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Johnny Cash Orange Blossom Special (1965)


With Orange Blossom Special, the second of his albums that upset the Southern country community (nearly sounds like a cult), Cash embraced the folk community even more enthusiastically than before, and not by replacing his simple rhythms by the gentle acoustic strumming and the poetic and/or indignant lyrics of the folk tradition (like Bitter Tears did, in a way), but by tackling their new hero’s material.

Cash had been an adamant follower of Dylan’s from The Freewheelin’ onwards and decided to include three of the young master’s songs on his album: “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” (from Freewheelin’, here spelled as “Alright”), “It Ain’t Me Babe” (from Another Side) and the lesser-known “Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind,” a non-album track later included on Dylan’s first Bootleg-compilation.

Bob would return the favor by inviting Cash during the recording of the countrified Nashville Skyline a few years later, giving music segregationists the final blow. Anyway, it’s not only because of those three songs that Orange Blossom Special could be considered one of Cash’s most eclectic albums, as he also incorporates a traditional Irish story, a prison song, a ‘song of our soil’ and two spirituals. You can hardly call it rock ‘n’ roll, but at this point, few people were ignoring genre barriers like Cash did, certainly in the country world.

Of the Dylan covers, “It Ain’t Me Babe” is probably the most memorable, and not only because of June Carter’s added vocals (which have the capacity to be an acquired taste), but also the presence of mariachi trumpets in the arrangement! You read that correctly. It worked pretty well with “Ring of Fire,” and Johnny must’ve decided to try that again, and I gotta admit, it works just fine, while his snarling “No, no, no” tops it off. “Don’t Think Twice” is turned into a rhythmic country song by Cash and the Tennessee Two, whereas the sound-alike “Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind” gets some extra Dylan-ish harmonica.

Of these, “Don’t Twink Twice” is the best, but fortunately the reissue of the album adds three bonus cuts, one of which is “Mama” with again those Mexicali trumpets added, and that’s my preferred version. Even though the Dylan songs are what sets this album apart, its most popular song is probably the cover of Ervin Rouse’s train song “Orange Blossom Special,” here played at an appropriately fast pace, with Charlie McCoy mimicking the whistle with an harmonica and an unexpected sax solo further lightening things up.

A final classic comes in the way of “Long Black Veil,” which has become something of a classic in the country/folk canon. What sets this version apart is Cash’s commanding baritone and his slow and clear (nearly exaggerated) articulation. Of course, a song about a falsely accused guy, too stubborn to use his alibi – he was having an affair with his best friend’s wife – might appeal to lots of people. Even though the album is regarded as something of a minor classic in Cash’s insanely large output, I don’t consider any of the songs (apart from the ones mentioned above) as indispensable, even though some of them are enjoyable. “The Wall” is a gentle prison song that sounds as if it was recorded during the Bitter Tears-sessions, “Wildwood Flower” (an A.P. Carter song) proves he also pays his dues to his roots, while “All of God’s Children” and “Amen” find him doing gospel – especially the second one is a lot of fun.

Less successful are “When It’s Springtime in Alaska,” which somehow relies too much on the vocals (with too much reverb), while the lengthy narration that introduces the sappy “Danny Boy,” nor the song itself, offer anything new. Orange Blossom Special is certainly not a mind-blowing experience (which you shouldn’t have expected anyway, keeping in mind the prolific pace at which he released albums), but it has its share of strong songs (especially on the first album half).

Recommended if you’d like to hear more than just the prison albums and a compilation covering the Sun years.

December 28, 2013 Posted by | Johnny Cash Orange Blossom Special | | Leave a comment