After being sorely neglected by both the Country world and the Pop music world alike for two decades, Johnny Cash rebounded in the mid-nineties with his ever-so-famed American recordings. A string of classic albums beautifully produced to perfection by Rick Rubin, the American series made Johnny seemingly more popular than ever.
It’s not hard in the least to comprehend the legend of the Man in Black. Ever since the fifties he sang with the passion and voice of a wise old man. He almost single-handedly made Country music susceptible to make a dent in the charts, and it’s not hard to understand why. Country music was the soundtrack to American life in the fifties along with the up and coming Rock ‘n’ Roll saga. Johnny fit in perfectly with either group, with his crazy stage antics, heavy drinking and drug use. He really was the first bad boy of music. Ironically, this “bad boy behavior” is what led to his slow but steady downfall in the early seventies. Succumbing to hardcore drug habits and going through a tough divorce, it seemed the extremely depressed Johnny would never recapture his musical peak that influenced so many artists. But he came back, eventually, and cut his first classic American album, simply titled American Recordings.
Johnny doesn’t sound as if he had aged in the least in the past two decades. His voice is still as wise as it had ever been, but it seems more fitting to Johnny more than ever. Johnny has some stories to tell after a couple decades, and it only makes sense that his voice is that of a gifted storyteller. Hearing his creaky and unique voice singing with mountain-rumbling power over the strumming of a sole acoustic guitar is an extremely powerful experience both for it’s simplicity and it’s reluctance to change. It’s this reluctance to change that gives this album it’s incredible country feel, but what’s more amazing is that it doesn’t get boring at all. While the album remains simplistic, it’s still incredible because Johnny plays the album out amazingly entertaining, begininning with his uplifting and triumphant songs in the beginning, going into the more depressing and sad songs in the middle and ending on a humorous note.
Johnny manages to hold your interest not by just the fact that he’s, well, The Man in Black, but that he tells an amazing story on each song. On the depressing, bleak and wonderfully pretty ballad Redemption, Johnny speaks of slavery and natural disasters, which really only makes sense if you listen to the song. On the semi-autobioagraphal song The Beast In Me, Mr. Cash sings of a young spirit emobied in an old body, something Johnny could be identified with, and with the live tune The Man Who Couldn’t Cry, the story is reminiscent of the classic cut A Boy Named Sue for it’s incredible sense of irony. It tells the tale of a man who, well couldn’t cry from what the critics said about his flop Broadway play, rejected book and movie, his run over dog and his sentance in prison. Things turn around when the man died, and all who harmed him got what they deserved. Wonderfully humorous, this song thrives on Johnny’s unique sense of humor. Plus who can’t crack a smile when he sings “Lost his arm in a war, was laughed at by a whore, but still not a sniffle or snob, or His wife died of stretch marks.
Short, simplistic songs are aplenty here, and each one is fantastic in their own right. They may be a little bit repetetive, but they’re kept alive by the sheer presence of Johnny. As I’ve said before, it’s really the lyrics that keep the listeners entranced, but it’s also the way that the songs, though similar, can change from uplifiting and humorous, to bleak with a sense of dark irony. The guitar’s basic riffs are what allows Johnny to tell his stories with variety and sincere passion on every track, it seems just completely necessary that it’s just a man with his guitar sharing his words of wisdom. Every track is completely powerful in it’s own right, but it’s really the slow, historical sounding songs that grab your attention. Songs like Down There By the Train and Let the Train Blow the Whistle are uplifiting and powerful that, if played too over-exaggerated or Cash aimed a little too high, had been disasterous. It’s really these songs that are the highlight because, since this is a comeback album, it’s really only necessary that this album should be a happy re-uniting instead of a sad one. If you’re new to Johnny Cash, it’d be best to hear a happier Johnny, because first impressions are important.
Overall, this album is a fantastic country album from the definitive Country artist. I could ask for nothing more in a Johnny Cash album, and this album doesn’t come up short even to classics like Folsom or San Quentin. The only thing that holds this album back a tad is the lack of variety in the guitar, but as I’ve said it doesn’t make that much of a difference because Johnny portrays his lighter side and his darker side with deadly accuracy, and it’s the music that allows him to cross that line with ease. If you’re new to Johnny Cash, it’s probably best to get Folsom or San Quentin first, but this should not be passed up. If you’re a country fan and this is missing in you’re CD library, then there’s no question what album you need to get next. Make this one it.
“He is what the land and the country are all about, the heart and soul of it personified…”. Bob Dylan.
“It’s called country music and western music, but the truth is it’s American music. It speaks in story about America in a way that speaks to all of us, north, east, west, and south.” Richard Nixon at a White House concert.
With the holiday gift giving season fast approaching, there’s no surfeit of books on musical artists. Books on Charlie Parker, The Beatles, Duke Ellington, Robert Plant, Jimi Hendrix, and no doubt others will be on the bookshelves. But certainly one of the best is Robert Hilburn’s book on Johnny Cash.
Hilburn began this book in 2009 when Cash’s manager told him “only about twenty percent” of Cash’s life had been told. While previous books on Cash put his life and music in some kind of perspective, Hilburn takes a slightly different approach. He reveals not just Cash’s life in and out of music, but why Cash matters. This book is a penetrating look at the man behind the “Man in Black” myth. And Hilburn never lets the myth get in the way of the facts. He has known, interviewed, and simply talked with Cash during his long (50 years) music career. Using interviews from both the past and present Hilburn has gone deeper into Cash’s life, and has shone a light on both the real Johnny Cash and his music.
The book is broken into five parts, each dealing chronologically with a specific period and events from that period of Cash’s life. Events like Memphis and Sam Phillips, Columbia Records, the tune “Big River” and pills, June Carter, drugs and Carnegie Hall, Folsom Prison and marrying June, losing the muse, Rick Rubin, and the final days are just a few of the many headings of events in the five parts chronicled in this book. There’s 16 pages of b&w photographs from throughout Cash’s life, including an early photo of Cash in his Air Force uniform playing a fiddle. And another photo from 1980, of Cash and his wife facing away from the camera–her arm around Cash’s waste–his hand squeezing her buttock. Also included are 5 pages of a “Guide To Recordings And DVDs”, 16 pages of Source Notes, and an Index.
The book begins early in Cash’s life in Dyess, Arkansas and his rural 1930’s upbringing. From there Hilburn, in a no nonsense, straightforward writing style, constructs Cash’s life not only as a musician, but as a man with human failings, wracked with guilt. But also here is Cash “the practical joker”, the man who wanted to buy his parents “…a nice place so they could have modern utilities…”, the man with pressures in his personal life (which in one instance led to Cash’s love song “I Walk The Line”), and the man who abused narcotics (and the price he paid for that). But Hilburn also notes Cash’s other “addictions”–reading scripture everyday, his devotion to music, and a man who cared about his fans (Cash, learning of fans who had traveled far to see his concerts, would pay their room and board). As Marshall Grant said of Cash–“He’d give you the shirt off his back, and if he was straight, everything else he had in his possession.”
Hilburn also notes Cash’s guilt at not being a better father and husband. Roseanne Cash was very helpful, giving Hilburn a better look at her father–even to the detriment of Cash and the family. Cash was in a never ending circle of “wicked behavior” and then deep repentance. Cash wanted to redeem himself so others might feel they too could be redeemed. But there was also the father who named his daughter after pet names for his wife’s breasts–“Rose” and “Anne”. The author also weaves the Carter family into the picture and the their effect on Cash both musically and personally. He also reveals that June Carter had failings of her own to deal with.
In tandem with a detailed look at Cash the man, Hilburn has also delved extensively into the music side of Cash–using the same straightforward clear prose. For me the book is at its best when Hilburn goes into detail about the business side of Cash’s life. He essentially begins with Cash going to Memphis and hooking up with Sun Records, and continues with his early recordings and hits, leaving Sun and signing with Columbia Records, Cash admitting that some of his albums weren’t very good, recording gospel albums which took the pressure off Cash to write more secular songs (and hopefully hits), the many concerts he gave (including of course the Folsom Prison concert which Hilburn attended), being dropped by Columbia and not doing well on the Mercury label, worrying that his music would be forgotten, the fact that the 70’s and 80’s were not a good time for Cash, that Cash wrote approximately 1,000 songs, and his meeting Rick Rubin at a time when Cash felt his career over.
The book begins to wind down with Cash returning home because of his worsening Parkinson’s Disease, and the passing of June Carter–as Rick Rubin said at the time–“I didn’t know if he was going to make it past this.” But not before Cash recorded a large cache of songs with Rubin as producer/facilitator, including “The Man Comes Around”, and “Hurt”. Hilburn gives the reader enough details that help put Cash’s music in a much clearer light–from both Cash’s and his fans perspectives. Nothing seems romanticized–everything rings sure and true, interesting, and informative. Having such attention to detail brings both parts of Cash’s life into a sharper focus than in previous books.
While some previous books have done a good/adequate job with Cash’s life story, none have really put everything in such clear terms–his life outside of music, and the music itself. Its Hilburn’s leaving aside the myth, his attention to detail and his unflinching way of laying everything out–good and bad–that makes this book the one to read if you’re interested in a look beyond the “Man in Black.”
“His most enduring legacy is that his message continues to spread.” John Cash, son of Johnny Cash.
Johnny Cash had always been a diligent writer and interpreter of train songs. Hence, it was no surprise that one of his earliest hits, “Hey Porter,” was a train song, while several others followed soon, like “Wreck of the Old ‘97” and his version of Hank Williams’ “I Hear That Lonesome Whistle Blow.”
He’d continue this trend not only throughout the ‘60’s (“Orange Blossom Special”), but up ‘til his American-years, with “Down There by the Train” (on American Recordings) and “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” (on Unearthed). It’s not surprising either then, that in 1960 his first deliberately conceptual album was tied together by the train-motive. Contrary to what you might think, these songs are not about trains, as the original subtitle (deleted when the album was reissued) A Stirring Travelogue of America in Song and Story already suggested.
Basically, Ride This Train is a trip through an America of days gone by, when trains were the only means of transportation and a symbol of innovation, employment and liberty. The album paints a picture of mostly working men and woman, trying to make the best out of their misery or enjoying what was God-given, but the catch of it all is not that Cash describes the tales from a contemporary perspective, but by choosing to narrate through the respective protagonists.
As a result, Ride This Train offers a sprawling diversity of lives, voices and perspectives, the most remarkable aspect of it being that each song is introduced by a narration that starts with “Ride this train …”. Most of the time, the songs’ singers are the ones who introduce the songs, while others show interesting contrasts. Whereas the opening track (that starts after a rather clumsy introduction about the Indian heritage), “Loading Coal” – a song written especially for this album by Merle Travis -, deals with a coal miner trying to earn an honest living, it’s the legendary John Wesley Hardin who connects it to “Slow Rider.”
During “Lumberjack,” the Oregon based protagonist tells us about the life lessons he was taught being a high-climber (“I learned that a man’s gotta be a lot tougher than the timber he’s cuttin’ ”), while “Dorraine of Ponchartrain” tells us of a Nova Scotia Arcadian and his beloved. Actually, despite what you might’ve expected, Ride This Train might very well offer the most diverse batch of songs Cash had recorded yet, also on a musical level.
For the most part, the rather stiff rhythm of the Sun recordings is disbanded in favor of a looser, acoustic sound that continues the minimalism, but allows for some more frills (i.e. not just repetitive strumming). Or, during “When Papa Played the Dobro,” “Boss Jack” (a song introduced by the slave owner, but sung by the slave himself!), and “Old Doc Brown,” the music’s playful air of confidence is closer to country swing than the sturdy variation of before (probably because of the richer sound, featuring dobro and fiddle).
However, it’s probably “Going to Memphis” (a rerecording of which wound up on Unearthed) that steals the show. Carried on by the rattling of the ball & chains, it’s a song with attitude to spare, from the moans and groans of the prisoners, the piano-led, bluesy strut to Cash’s striking vocal performance and suitable lyrics (“Like a bitter weed, I’m a bad seed”).
So, the wide range of locations (it’s one hell of a trip: Kentucky, Oregon, Louisiana, Memphis, Iowa, etc), multitude of voices and great use of acoustic instruments are definitely plusses, but the narration parts just get tedious after a while. The first few times you hear these, you probably won’t mind as you’ll be considering it some sort of educational documentary, but after that you’ll wish he’d get to the damn songs a bit quicker.
Plus, subtract those parts, and how many minutes of music are you left with? Twenty, or twenty-five? It’s understandable why Cash himself considered Ride This Train one of his finest achievements of the sixties, but speaking for myself, I can do without the elaborate guidelines that disrupt the rhythm (even though the steam locomotive keeps goin’ on in the background) and flow of the generally fine songs. “Frustrating” is the word.
Note: The reissue of the American Milestones-series adds four bonus tracks (without narration): the conventional country-singles “Second Honeymoon” and “Smiling Bill McCall,” plus “The Fable of Willie Brown” and the previously unreleased “The Ballad of the Harpweaver.”
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.