Johnny Cash – I Walk the Line Columbia S-30397 (1970)
As a somewhat forgotten soundtrack to a somewhat forgotten movie, I Walk the Line (not to be confused with Johnny Cash’s earlier album of the same name) is actually a fairly decent album that fits perfects into Cash’s aesthetic of the early 1970s. After big success in the late 1960s with a more “rock” sound courtesy of Carl Perkins on guitar, and getting a national television program in mid-1969, he turned back to a more “folk” sound. This sound was established with Hello, I’m Johnny Cash (1970). With Cash at the absolute peak of his popularity, choosing him to record the soundtrack to I Walk the Line made sense. The movie was kind of a bust, as director John Frankenheimer has said that the studio insisted on Gregory Peck for the lead but that Peck was cast against type and not the right choice.
As for the soundtrack itself, it opens with the magnificent “Flesh and Blood,” which would be Cash’s last #1 country hit single — the only time he ever came close to topping the pop singles charts was with “A Boy Named Sue” at #2 in 1969. The song is grounded in a gentle acoustic guitar part set against a very mellow walking electric guitar rhythm part, with a romantic lyric and sweet, almost saccharine, string accompaniment typical of what was regularly featured on his TV show. Next there is a new recording of his hit “I Walk the Line.” It’s a fine version, perhaps unnecessary, but it’s hard to argue with having another performance of one of the man’s best compositions. The rest of the album is made up of mostly spare acoustic numbers, a few being instrumental versions of songs also presented with vocals. “Hungry,” “‘Cause I Love You,” “The World’s Gonna Fall on You” and “Face of Despair” are just Cash with an acoustic guitar, reminiscent of the urban folk on Orange Blossom Special (1965) and looking toward the bulk of Man in Black (1971) but also re-establishing the basic format used on Cash’s American Recordings comeback in the early 1990s. But it concludes with the medley “Standing on the Promise / Amazing Grace” sung by The Carter Family. The closing song stands in contrast to everything else on the album (much like “Amen” on Orange Blossom Special), but it’s also quite endearing in its homespun, country church stylings. On balance, this album doesn’t deliver much in the way of songwriting, save for “Flesh and Blood.” Yet Cash’s performances are steady, assured and impassioned. If you like any of Cash’s material of the early 1970s, this is one to seek out at some point.
Johnny Cash – Blood, Sweat and Tears Columbia CS 8730 (1963)
Blood, Sweat & Tears is a prime example of the great possibilities and nagging limitations of Johnny Cash’s string of concept albums of the 1960s. First off, the album is a bit unwieldy and uneven. That would be an almost universal characteristic of these concept albums organized around a particular theme. Many of the songs, the opener “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer” especially, mix actual singing with what amount to skits. Cash is often doing theatrical interludes, which are woven throughout the song in a way that prevents skipping over them entirely on subsequent listens. So as much as his singing sounds great, it always seems like that enjoyment is broken up by a switch to narration and other theatrical radio-drama segments. It’s not that these transitions are poorly executed as much as the premise behind them gets a bit tedious quickly and doesn’t bear out repeated listening well, especially when it drags on a bit too long as with the more than eight-minute opener. Yet, on the plus side, the thematic premise of the album makes the whole something greater than just the sum of its parts. It would be hard to call any songs here classics of the Cash cannon on their own, but they fit together well. Lastly, it’s pretty apparent that this collection of work songs, railroad songs and folk standards was designed to appeal less to country fans than to listeners interested in the still-burgeoning urban folk movement, whose well-known names included Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, Odetta, and others. It makes the enterprise seem a bit forced at times. So, honestly, Cash has done better concept albums, though this one is still decent.
Johnny Cash & June Carter – Carryin’ On Columbia CS 9528 (1967)
Well, this one is quite a trip. It’s a nice set of generally upbeat songs from the duo of Johnny Cash and June Carter, who would get married the following year. In spite of a few songs that don’t quite work (like the Ray Charles songs and the dumb “Shantytown”), this manages to be more than the sum of its parts. Rather than going for the kind of substance of Cash’s concept albums this is just a bunch of random, fun music. It maintains a great energy throughout, and there is some fine guitar and piano playing to boot. This is the kind of album that plays well in mixed company. [Note: “It Ain’t Me, Babe” seems to be a duplicate of what was on Cash’s Orange Blossom Special].
Johnny Cash – Classic Cash: Hall of Fame Series Mercury Nashville 834 526-2 (1988)
These are re-recordings of his classic hits — Cash had pulled a similar stunt with I Walk the Line when he went to Columbia. Avoid this in favor of the original recordings. I will say this was the album that turned me on to Johnny Cash for the first time. In retrospect, how that happened, I have no idea. The songs are still great; maybe nothing can genuinely tarnish them. This takes a big hit simply for the album concept being misleading, even though the performances are very middling.
Johnny Cash – American III: Solitary Man American Recordings CK 69691 (2000)
Gets really good in the second half. The first half reveals a bit of pandering in selecting songs by popular rock acts, and Cash’s voice starts to show signs of frailty that doesn’t really suit some of the songs. Still a great listen in spite of all that. Probably the second best of the American Recordings series. If I had just one wish here, it would be that Cash had done a new version of “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?” (which he previously recorded on Rainbow) with just his voice and an organ/electric piano — the imagined version playing in my head is amazing.
Buffy Sainte-Marie – I’m Gonna Be a Country Girl Again Vanguard VSD-79280 (1968)
Lots of musicians “went country” in the late 1960s — think about country-rock outfits like Rising Sons and Bob Dylan going to record in Nashville. Buffy Sainte-Marie was at the front end of that curve with her 1968 album I’m Gonna Be a Country Girl Again (released shortly before Sweetheart of the Rodeo and Joan Baez‘s incursions into country). While other artists sometimes created hybrid music, Sainte-Marie for the most part made an authentic Nashville album, complete with A-list Nashville session players (Grady Martin, The Jordanaires, Floyd Cramer, etc.). This compares favorably to any late 1960s Loretta Lynn album, for example. Sainte-Marie tried all sorts of different things on her late 1960s and early 70s albums. She was remarkably versatile, and willing to venture outside folk music. Other other hand, while side one of the album is great, side two suffers from having a few songs (“Tall Trees in Georgia” and a re-recording of “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone”) that return to the folk sounds of her early career. Sticking with the Nashville sound throughout would have been more effective. Still, that is a small issue on an otherwise great album — the folk songs are fine, just out of place. For what it’s worth, it is kind of great that Sainte-Marie’s foray into country music is immune to criticisms of cultural appropriation. Would anyone really accuse a musician with native Cree heritage of that?
The album was a flop. There are numerous explanations. But among the more unusual ones was that President Lyndon Johnson sent letters to radio stations on White House stationary to convince them to blacklist her in response to her anti-war song “Universal Soldier” becoming a hit (for Donovan). Despite its lack of success at the time, this is an album worthy of reappraisal. For that matter, Buffy Sainte-Marie’s entire career deserves more attention.
Willie Nelson – It Always Will Be Lost Highway B0002576-02 (2004)
As he has aged, Willie Nelson’s music has stayed fairly mellow. It Always Will Be is a solid effort, nowhere near his best, but decent for this part of his career. Its consistent fault is that producer James Stroud gives the music too much spit and polish. A little grit and gravel would have helped this along tremendously. Although it bears mentioning that breaking from the mellow tone of the rest of the album with the utterly ridiculous modern southern rock of “Midnight Rider” is brazenly stupid.
Merle Haggard & Willie Nelson – Pancho & Lefty Epic FE 37958 (1983)
Here’s an album that occupies a strange place between “urban cowboy” country and easy listening pop. Hag and Willie both sing really nicely, even if most of the material is pretty fluffy. The synthesizer, electric bass, trebly electric guitar and other little orchestrated touches bestow on it a dated, faddish sound that is unmistakably of its era, but, for what it is, it delivers fairly consistently. The slickness isn’t too much of a distraction. There aren’t any obvious stinkers here. As a long as expectations aren’t too high, this is a nice light outing. The best song is probably “Opportunity to Cry,” which has no discernible input from Haggard.
Johnny Cash – Sings the Ballads of the True West Columbia C2S 838 (1965)
Listening to Johnny Cash’s double-LP concept album Sings the Ballads of the True West, it’s hard not to think of Marty Robbins‘ legendary album Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs. Both are thematically focused on the American “wild west” of the late 19th Century. Cash made attempts to research the era, and locate suitable material. But like Robbins, Cash ends up with something more like a Hollywood Western than the genuine article, because he’s often backed with an orchestra or modern vocal chorus. Which is to say that any authenticity to be found here, if any, lies in the lyrics and the song selection, not so much in the performance. Still, he manages to convey something of the times, or at least the great historical myth of the times. A wonderful banjo helps with that feeling. If The Man in Black developed something of an outlaw’s image, then the tales of gunfighters and hard times on display here did their part to build it in earnest. He’s definitely interested in this stuff. More than most of Cash’s concept albums, this one maintains a focus on the underlying theme quite rigorously. But like pretty much all of these concept albums, quality of the tracks varies, and some probably won’t care for the between-track narrations at all. This still ranks as a solid second-tier Cash album, with the caveat that the pronounced old-west themes might make this less amenable than others to repeated plays — you kind of have to be in the mood. An abridged, single-LP version of this album was released as Mean as Hell.
Sturgill Simpson – A Sailor’s Guide to Earth Atlantic 551380-2 (2016)
Following the success of his prior album, the excellent Metamodern Sounds in Country Music, Sturgill Simpson returns with a more grandiose effort, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. His voice still sounds like Waylon Jennings, but the approach of this album ranges from country to southern rock to southern soul to chamber pop. The opening song has kind of spacey, vaguely psychedelic effects, but eventually launches into a full-throated soul song — very reminiscent of Willie Nelson‘s crossover success Shotgun Willie. By the third song, “Keep It Between the Lines,” with a full horn section (The Dap-Kings) and prominent slide guitar, he’s squarely in the progressive southern rock territory of “Spanish Moon” by Little Feat (from Feats Don’t Fail Me Now). Other songs recall later-period “roots rock” recordings by The Band. The closer “Call to Arms” is pretty rockin’ and concludes the album nicely. The lyrics remain a liability. They are mostly pretty clunky throughout, despite best intentions. And Simpson’s voice has a limited range. But the musical ideas here are fun and return to the concept of crossover country music that brings together groups of listeners that won’t normally interact, even if it does so in a retro way (it would have been more radical and daring to combine country music with contemporary hip-hop or smooth R&B than the kind of soul music that was popular four or five decades ago).