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].
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
The gestures are broad. The lyrics dwell on commonplaces and banalities, especially slightly melodramatic interpersonal relationship issues. Much of this has the high-contrast, slick production style of typical 1980s country and pop (even the stuff from the 1990s). It would even be fair to say the music is mostly formulaic. This is precisely the point though. This is what might be called rural proletarian music. It emphasizes shared experience. The lyrics might focus on an individual protagonist, but often with a certain level of acceptance of social roles (especially gender roles), and any given song as a whole tends to reaffirm familiar musical forms as a way of emphasizing tradition (never challenging it). So, like a lot of country, this has a slightly reactionary/conservative perspective to it. And more, it also kind of validates a more rural or at least small town perspective (against that of an urban one). The effect is much like a feeling of “town pride” in a small town (just a few hundred people), in ways rejected by city folk, with a lot of simple repeated pleasures. Yet the music largely manages to avoid negative aspersions too. This might be a bit rural focused (there are references to tractors), but it doesn’t try to put down that which is outside its sphere of influence. It is what it is. There is no imposition in this music. And Loveless has a really good voice. While this mines old country forms, with a light oompa-oompa beat or honky tonk groove, it does so adeptly There are some surprises too, like “Don’t Toss Us Away” (written by Bryan MacLean, formerly of the band Love) and “A Little Bit In Love” (written by Steve Earle). Loveless really shines drawing something out of the simplest tune though. No doubt, Loveless was one of the better things Nashville had going during the time span of this collection — even if that is only a small complement, relatively speaking.
By the early 1990s, it seemed like the world had given up on Johnny Cash. Well, at least his record labels had all given up on him. In an autobiography, he later claimed Mercury pressed only 500 copies of The Mystery of Life (Cash mistakenly called it The Meaning of Life), though it did scrape the bottom of the country charts. That’s a shame, because Cash was clearly interested in recording. His vocals sound clear and impassioned in a way that was totally lacking on most of his recordings from the late 1970s through just about all of the 1980s. If Water From the Wells of Home was supposed to be his comeback, then it says something that this album is a step up. It’s no winner. It’s still a rather middling affair. Producer “Cowboy” Jack Clement burdens this with heavy-handed production values that make all the instruments sound synthetic and artificial. But on top of Cash’s strong vocals, the band plays well enough (if you can look past the way they are recorded). Although the standard narrative is that Cash’s career was on the skids for decades before Rick Rubin revived it with American Recordings, this album is worth a look for fans to see that Cash was still in good form as a singer, but was always held back by everything else dumped into his records and a lack of promotion. That is to say Rick Rubin didn’t change much when he came along, he just recorded Cash without the other clutter and otherwise let Cash himself do basically exactly what he was doing here — particularly for Unchained — and actually promoted him. This one’s an interesting curio for those who’ve already heard Cash’s more acclaimed efforts and want to go back and fill-in some of the gaps to round out the picture.