Posts Tagged ‘Don Law’

Ragged Old FlagReleased in 1974, Ragged Old Flag is a solid if unremarkable release for Cash, as would be a great deal of his remaining 1970s output. In the liner notes, Cash expressed a great deal of enthusiasm for the release and the album is notable for being Johnny’s first release with all songs penned by himself.

The album is a classic example of his 70s sound. When Luther Perkins died in a house fire in 1968, he was replaced in the Tennessee Three (Marshall Grant and WS Holland) by Bob Wooten, but it should be noted that Carl “Blue Suede” Perkins joined the band at the same time and was still playing with Cash in ’74. That 70s Cash sound, then, was defined by the classic boom-chicka-boom drive, but now built upon dual lead guitar, and often acoustic guitar backing (here provided by Nashville session whiz Ray Edenton). Having built his home studio, House of Cash, in 1972, and now being clean and sober for a few years, Johnny also built a very laid-back feel into his 70s sound.

There are some new elements creeping into the sound, too. First, after a string of albums produced by gospel pianist Larry Butler, and then a brief reunion with his old producer Don Law, Cash self-produced this number with engineer Charlie Bragg, a collaboration that would carry on through the seventies. Second, he seems to have parted ways with the Statler Brothers and had talked up-and-coming gospel country quartet the Oak Ridge Boys into joining him on this release (they first appeared on Praise the Lord and Pass the Soup, a single-only release with him the year before). I find them far more tasteful than the brash Statler Brothers, and a welcome addition to Cash’s laid-back seventies feel.

So, what of the songs? The opening narrative, Ragged Old Flag, suggests that this album is going to be (another) reflection on the history of America. It speaks of a visitor to a town who inquires about the town flag which appears to be far past its prime. The narrator describes the trials the flag has seen, from the Civil War, through world wars, Korea, and now Vietnam. Importantly it hints at the turmoil America was facing in the wake of Watergate. Historical accuracy notwithstanding (the 50-star flag didn’t come about until 1960), it’s a poignant tale that re-affirms Johnny’s admiration for America’s strength of character (“she’s been through the fire before”) and his sadness over her moral failings.

The album quickly changes gear, though, indicating that this is not just “America” part two. The opening tune, which opens with military drums and ends with orchestral bombast, is revealed to be a live recording (actually recorded on Johnny’s front lawn for an audience of Columbia Records staff with Earl Scruggs on banjo). The remaining eleven tracks were all recorded inside and share that laid-back sound with more down-to-earth vocals.

The dominant picture of America is one of hard working people. All I Do is Drive puts in the seat of a long-haul trucker and gives us a magnificent harmony lead guitar part. Southern Comfort is a catchy waltz about love lost and found while working in a tobacco factory (the lost lover amusingly runs away for another kind of tobacco). King of the Hill opens with the Oak Ridge Boys’ rich harmonies and reflects on the struggle of working in a cotton mill. I’m a Worried Man was inspired by a phrase Johnny heard while at his vacation home in Jamaica, and speaks of the worries of providing for a family.

Elsewhere, there are songs of struggle. Lonesome to the Bone sees Johnny reinventing Kris Kristofferson’s Sunday Morning Coming Down. This time the morning hangover makes the narrator reminisce of love lost. Please Don’t Let Me Out is the obligatory prison song, and offers a new perspective – this time the prisoner is terrified at the thought of release, seeing the outside world as an unknown and frightful place.

While I’ve Got It On My Mind is unique in Johnny’s catalogue. Although not dirty like the unreleased early sixties’ ditty Lovin’ Locomotive Man, it finds Cash feeling randy for his woman.

The album also offers three gospel tunes. Where as in the sixties found Cash singing classic hymns, he’s now begun penning his own in a modern southern gospel style. In general the results aren’t pretty. Pie in the Sky (“There’ll be pie in the sky/by and by when I die/and it’ll be alright”) and Good Morning Friend (“Good morning friend, good morning friend/Yes, I’m feeling like a million since I’ve got you livin’ in) come across as trite and flimsy. The final tune, heard previously on his home recordings, comes across better. What on Earth (Will You Do for Heaven’s Sake) challenges the believer to have their faith make a difference in this world (rather than just waiting for the pie in the sky). He would revisit this one throughout his career and rightfully so.

That leaves one last song, and it’s the real highlight. Don’t Go Near the Water is an environmental song for the everyman, putting the emerging issue (at the time) of pollution into the everyday context of a father and son fishing together. It’s catchy and brilliant.

All in all, this is a fine album if you’re looking for that 70s Cash sound.

4/5

Other songs from the era:

  • Sixteen Tons/While I’ve Got It On My Mind/Sold Out of Flagpoles – Johnny continued to demo songs in his own studio, but these three have only seen limited release. While I’ve Got It… was re-recorded for this album, Flagpoles would be re-recorded in for 1976’s One Piece at a Time (but would have fit well on this album), and Sixteen Tons would wait over a decade to be re-recorded for Johnny’s Mercury debut Johnny Cash is Coming to Town. These three acoustic versions were released on a limited edition cd included with some printings of John Cash’s book House of Cash.
  • Virgie – A moving acoustic tribute to a friend of Johnny’s.  Released on Personal File.

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.

4/5

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.

The Gospel RoadHow do you review Johnny’s longest album, The Gospel Road – A Story of Jesus, Told and Sung by Johnny Cash? Even the title is exhausting!

This 1973 release is both a triumph and a tragedy. Even in his darkest years of addiction and isolation, Christianity was never far from Johnny’s heart. As he began rebuilding his life in the late 1960s, the faith of Johnny’s childhood became a driving force in his life.  By the early 1970s, he was a friend of evangelist Billy Graham (among others, including Hank Snow’s son), and felt an increasing passion to make a film about the life of his savior, Jesus Christ.

So here we have the fruit of his labour in the form of a 76-track soundtrack. As it turns out, this is less of a soundtrack and, instead, largely a rip of the film’s audio. The film is a fairly straightforward telling of Jesus’ life with Cash narrating, and a string of songs old and new tying the story together. It has none of the controversy of Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, nor the shocking brutality of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. The tone here is one of reverence and warmth.

It was a triumph in that Cash actually managed to do it. Few would have the resources and wherewithal to film a full-blown religious movie in the Holy Land, particularly one with as  little film experience as Johnny Cash (he starred in a couple of b-movies). Moreover, we see in this depiction of Christ a friendliness exhibited through his relationships with the disciples and children. Cash often sang many gospel tunes of desperation, calling out to his Lord in a time of need, and it is the evocation of a compassionate God that really shines through here.

The tragedy, is that not only is the film rather dull (as movies of Jesus can be), but it never reached the wide audience he’d intended.  Cash had invested himself in large personal projects before, including his first gospel album Hymns, and the many historical concept albums he released in the 60s (Ballads of the True West, Bitter Tears…). In moving into the film world, though, he was moving way out his comfort zone. He cast too many friends in the film, resulting in wooden performances. Worse, though, Cash simply didn’t know the business of making movies, so when it was all wrapped (an accomplishment in itself considering it was filmed on location in Israel), he couldn’t find a distribution partner. Hoping it would be picked up by a Hollywood Studio and shown everywhere, he was eventually saved by his friend Billy Graham, whose organization picked up the film and used it as an evangelism tool. While Johnny had hoped to use the film to proclaim his Lord to the world, he had hoped to use traditional entertainment channels to reach a wider audience.

An even greater tragedy was the rift this experience caused with Cash’s long-time manager Saul Holiff. Holiff had carried Johnny through those darkest hours of the mid-late 60s, smoothing over relationships with promoters when Cash was a no-show or wasted on stage, and helping him rebuild his career through the prison albums and then his TV show. In the early 70s, though, Cash’s evangelistic bent strained the relationship with Holiff. Cash, and evidently June even moreso, became irritated that Holiff wouldn’t join them when they sang at a Billy Graham Crusade. In Holiff’s mind, there was nothing to manage – this wasn’t a paid performance, it was Johnny and June choosing to charity work they were passionate about. For Cash, though, it was a personal slight. When Johnny wanted to spend a fortune filming an unsellable movie about Jesus in Israel, one can imagine what Holiff’s response would have been. Sadly, this was the beginning of the end of their relationship, and by the end of 1973, Holiff “retired” from the music business and moved north to Canada.

What, then, of the music? Despite the endless number of tracks (76 on the CD issue, 77 on my LP), there are really only ten songs on here, several of which are drawn from Johnny’s back catalogue. Motifs from the tunes are used as background music throughout the film as well. Overall the music is what you would expect of Cash approaching gospel music in the early 70s. The Statler Brothers and Carter Family are featured frequently, providing a wall of harmonies. The backing is simple acoustic guitars on the quieter moments, and the tic-tock, boom-chicka-boom of the Tennesse Three (still with Carl Perkins) on the upbeat numbers. And there are strings everywhere. Thankfully, as with his previous album Any Old Wind That Blows, the strings are generally tasteful. After the overblown gospel choruses on A Thing Called Love, producer Larry Butler, now a Cash regular, seemed to find a balance between the Tennessee Three’s sound and larger orchestral arrangements that previous producers – Bob Johnston, Don Law, Frank Jones – could not.

What of the songs, then? Two we already know. He Turned the Water Into Wine was first recorded for 1968’s The Holy Land. It’s straightforward narrative of Jesus’ miracles is interspersed in four parts through the telling of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus Was a Carpenter, from 1970’s Hello, I’m Johnny Cash is also broken up, sung first as we approach the crucifixion, and then, powerfully, the last verse, which pulls Jesus’ story into a contemporary context, sung a cappella at the conclusion of the film.

A few tunes are heavy with narrative. Opener Praise the Lord works well, setting the powerful prophecy of Isaiah 9 (“A people that once walked in darkness have seen a great light…”) to an acoustic backing. The Last Supper is less so. The Statlers join in and the song builds from a cappella to full band, but the clumsy telling of the Last Supper is forgettable. Children, too, is a forgettable number, despite being drawn from one of the more enjoyable scenes of the film.

The rest of the material, though, is quite good. Gospel Road is a fun boom-chicka-boom number that sets the tone for Jesus’ travelling preaching, and is in many ways a gospel version of Ride This Train. I See Men as Trees Walking (debuted a year earlier at the Jesus Explosion festival) is a fun, upbeat telling of a blind man healed by Jesus. Follow Me is a beautiful recasting of the John Denver classic, with June Carter singing it as Mary Magdalene. Hearing the song in a new context is wonderfully refreshing.

Then we are left with the two most powerful numbers on the album. Help Me is a Larry Gatlin number which fits Cash’s religious view well. Here we have a simple ballad of a man crying out to God sungin parts by Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge and Larry Gatlin. The second part – a stripped down verse with only Kristofferson – works best thanks to its simplicity and heartfelt performance. Then we have Kristofferson’s own Burden of Freedom. Another acoustic ballad, it is also broken into segments. The final verse is sung by Cash in what might be his most frail vocal performance until his Rick Rubin recordings decades later. As Jesus is crucified, Cash’s voice breaks:

Lord, help me to shoulder the burden of freedom
And give me the courage to be what I can

This is truly one of the most powerful moments in Cash’s vast discography.

Evaluating this album, then, is a difficult task. Despite some excellent music, as a whole, the album doesn’t work. I find the mood changes too abrupt – the first LP is light and buoyant, gurgling along with Perkins guitar through the Gospel Road. The second LP is heavy with narrative of Jesus’ death, bogged down by overwrought musical backing. Listening to the full set in one listen is a long haul. What would have worked far better would be a true soundtrack: “Songs from The Gospel Road.” An abridged narration by Johnny (similar to Ride This Train or America) could have tied the songs together and told the story in a far more efficient manner than simply handing over the entire film’s dialogue. It would also allow us to hear each song in their entirety rather than chopped up verse by verse.

At the end of the day, the songs are good, but the album is not… a triumph and a tragedy in one.

3/5

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).

4.5/5

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.

From Sea to Shining Sea1968 was a turning point for Johnny Cash. His divorce from his first wife, Vivian, final, he was free to openly pursue his romance with his new love June Carter. Nevertheless, the demons that destroyed his first marriage – endless life on the road, addiction to amphetamines, and the darkness that lingered from his brother’s childhood death – remained. Completely distraught, he crawled into the labyrinth of Nickajack Cave near his home in Tennessee, fixin’ to die.

Thankfully, he had a spiritual awakening in that cave that gave him the will to live. Shortly thereafter, June and her mother locked John into his bedroom for over a month. He may have torn the wallpaper off the walls searching for drugs, but the cold turkey approach worked. Johnny was clean, he proposed to June in February, they married a couple of weeks later, and the future was looking up.

Not surprisingly, his creative output stalled during this period. In most years, Cash released two albums and a handful of singles. After some experimentation in his early days with Columbia, by 1963 he had found a new sound appropriate to Columbia’s big studios, and he exercised his artistic freedom by exploring a wide range of historical and social issues previously untouched by country music. 1967, however, saw only the 27-minute duet album Carryin’ On, and two forgettable singles (The Wind Changes and Rosanna’s Going Wild).

Sadly, 1968 may have been a good year for Cash personally, but it didn’t start well professionally. The 11-track Sea to Shining Sea, released in January 1968, but recorded in the middle of 1967’s Carryin’ On sessions, was Cash’s sole studio offering for the year, and it’s a disappointing one to say the least.

From start to finish, the album sounds tired and retreads subject matter we’ve heard before with less impressive results. The opening and closing narrative, From Sea to Shining Sea, finds Cash extolling the virtues of the 3000 miles of America’s coastlands, while an orchestra and choir plays America the Beautiful in the background. While that might set the stage for another travelogue album, akin to Ride This Train, it really goes nowhere.

Instead of documenting the vast geographies of America, he instead takes a quick tour around the deep South, all familiar territory for Cash’s fans. There are clashes between settlers and Indians on the Tennessee River (The Whirl and the Suck); hard labour in coal mines (Call Daddy from the Mines), cotton fields (The Frozen Four Hundred Pound…), and shrimp boats (Shrimpin’ Sailin’); failed prison escapes (The Walls of a Prison); dusty gas stations bypassed by the Interstate (Cisco Clifton’s Filling Station); and the ghostly memory of the Natives who claimed this land long ago (The Flint Arrowhead).

While it might sound exciting at first to hear that Cash wrote all of these songs himself, they are virtually all lesser versions of past successes. The Walls of a Prison can’t hold a candle to the aching agony of The Wall, and he reuses the melody to The Streets of Laredo for the third time (1963’s We Are the Shepherds, and 1965’s Streets of Laredo). Hard labour was depicted perfectly on 1963’s Blood, Sweat and Tears, and the hardship of coal mining has never been given a more fitting tribute than in Dark as a Dungeon. Any number of Cash’s cotton songs – particularly 1958’s Pickin’ Time and 1962’s In Them Old Cottonfields Back Home – ring more authentic than the Frozen Four Hundred… And while the Flint Arrowhead continues Cash’s tradition of recognizing the role of Native Peoples in America’s history – “that I inherited this ground is denied by this stone I’ve found” – it lacks the complexity of Bitter Tears.

Musically, the album feels tired, as well. The majority of the songs lack an original, memorable melody, save a chorus. The arrangements, while tasteful, now feel like Cash has gone into a rut.  There are banjo-led interludes similar to past theme albums, a dobro song (Another Song to Sing), a barroom piano tune (Cisco Clifton), and a harmonica one as well (Shrimpin’). Not surprisingly, producer Don Law would be forced into retirement when he turned 65 that year, and his protégé Frank Jones, didn’t get the big promotion because their style had simply run out of steam.

That said, this album is not without its virtues. At times, the listener can hear a new sound emerging. Carl Perkin’s tasteful lead on Call Daddy hints at the laid-back, acoustic sound Cash would lean towards in the early 70s. You and Tennessee is a beautiful acoustic ballad, an evocative tribute to land and love:

Beside the Cumberland River
Where the grass is soft and sweet
We ran across the fields of cedar
Hiding from the noisy streets

And when the leaves fell from the cold
The stars were silver the moon was gold
I said it’s yours with love from me
I’m planting my roots in this ground

Likewise, Another Song to Sing, gives deeper insight into Johnny’s personality:

Well there’s always one more canyon to explore
To touch the things left by those gone before
At the top of the tiniest hill I can feel like I’m a king
And there’s always another song to sing

Just as the band hints at a new 70s sound, so too does Johnny seem to be reaching for the more expansive lyrical style he would adopt in the new decade. These were the early days of his friendship with Kris Kristofferson, a janitor he met at Columbia’s Nashville facilities, whose storytelling approach would have a profound effect on Cash. That said, for every beautiful image, there’s another dipped in saccharine, particularly the heavy-handed tale of a sculptor dying as he finishes his last carving in The Masterpiece.

The Masterpiece, however, points to what might be the most fascinating aspect to the album: a preoccupation with death. While Cash sets out to tell an inspiring, patriotic tale, all of the main characters on side one wind up dead! As Cash would attempt to end his life not long after recording this release, perhaps it’s himself he’s speaking of when the “bitter but broken” convict in Walls of a Prison embarks on a suicide mission to escape his 99-year sentence. Thankfully, Cash ultimately saw another way out.

With From Sea to Shining Sea we are shifting into what would become a common symptom of Cash’s output post-1966: a mixed bag. Cash fans will no doubt find elements, even whole songs, to appreciate on this release, but it lacks the spark that made so much of his output with Sun and his early days on Columbia so magical. This album isn’t bad, but there’s not much to pull me back for repeated listens.

3/5

I Walk the LineWe’re now in 1964 and are hitting what, in my opinion, is the sweet spot of Cash’s 1960s output. Johnny Cash is best known for the sparse boom-chicka-boom sound of his Sun years, but over the course of his 50-year recording career, his sound was quite diverse, with varying degrees of success. I would argue that he had four definitive eras:

  1. The boom-chicka-boom sound developed in the 50s at Sun Records featuring Luther’s minimal lead and rhythm playing, Marshall’s tick-tock bass, and Johnny’s percussive approach to acoustic guitar backing. The young Cash’s voice was clear and evocative of deep loneliness.
  2. The more refined mid-60s sound which added WS Holland’s fiery snare drum sound to round out the Tennessee Three, as well as the broader sonic palette of Bob Johnson on acoustic guitar (and other instruments), the harmonies of the Carter Family (and sometimes the Statler Brothers), and the production flourishes – ranging from bluegrass dobro sounds to Mexican style brass – of Don Law and Frank Jones. During this period, Cash’s vocals alternated between a relaxed baritone, to a wild and tempestuous growl, likely due to his drug abuse.
  3. The softer, acoustic approach of his early-mid 70s output which allowed for a more story-oriented songwriting style. The richness of Cash’s baritone was most evident in this era.
  4. The revisionist approach of his 90s work with Rick Rubin alternating between solo acoustic numbers and deconstructionist approaches to band performances. In the early days, Rubin simply put Cash in front of a mic and hit record. As Johnny grew increasingly frail, Rubin kept him relaxed by him recording him with his old friends in Nashville, and then stitched together the best takes overtop of new musical beds made by many of Rubin’s friends from Hollywood’s rock and alternative circles. Rubin made effective use of Cash’s increasingly frail voice with dramatic results.

My disposition against Cash’s syrupy and over-orchestrated sounds, which reared its ugly head as early as 1957 but rose to the fore in the mid-70s through the 80s, is obvious. That said, I would argue that there is much to be enjoyed in Cash’s music throughout his career.

Within this framework, I Walk the Line, Cash’s first release of 1964, represents the beginning of a new golden age for Cash. I love every one of his first five releases for Columbia, but each one exists as a creative experiment. Around 1961, almost 18 months had passed before the release of the blander-than-bland Hymns from the Heart, with only a few singles of varying quality to satiate Cash’s fans through the drought. 1962’s Sound of Johnny Cash was a turn for the positive, and then 1963 was a revelation: the classic sound of the Tennessee Three emerged on Blood, Sweat and Tears and a string of classic singles – Busted, Ring of Fire, and (to a lesser degree) The Matador. Sadly, the momentum was broken with two interesting, but inessential releases: the Christmas Spirit and the Carter Family’s Keep on the Sunny Side.

I Walk the Line, however, is the first of four absolutely classic albums which, along with Blood, Sweat and Tears, are the definitive representations of the 60’s Cash studio sound. In some ways, I Walk the Line is a good old cash grab – for the most part it’s Cash recording many of his Sun hits for his new label, Columbia. But it ends up being much more than that.

I Walk the Line features three main types of songs:

Faithful re-recordings of the originals: I Walk the Line, Folsom Prison Blues, Give My Love to Rose, Hey Porter, and Big River all fall into this category. These are his big hits with added drums and slightly more acoustic guitar than with Sam Phillips. In concerts at the time, he played most of these songs fast and furious, with Holland’s snare rocketing them along. These versions tend to be casual and off-hand, with a solid vocal delivery from Cash in each case. While none of these surpass the originals, they are as good a re-recording as could be imagined.

Re-interpretations of the originals: I Still Miss Someone, Wreck of the Old ’97. These two – the first a hit on his first Columbia album, the other a Sun single – are re-done with an acoustic, dobro-led sound courtesy of Norman Blake. Again, I wouldn’t pick these over the originals, but they are interesting and highly listenable.

New songs: Bad News, Understand Your Man, Still in Town, Goodbye Little Darlin’ Goodbye, and Troublesome Waters. In these five originals you really get a full picture of the struggle Cash was going through at the time. You have two classic heartbreakers that match any of his tearjearker staples from the era: Still in Town comes from Harland Howard and Hank Cochran who wrote Patsy Cline’s I Fall to Pieces and Cash’s recent hit Busted, while Goodbye was an old Gene Autry tune.

Bad News and Understand Your Man, though, are just plain shocking. Bad News is comical at times, with Cash literally snorting his way through while the Carters harmonize. Yet Cash’s humour, which was always on hand in concert, sounds on the edge and dangerous here. On Understand Your Man, he is at his most bitter and vitriolic:

You’d just say the same old things that you be sayin’ all along/ Just lay there in your bed and keep your mouth shut ‘Til I’m gone/ Don’t give me that old familiar cryin’ cussin’ moan/ Understand your man/ I’m tired of you bad mouthin’/ Understand your man.

While we know the Cash who “shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” was a character, you can’t help but think this brutal misogynist was a reflection of his darker feelings towards his increasingly estranged wife, Vivian. I can’t imagine a cheating, drug-addled Cash was a very nice man to be married to.

His gospel choice, then, is simply revelatory. Having just completed an album of Carter songs, he now turns again to their catalogue with Troublesome Waters:

When troublesome waters are rolling so high I’ll lift up my voice and to heaven I’ll cry
My Lord I am trusting give guidance to me and steady my boat on life’s troubled sea

The Cash of 1964 was obviously a troubled man and, as we have seen elsewhere in his 60s output, looking to the faith of his childhood for refuge and redemption.

There’s not much else to be said about this release. The production is excellent, a taut and tasteful example of Cash’s 60s sound at its best. The trumpets heard on Ring of Fire, and exaggerated on The Matador, fit perfectly on Understand Your Man. The rest is the full sound of the Tennessee Three, with frequent addition of dobro, and even a gorgeous steel lead on Still in Town (standard fare for country music, but a rarity for Cash). All in all, a great 60s Cash album.

4.5/5

Other tracks from the era:

  • Dark as a Dungeon: This beautiful waltz, featuring more mariachi trumpets, was a fitting b-side for the #1 hit, Understand Your Man. It’s absolutely gorgeous and made a perfect staple for his many prison concerts over the years.
  • Hammer and Nails – This one was the b-side to Wreck of the Old ’97. With a banjo-led arrangement, this was the first release by Cash’s new protégés, the Statler Brothers. To be honest, I always found the Statlers to be too straight in their arrangements for my taste, but they were the equals of many other gospel quartets. Here they sing a patriotic tale narrated by Cash.
  • Bad News – A fake live version was released on the Kentucky Derby Day compilation. Let’s just say the announcer’s shrill voice makes June Carter sound warm and mellifluous! The release also features fake live versions of Hammers and Nails, June’s Tall Loverman, and, ironically, Take My Ring off Your Finger by June’s ex-husband Carl Smith. Skip this release and track down the originals instead.

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.