulder, Walkin’ the Blues), others experiment with a more orchestrated approach (Oh What a Dream, Mama’s Baby (a wonderfully swinging number), I’ll Remember You). Walkin’ the Blues stands out as a beautiful acoustic track unusual for Cash.


  • All Over Again/What Do I Care: A quick acoustic track, but largely forgettable. Despite being the a-side, this was omitted from the classic singles collection Ring of Fire. While Luther plays a characteristic boom-chicka-boom lead line, it pales in comparison to earlier hits like I Walk the Line. The b-side is better, notable most of all for its a cappella introduction. All Over Again is available on Bootleg Vol. 2, and Singles, Plus. What Do I Care is on Ring of Fire.
  • Oh What a Dream was re-recorded as “You Dreamer You” and released as the b-side to Frankie’s Man, Johnny. The pace is sped up and the Jordanaire’s backing vocals are augmented by a female chorus, hinting at the lusher sound Cash gravitated towards with Columbia. You can find it on the Legacy Edition of Ride This Train or Bootleg Vol. 2.