Posts Tagged ‘Johnny Horton’

Junkie and the JuiceheadAs we reach 1974, we begin to really hit diminishing returns in Johnny Cash’s still voluminous output. This is the 19th year since he first stepped into a Sun Records recording both, and 15 years since he signed with Columbia Records. Unfortunately, there’s not much to celebrate on the Junkie and the Juicehead Minus Me. While Cash was often highly focused on his musical projects, having released concept albums, gospel albums, Christmas albums, and more, but this release is a true hodge-podge.

For the second time, Cash is self-producing with the assistance of studio engineer Charlie Bragg in the comfort of his home studio in Hendersonville, Tennessee.  In some regards, the sound continues in the vein of his last few albums, offering the laid-back early 70s version of his boom chicka boom sound provided by the Tennessee Three plus Carl Perkins. A shift also begins, though, with session musicians entering the fray more frequently. While this allows Johnny to explore new styles, it pulls away from the cohesiveness that always marks Johnny’s best efforts.

What this is the Junkie and the Juicehead, Minus Me? That’s a hard one to answer. Old bluegrass tunes sit alongside seventies singer-songwriter story songs. His wife, daughter and stepdaughters share the mic. It’s got dark songs of struggle and flippant gospel numbers.  In short, it’s a mess.

Perhaps it is best viewed as another family album, although where Family Christmas saw Johnny’s inner circle sitting by the fire trading sentimental stories and songs, this one is far darker. In the middle of the album are two June Carter Cash numbers. The first, Ole Slew Foot, is a hoe-down take on the Johnny Horton tale of a bear, filled with banjo and fiddle. It concludes with Johnny’s girls roasting him, “He’s big around the middle and he’s broad across the rump… some folks say he looks a lot like Daddy.” The second is a by-the-numbers take of the Carter Family classic, “Keep on the Sunny Side” with everyone pitching in.

Where June’s tracks harken back to an older country style, the kids’ contributions push towards a modern folk-rock sound.  A teenage Roseanne Cash makes her recording debut singing Kristofferson’s Broken Freedom Song, a heart-breaking tale which lifts one Vietnam vet’s tragedy to a cosmic level.  Roseanne give it a poignant woman’s perspective, but hasn’t yet developed her voice. Rosie Nix Adams – June’s daughter from her second marriage – duets with Johnny on Cat Steven’s touching ballad, Father and Son, here rendered as Father and Daughter. Carlene Carter also makes her debut, listed here as Carlene Routh, following her recent marriage to songwriter Jack Routh. Already onto her second marriage and only eighteen, she gives a palpable sense of longing to her husband’s tune, Friendly Gates.

If the kids are pushing Johnny towards folk rock, he seems keen to pursue modern songs, as well. In addition to Broken Freedom Song, he also offers a further Kris Kristofferson tune in the title track. Junkie and the Juicehead is classic Kris, a tale of a down-and-out songwriter struggling to make it in Nashville. That said, the production on the tune is big and boomy with lots of reverb, and one can only wish this one had a simpler approach. Elsewhere, Johnny explores two more tunes by his son-in-law Jack Routh, beyond Carlene’s contribution. Crystal Chandeliers and Burgundy is the best of the three, a tale of hobo life with a strong Kristofferson influence. The closing track, Lay Back with My Woman, is the story of a cowboy who hangs his spurs up for good.  Played by studio musicians, it’s fine but lacking in character.

Johnny himself offers three tunes. The first is a new recording of Don’t Take Your Guns to Town played with a shuffle beat. It’s completely unnecessary, except that it’s the only track on the album that feels like Carl Perkins made any contributions. I Do Believe is a forgettable boom-chicka-boom number about a many trying to win his lover back. Last, Billy and Rex and Oral and Bob is a tribute to great gospel preachers (Billy Graham, Rex Humbard, Oral Roberts, and Bob Jones). While Cash’s admiration for these men is sincere, as a song it’s an awkward waltz that falls flat.

That leaves one final tune, a gospel duet with June entitled  J-E-S-U-S. It’s a corny, upbeat, alliterative tale of salvation that has hardly become a Sunday school classic in the intervening years. This one was recorded for Johnny Cash and his Woman, but was cut. It should have stayed that way.

All in all, this is a disappointing Cash release. While his children’s influence pushed him in new directions, Johnny ultimately feels lost on this one, unable to do anything inventive with 70s folk rock, unable to generate engaging material of his own, and mired in the same old, same old with his wife June.


Other songs from the era:

  • My Ship Will Sail – In October 1974, Johnny recorded nine songs in two days with his band. This is the only one to be released, and it’s a fine piece of southern gospel. Released on Ultimate Gospel.

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.

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.

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

Sound of Johnny CashOne would expect an album entitled The Sound of Johnny Cash to, well, sound like Johnny Cash. Come 1962, however, it was increasingly difficult to define that sound. On Sun records in the late ‘50s, Johnny had a distinct sound. It was part country, part rockabilly, and all Cash. Guitarist Luther Perkins was no Chet Atkins or even Scotty Moore, and yet, despite technical limitations, built a distinctive rockabilly influenced-style. During the verses he would usually tick-tock back and forth between the root and the fifth, and in the breaks he would either play a simple chord-based chime in the upper register, or a twangy riff low down on the E and A strings (Rock Island Line and Folsom Prison Blues are both fabulous examples wherein he does both in one solo). On bass, Marshall Grant would generally underpin Luther’s tick-tock. Their producer, Sam Phillips, forbade drums, so Cash himself took an interesting approach to acoustic-based rhythm playing. Rather than using bluegrass or delta blues-style fingerpicking, he shoved a heavy piece of paper between the strings and the fretboard, further muted the strings with his left hand, and used his right hand to rake across the strings, giving a percussive clickety-clack. The result was a never-before-heard minimalist approach to country born of necessity: Boom-chicka-boom. The “booms” were Marshall and Luther, the “chicka” was Cash essentially playing drums on his guitar. Add to that Johnny’s lonesome, moaning baritone and you had absolute magic.

Less than 4 years into his Columbia contract, however, the “sound of Johnny Cash” had diversified significantly. His interest in the history of the south, led him to explore new sounds, including bluegrass on “Papa Played the Dobro,” or Civil War-era marching bands in “The Big Battle”. The addition of touring mate Johnny Western into the recording studio brought more complex acoustic guitar arrangements into the mix (see Tennessee Flat-Top Box). Not surprisingly, with big studios and big label budgets, the arrangements became grandiose and over-the-top, too (Girl from Saskatoon anyone?). Most recently, he had released Hymns from the Heart, which apart from Cash’s voice, and one song featuring the newly expanded Tennesee Three (with WS Holland on drums), was entirely lacking the “sound of Johnny Cash.”

One would expect, then, that The Sound of Johnny Cash to be a deliberate return to form. The question is: is it? Opening tune Lost on the Desert, driven by a booming 12-string acoustic guitar, would lead one to believe that, no, Cash has continued to pursue more mainstream trends, this time the popular folk sounds of groups like the Kingston Trio. As the album progresses, though, Lost is seen to be a red herring. What unfolds over 11 more tracks is a return to the boom-chicka-boom sound.

The album themes are familiar, notably the high proportion of breakup tunes. Accidently on Purpose is a waltz where Johnny’s lover marries another; I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know tells a similar story, this time with bar-room piano leading the way; and Let Me Down Easy and Mr. Lonesome are exactly what their titles suggest. The highlight might be You Won’t Have Far To Go, which exemplifies Cash’s minimalism, offering a scant verse, chorus, a guitar riff (hardly long enough to be deemed a solo), and a repeat of the chorus. In it, a gambling man laments his greatest loss:

Love’s a gamble and I’m a gamblin’ man I’ve done everything to make you understand But the odds are high and luck is running low Look for me you won’t have far to go

Elsewhere, Cash returns to his familiar motif of life in the south. Lost in the Desert is yet another tale of death in the desert (see Hank and Joe and Me on Songs of Our Soil). Meanwhile, Leadbelly’s In Them Old Cottonfields Back Home, is a more comforting tale of a mother’s life in the midst of a hard sharecropper’s life (see Suppertime and Are All The Children In).

What is interesting about this album, though, is that it doesn’t just remind us of the sound of Johnny’s past, instead it points the way forward to the future, even serving as a template for his ultimate Man in Black persona. This is notable first in the three crime tales. The first, Jimmie Rodgers’ In the Jailhouse Now (later made famous in O Brother Where Art Thou?), is a cautionary tale of crime and gambling, which, with its upbeat tone and enthusiastic call and response vocals made for a great single. The second, Delia’s Gone, is a brutal, callous murder ballad, building on his infamous Folsom Prison line, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”:

First time I shot her, shot her in the side Hard to let her suffer, but with the second shot she died

The third, I’m Free from the Chain Gang Now, is a tale of an innocent man’s liberation, although whether it is literal, or only in his mind is never made clear. What made Johnny so relatable was that he was passionate about justice, and yet always showed an understanding of what it is that makes us do the wrong thing. In these songs, this dimension of his complex personality emerges. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that Cash returned to Delia and Chain Gang to great effect in his American Recording years with Rick Rubin.

His two self-penned contributions also show Cash developing some deep humility. In You Remembered Me, a wild man thanks his lover for being faithful to him. Sing it Pretty, Sue updates his earlier hit Ballad of a Teenage Queen. In Ballad, the talented local girl runs off to Hollywood only to return home because she couldn’t bear to be apart from the humble boy in the candy store. In Sing It, the star (Sue) never comes back. Instead, her jilted lover sits at home quietly supporting the girl he once loved. You can’t help but wonder if this is really a role reversal – Cash secretly wishing that his wife, Vivian, would release him to the life of fame he had found.  More likely it refers to Billie Jean Horton, widow of Cash’s best friend Johnny Horton.  She had recently ended their affair, claiming she wanted to focus on her career… in reality she was frightened by his willingness to leave his family for her and his amphetamine use (she had seen enough of that in her prior marriage to Hank Williams). Regardless, his own compositions reveal the morally complex world in which Cash lived by 1962 – surrounded by fame, linked to his old rural life, a Memphis wife whom he had moved to a big house in California (and to whom he was unfaithful), a ballooning drug addiction and a yearning for the old-time religion of his childhood.

In terms of the actual “sound”, this album satisfies, but is not really the old sound nor the new sound (that would solidify on his next release). Overall, it is a return to his minimalist sound, yet Columbia’s big-studio echo (driven by expensive reverb effects devices), could never match the natural echo found in the Sun Studio’s vocal booth (the claustrophobic tiled bathroom of an old barber shop). Strangely, WS Holland, introduced on Hymns from the Heart, does not appear on this release, so again we’re back to the Tennessee Two complemented by studio musicians. After the blandness of Hymns from the Heart, though, Sound is a breath of fresh air.


Other Songs from the Era:

  • A Little At a Time – Released in advance of the album as a b-side to In the Jailhouse Now, this is a truly magical song.  Led by a 12-string guitar lead riff, it’s closest to album opener Lost in the Desert as they share an early 60’s folk vibe.  The male backing vocals are perfectly balanced, and the lyric is heartrbroken Johnny at his best: “Stop loving me a little at a time…”
  • Delia’s Gone (Alternate Take) – An alternate take of Delia’s Gone is quite different. The music is simplified, removing the backing vocals and the key change. Notably, the crucial 3rd and 4th verses are restored. In these, we find Delia to be a loose woman who drove Johnny to murder. Without these verses, as on the album, Johnny seems to murder her for no apparent reason. Both takes are wonderful interpretations of this traditional tune. Available on the Legend box set.
  • Danger Zone – An unreleased cheating song: “Dangerous to hold you, innocent hearts at stake, how long can we go on, when innocent hearts will break.” I wonder where he got the inspiration for this one? There’s an old story about how Neil Young’s wife was none too happy when he penned Cinnamon Girl. I’m guessing Vivian had a similar reaction to this one (if Cash even let her know about it). Available on Bear Records releases
  • Bonanza!/Pick a Bale O’ Cotton – Johnny penned his own lyrics to the famous TV theme song. A fun classic with a blistering opening riff from Luther. Available on Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash. The b-side is another great cotton song reflecting Johnny’s youth in Arkansas. Driven by banjo and snare drum. Available on the Legend box set and Singles, Plus.
  • The Shifting Whispering Sands Part II – Johnny took a first crack at this with Bonanza’s Lorne Greene. Lorne read the narrative in a baritone deeper than Johnny’s and Johnny sang the chorus. They sound good together, but it’s a bombastic, over-produced tune as well, with thick choral voices. Perhaps intended as a companion to Bonanza!, later, Lorne’s vocals were scrubbed and it was re-mixed with more echo for True Tales of the Wild West. Available on Bootleg Vol. 2.
  • There’ll Be Peace in the Valley (For Me)/Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord) – This glorious gospel-themed 45rpm single introduces a new Johnny Cash sound. On these two gospel classics he teams up with the Carter Family, with whom he frequently toured. Although it would be several years before Cash would marry June Carter, the Carter Family would now become Cash’s primary female backing vocalists. On Peace in the Valley, Anita takes the lead on the chorus, her mother and sister backing them up. The sound is marvelous… a gentle acoustic arrangement highlights Johnny’s flawless baritone until Anita soars out of heaven. The b-side is an Easter classic. The approach is similar to the a-side: Johnny sings the verses, Anita leads the chorus with oh-so-sly blues notes (“oh, sometimes it cause me to tremble”). The four-part harmony when they come in together is magical. The arrangement adds new dimensions, though. Starting off a cappella, it grows, adding gentle drums, bass, guitar, and that Carter Family signature, the autoharp. Here then emerges a new classic Cash sound. Also, don’t miss Maybelle Carter’s shining moment on the third verse. Such an improvement over Hymns from the Heart. Available on Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash.
  • Live at New River Ranch, Rising Sun, Maryland – Seven tracks along with on-stage dialogue make up this 17-minute set released on Bootleg Vol. 3. The audio quality isn’t great, but it’s a wonderful glimpse into the difference between Johnny’s recording and live sound at the time. You get classics (I Still Miss Someone, I Walk the Line), a recent track (Cotton Fields), oldies from the Sun days (Rock Island Line, Country Boy), an instrumental (Perkins Boogie), and his perennial set-closer, The Rebel – Johnny Yuma. The dialogue is hilarious – he impersonates a skipping Ernest Tubb record and Elvis Presley wannabes. If anything, though, the set reveals the effect his dependence on amphetamines was having. Every song is played fast and wild, building one upon the other until Johnny Yuma nearly falls apart at the seams. The set is also notable as an early record of the Tennessee Three backing up Johnny. Interestingly, on I Still Miss Someone, Holland steps back on drums, and Johnny keeps the rhythm the way he used to in the Sun days, by strumming like a locomotive across his muted guitar strings.