october 2011

‘Johnny Cash was real good at being Johnny Cash’

On Being Johnny Cash

By David McGee

Johnny Cash

Steve Earle once observed as to how “Johnny Cash was real good at being Johnny Cash.” It was not an easy job, being Johnny Cash, because Johnny Cash was a complex man—his daughter Rosanne said as much when she was immediately and quite justifiably slapped down country gasbag John Rich after Rich presumed to speak for her then-deceased father at a John McCain rally, telling the crowd Cash, were he still with us, would have voted for the Republican Presidential candidate. (See “The Dunce’s Corner” in our October 2008 issue and marvel at what a good fit the dunce's cap is on Rich's head.)

Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two, ‘Get Rhythm,’ the B side of ‘I Walk The Line,’ on Tex Ritter’s Ranch Party, circa 1956.

These thoughts are prompted by the release of the third volume of the treasure trove of unreleased recordings discovered after Cash’s passing at his House of Cash recording studio. A live set, this two-CD collection will not rise to the classic level of At Folsom Prison or At San Quentin but it has its own story to tell in being smartly sequenced chronologically beginning with a trio of songs preserved from a show at the Dallas, Texas, Big D Jamboree in 1956 and concluding with two wonderful (and previously unreleased) performances in the intimate confines of Nashville’s fabled Exit Inn club in December 1979. Between these bookends are live sets from 1962 (at New River Ranch in Maryland), 1964 (at the Newport Folk Festival), 1969 (for U.S. troops in Long Binh, Vietnam), 1970 (at the White House, during President Richard M. Nixon’s first term), 1972 (Osteraker Prison in Sweden), 1973 (a riveting “City of New Orleans” at the CBS Records Convention), and two sets from 1976 (at one of his favorite places to perform, the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, Virginia; and the Wheeling, West Virginia, Jamboree). In the 53 tracks comprising this release, only four songs are repeated: “I Walk the Line,” “Daddy Sang Bass,” “I Still Miss Someone” and “Wreck of the Old 97.” Carl Perkins’s “Daddy Sang Bass” was one of Cash’s biggest hits, and the first time we hear it here is during the Vietnam performance; the miking is dicey, and at time Perkins’s own voice is louder than Cash’s, who sometimes sounds like he’s way off mike, in fact; the second rendering is a more dramatic and better recorded version at the White House show. Not much of a story in those tracks, other than one being appreciably better sonically than the other; but in the three treatments of “I Walk the Line” and the two of “I Still Miss Someone” we hear Johnny Cash becoming Johnny Cash. The first two versions of “I Walk the Line,” from the Big D Jamboree and New River Ranch shows (’56 and ’62, respectively) find Cash and band picking up the pace, considerably, from the Sun single and turning the songs into sprints. At the same time, we hear a genial, upbeat Cash talking to the audience between songs and being eager to please the crowd, much as he was on the 15-minute segment of his 1955 radio show on Memphis’s KWEM included on the second volume of the Bootleg series, From Memphis to Hollywood, released earlier this year. That same solicitousness informs the first version of “I Still Miss Someone,” from the New River Ranch show. (The two versions of “Wreck of the Old 97” are less telling, the first being delivered with gusto in 1969 before service personnel in Vietnam, the second, also with much zest but less reaction from a sedate crowd at Richard Nixon’s White House in 1970; although upon reflection, perhaps the crowd reactions—or lack thereof, in the case of the latter show—are stories unto themselves.)

Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two, ‘I Walk the Line,’ on Tex Ritter’s Ranch Party, circa 1956.

Come Newport, though, things are changing. “I Walk the Line” retains its quick pace but Cash is taking greater care with the lyrics, singing with more nuance, attending more to the feelings he’s expressing, toning down the high spirits in favor of a brooding interior rumination of what’s at stake in the song, especially on the last verse; on “I Still Miss Someone” he’s dispensed—forever as it turned out—with the uptempo arrangement and gone straight into the dark heart of the song’s abject sadness over lost love, giving the lyric “there’s someone for me somewhere” a poignant undercurrent of hopelessness absent in the earlier live version but which perfectly heightens the impact of the final, somber reading of the title sentiment, which in turn makes the sentiment preceding it seem like sheer fantasy on the singer’s part. What happens at the Newport set is the arrival of Johnny Cash as an artist who has found his purpose. He introduces his heartfelt rendering of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” by extolling Dylan as “the best songwriter of the age since Pete Seeger”; later in the set, as if to emphasize Dylan’s influence on his own work, he delivers an impassioned reading of Pete LaFarge’s “Ballad of Ira Hayes,” the song about the Native American WWII hero who was first exploited then discarded as he slipped into obscurity and alcoholism upon his return Stateside. This performance is from July 26, 1964; since signing with Columbia Records in 1958, Cash had been following his vision in pioneering the country concept album, with Songs of Our Soil (1959), Ride This Train (1960), Now, There Was a Song! (1960), All Aboard the Blue Train (1962), and Blood, Sweat and Tears (1963), but three months after Newport he would release a challenging masterpiece of a topical concept album in Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, and would thereafter speak out on behalf of Native American issues. In introducing “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright,” he was essentially changing the course of his career, or perhaps more properly, attempting to change audience’s perception of him: no more the rockabilly, no mere folk or country artist he, but an artist of conscience and conviction whose idea of patriotism was not that of an ideologue who wanted to keep some part of the populace in moral check, but of a classicist and humanist of undetermined party affiliation who spoke out and rose up against injustices and prejudices he deemed contrary to the bedrock principles laid down by the Founding Fathers. In condemning John Rich, Rosanne as much as admitted to not knowing which candidate would have received her father’s vote, so unpredictable were his politics. Cash himself recognized this, reveled in it even, and announced it rather gleefully in 1966 in his hit (#2) country single, “The One On the Right Is On the Left,” penned by his buddy from the Sun Records days, Jack Clement, which chronicles how “political incompatibility” sank a popular folk group, its chorus observing, “Well the one on the right is on the left, and the one in the middle was on the right, and the one on the left was in the middle, and the guy in the rear…was a Methodist.” That’s Cash in a nutshell, pretty much the way he wanted it and a position to which he held true to the end of his days. The eight Newport performances have been previously issued, but never before in a context such as this where Cash can be heard—literally be heard, over a period of years—becoming Johnny Cash in public.

Johnny Cash, ‘Big River,’ 1962, on the Grand Ole Opry TV show

The performances following the Newport set demonstrate how well Cash could configure his live shows to suit specific audiences. On the previously unissued Vietnam show, the set is rowdy and rambunctious, like the prison shows (which in a way this was, considering the circumstances), with “Remember the Alamo” summoning American courage in another battle (notably, a losing effort) and American folklore evoked in “Wreck of the Old 97,” America itself in “Big River,” “Cocaine Blues” (say what you will, and consider the context), and two spitfire duets with June Carter on “Jackson” and the feisty “Long Legged Guitar Pickin’ Man.” The set concludes with a pair of classic Carl Perkins performances, first on “Ring of Fire” and then on his own “Daddy Sang Bass.” Of course, “Ring of Fire” is not a Carl Perkins song, but Bob Wooten’s limitations as a guitarist freed Carl—and Cash did too—to flesh out the songs as he saw fit. On “Ring of Fire,” in the absence of the mariachi trumpets, Perkins's upper strings trills uncannily evoked the trumpets’ sound. Perkins had joined the Cash troupe in 1965, when his own career was on the skids due in part to Columbia’s mishandling and to his own downward spiral into alcoholism. Nothing if not a team player, though, as well as having a brotherly relationship with Cash, who was born less than two months before Perkins and grew up in Dyess, Arkansas, almost directly across the Mississippi River from Perkins’s childhood home in Tiptonville, Tennessee, Carl was happy to regroup as Cash’s guitarist; in that role, being the most accomplished instrumentalist Cash had ever had in his employ, Carl’s playing, as the studio and live recordings illustrate, was amazingly attuned to the textures of Cash’s repertoire and thus bracingly muscular or tantalizingly discrete, as well as bluesy, countrified or rocking as the songs demanded.

Johnny Cash, ‘Ghost Riders In the Sky,’ on The Muppet Show, episode 521, aired February 1981

Johnny Cash and Miss Piggy duet on “Orange Blossom Special/Jackson’ on The Muppet Show, February 1981

Johnny and June, ‘Jackson,’ on The Johnny Cash Show

Cash really needed Perkins during his White House performance, thanks to the prim and proper audience sitting reverently through his set and applauding enthusiastically but politely at the end of each song. After a warm Nixon introduction—pretty cool, actually, in its humor and self-deprecation—Cash and company enter with a flourish, performing “A Boy Named Sue” but getting none of the reaction at certain key points to which he was accustomed (one supposes he didn’t expect the White House crowd to react with the same fervor as did the prison crowds to “I shot a man in Reno/just to watch him die,” but still…). The muted response to a solid, diverse set of Americana (“Wreck of the Old 97,” “Lumberjack,” “Five Feet High and Rising”) as well as to songs with a decided spiritual bent in “Jesus Was a Carpenter” (a plea for tolerance), “Peace In the Valley,” his show stopping spiritual “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord),” “He Turned the Water Into Wine,” “The Old Account” and one bold personal statement of support for those in dissent against current Administration policies (“What Is Truth”) might have thrown off some performers otherwise used to a more electric audience reaction, but Cash forges ahead, undeterred, doing a great job; but Perkins’s guitar solos, shadowing Cash’s vocals with sensitivity and energy, add the life the audience cannot give to the evening’s entertainment.

Johnny Cash and the Carter Family, ‘Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)”

Not to lend too much weight to one band member—only Wooten, Grant, Holland and an unidentified piano player, who adds lovely filigree, are with Cash for the wonderful take on Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans” at the CBS Records Convention in 1973—because Cash is carrying the day on the other, Perkins-less cuts on Disc 2. This side culminates in the two raw, bristling performances from the Exit Inn in 1979, when Jack Clement, sitting in on guitar, and Earl Poole Ball on piano, added wonderful atmospherics to “(Ghost Riders) In the Sky” and “I’m Just An Old Chunk of Coal,” two previously unreleased tracks rife with freewheeling spirit, especially in Ball’s honky tonk piano work on “Coal,” and especially in the bristling, unrestrained energy fueling Cash’s own performances. By this time Johnny Cash was fully Johnny Cash. More challenges lay ahead: Columbia would unceremoniously drop him, no matter his stirring Gone Girl (1978), Silver (1979), Rockabilly Blues (1980) and Johnny 99 (1983) albums, but ahead lay the triumph of the woefully underrated Water From the Wells of Home (1988, for Mercury) and, come the ‘90s, the American recordings, his final reconciling of all the Johnny Cashes he had been into an epic, decade-long will and testimony. How he arrived at the American era, and who he became on his odyssey from Dyess to Sun Records to Columbia en route global icon stature, a standard bearer for artists who first and foremost valued being true to one’s core principles and speaking to your time, is the subtext of what we hear on these two discs: the artist evolving on stage and becoming exactly who he wants to be. Hello, this is Johnny Cash.

Johnny Cash, Bootleg Volume 3: Live Around the World is available at www.amazon.com

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
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