february 2011

Johnny Cash: Real sweat, real work in relentless pursuit of an expansive vision of himself, his time, his country.

Understand Your Man

A new double-CD set offers new insights into Johnny Cash’s journey

By David McGee

Johnny Cash

Those who were flat knocked out by 2006’s first treasure trove of solo acoustic recordings made at his home studio by Johnny Cash and collected on the double CD Personal File may not find the second installment of this series quite as overwhelming. Which is not the same as saying this particular double CD issue is lacking in some way. But as Cash’s late-life American recordings proved anew, the Man in Black alone with his guitar, his voice and his memories was hard to stop. Personal File was so powerful, so intimate, so haunting that it seems unfair even to compare it with the second volume of the Bootleg series, From Memphis To Hollywood. The common denominator linking both albums, of course, is that the material is culled from the archive Cash had tucked away in his House of Cash studio in Hendersonville, TN. Personal File’s breathtaking tracks almost all came from 1973; this new collection moves the clock back to the beginning of Cash’s career, with Disc One coming from the Sun years (1954 to late 1957), and Disc Two surveying his first decade at Columbia Records (1958-1969).

Of the two discs, The 1950s (Disc One) is the greater revelation, solely on the strength of 12 tracks of rare early demos of undetermined origin, featuring Cash solo acoustic in fairly polished renditions of songs that became classics—notably “I Walk the Line” and “Get Rhythm”—and some, such as “Rock and Roll Ruby,” that became hits for others (Warren Smith, in this case). Not the least of the disc’s virtues is its opening salvo, a complete 15-minute installment of Cash’s 1955 radio show on Memphis’s KWEM. In all his striving and humility, an eager to please Cash proves himself a genial master of ceremonies (and convincing pitchman, too, as he makes between-songs sales appeals for the Home Equipment Company); when it comes time to perform, he and the Tennessee Two—Luther Perkins on guitar and Marshall Grant on bass—cut loose. The trio opens the festivities with a hard charging take on “Wide Open Road,” with Cash singing full throttle, first welcoming his gal to hit the road, then having second thoughts about not being able to cook biscuits on his own, in a driving arrangement featuring a couple of brittle, aggressive Luther Perkins solos that give nary a hint of his limitations as a guitarist; in a similarly fiery thrust, Cash takes the Sons of the Pioneers’ elegiac “One More Ride” into the new frontier of a rhythmically charged, country-tinged music that had yet to find a niche as rockabilly. Cash fans will recognize an early instrumental favorite, “Luther’s Boogie,” which gets a brief 45-second workout before Cash cuts it off to introduce the big show closer, his own religious story-song “Belshazzar,” the first of many such Cash songs centered on the trials and tribulations of Biblical characters or American folk heroes.

Johnny Cash & The Tennessee Two, ‘Get Rhythm,’ from Tex Ritter’s Ranch Party

The previously unreleased early demos follow the radio show. Quiet, even meditative, these are the musical building blocks on which Cash would construct a great edifice in song. We don’t hear a hint of what developed into the classic Cash sound with “I Walk the Line”—it’s a folk song here, melancholy, to be sure, but not nearly as dark as what came to life with the aid of Grant and Perkins in the Sun Studio. Similarly, “Get Rhythm” is a personable performance, with a bright thrust to it, but there’s little of the drive fueling the band version—rather than the loose, swinging vocal he laid down at Sun, Cash’s diction is almost as precise as Billy Eckstine’s when singing “get a rock-and-roll feeling in your bones…” “Train of Love” is a sweet and aching, but hardly as deeply wounded as the Sun side. With stop-time passages, fanciful word play and an R&B feel, “You’re My Baby” sounds like Cash trying to do a Carl Perkins-style number, minus Perkins’s theatricality or rhythmic IQ. Of uncertain origin, the demo of “Rock and Roll Ruby,” poorly recorded and featuring in the choruses a second, unnamed harmonizing voice (which sounds suspiciously like Carl Perkins), is where Cash lets it all hang out, flailing away on guitar and singing with abandonment— energy Warren Smith picked up on and translated easily into a classic Sun performance.

Disc One also includes seven Sun rarities produced by Sam Phillips and Jack Clement, not the least being “Wide Open Road” and a tame rendition of “Big River.” Marty Robbins’s “I Couldn’t Keep From Crying,” sad as all getout, stands with the finest weepers Cash would ever record at Sun, its spare, thumping backdrop and Cash’s echoed voice magnifying the singer’s desolation over losing his paramour. A previously unreleased demo, “Restless Kid,” another solo acoustic performance, this being a western ballad concerning a mysterious character who’s leaving everything and everyone behind, with impunity, is a trifle at 1:54, but Ricky Nelson cut a good version of it, and it contains a lyric—“Gonna breathe some air again that ain’t been breathed before”—that later was appropriated for one of Cash’s greatest songs, “Understand Your Man.”

Johnny Cash & The Tennessee Two on Tex Ritter’s Ranch Party: ‘I Walk the Line,’ ‘There You Go,’ ‘The Next In Line,’ ‘Train of Love’

Let’s be clear that Cash fans should not be disappointed by Disc Two, The 1960s. It does, after all, contain 13 tracks previously unissued in the States (one being “Shifting, Whispering Sands,” with Lorne Greene, then at the height of his Bonanza fame, rumbling spoken narration between Cash singing the verses, plus a mixed gender chorus adding Mitch Miller Gang-style vocal support). From the “Restless Kid” template of intemperate old West gunmen Cash fashioned “Johnny Yuma Theme” (a different song from his “The Rebel-Johnny Yuma,” this Johnny Yuma song was written for but never used by the ABC-TV show The Rebel) and the far more evocative “Hardin Wouldn’t Run,” using much the same melody for all three and even copping some lyrics from “Johnny Yuma Theme” for the more dramatically potent “Hardin Would’t Run.” From 1965 comes Cash’s reading of Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings,” a rarity, with Norman Blake on dobro, Maybelle Carter on autoharp and the Carter Family adding plaintive, ethereal harmonies as only they could. Throughout are telling instrumental touches indicative of Cash’s efforts to add new textures to his sound—the gentle, soothing, near-mystical shimmers of the vibraphone on the ancient (dating to the 1800s) sentimental weeper, “There’s a Mother Always Waiting,” a story of enduring familial bonds that Cash sells completely by dint of his obvious sincerity in the song’s lessons; the airy lute lines rippling through Merle Kilgore’s Civil War tale, “Johnny Reb,” in stark, gentle contrast to Cash’s assertive delivery; the triumphant mariachi horns—already part of Cash’s legend by this time—and folkish 12-string guitar rising and falling in 1966’s odd ode of affection, “You Beat All I Ever Saw.”

To the melody of “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen,” Cash narrates the story of soldiers engaged in heroic deeds in conflict; in “The Frozen Logger,” penned by novelist James Stevens, Cash finds his passion for the heroic deeds of men in conflict with nature; in 1968’s foreboding “The Folk Singer,” a Cash-Charlie Daniels co-write, he muses on the declining fortunes of a troubadour in conflict with changing tastes.

Johnny Cash, ‘Hardin Wouldn’t Run

Thus are most of the big themes of Cash’s career accounted for in this collection—including the social conscience he fearlessly expressed and does so herein with an introspective version of “Six White Horses,” better known as the litany of fallen leaders that was a 1969 hit for his brother Tommy, and the silliness-in-song he indulged in occasionally, represented by 1962’s “Foolish Questions.” The overarching theme of this overview, however, is the artist’s continuing quest to define himself through his music. There’s not necessarily blood on these tracks, but verily, there is real sweat, real work in relentless pursuit of an expansive vision of himself, his time, his country. Ride this train.

Johnny Cash’s From Memphis To Hollywood: Bootleg Vol. 2 is available at www.amazon.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024