Here’s a rather forgotten early Willie Nelson LP that is actually among his better early albums, relatively speaking. Recorded in Nashville, this teamed Willie with producer Felton Jarvis after RCA Records’ main producer Chet Atkins was too busy to handle the recording sessions. This proves to be a boon for the recordings, by sparing them from Atkins’ unsympathetic production style and its usual cloying bourgeois and petite-bourgeois aspirations evident on the same year’s The Party’s Over (And Other Great Willie Nelson Songs), for instance. This is an album recorded much the same way as Country Willie — His Own Songs (1965), another decent early Willie Nelson album. There is only one of Nelson’s own compositions here. These are mostly cover songs. This album can still be described as having the Nashville sound, but it retains a honky tonk influence. Nelson would return to honky tonk on and off again for his entire career. The opening “Make Way for a Better Man” is good, with understated backing orchestration. Other songs like “Have I Stayed Away Too Long?” are decent too, even though the guitar and vocals sometimes sink into a leaden rhythm. There are signs that there was perhaps insufficient rehearsal, and some of these recordings might be first takes. But even if the recordings seem relatively raw at times, that actually suits Willie’s style of singing — actually being crucial to the success of later albums like Yesterday’s Wine and Phases and Stages. There are some odd song choices here, like the 1960s pop staple “What Now My Love [“Et maintenant”]” (even The Temptations released a version of the song in ’67). Willie’s own “One in a Row” is also one of his lesser compositions — recorded here in the same ornate style as “What Now My Love.” On the whole, this holds up well enough all the way through. It isn’t a great album, and it certainly doesn’t do much to distinguish itself from other country albums of the day, but it has a sort of charm in its predictability and familiar approach. As for this album being mostly forgotten, at this writing, the album is not even listed in the Musicbrainz database and there is no track listing in the RateYourMusic database; there is also no review on AllMusic or on RateYourMusic. It was, however, one of his more commercially successful albums at the time, peaking higher on the country music “charts” than any of his other pre-Red Headed Stranger albums.
Willie Nelson – The Party’s Over (And Other Great Willie Nelson Songs) RCA LSP-3858 (1967)
One of the biggest problem’s with Willie’s singing on his RCA albums in the 1960s was his tendency to over-enunciate. This really put him in a rhythmic straitjacket, and limited his options for vocal phrasing. Aside from the inherent timbre of his voice, one of his greatest strengths as a vocalist was his idiosyncratic, non-conformist rhythmic phrasing — already evident to some degree on his debut album …And Then I Wrote but generally scaled back over the following decade. The sort of ragged, welcoming, down-home glory that characterized his most successful recordings from the mid-1970s on finds no room in a typical Nashville “countrypolitan” production style. But that was kind of the point of middlebrow countrypolitan music, which epitomized the (still racist and sexist) “golden age” of post-WWII American prosperity in which ordinary, uneducated workers saw rising living standards and could see themselves as part of a newly emerging middle class with its own self-styled sophistication — something that might be described as attempting to project an aura of sophistication beyond class boundaries via ideas about “proper” diction and enunciation cribbed from upper classes and merged with lower-class folk/country musical forms. Looked at another way, the temporary willingness of elite classes to permit rising working and middle classes was fostered by inculcating country music listeners with upper-class values as well as the speech patterns and more urban culture that went along with those values (when elites withdrew their permissive and benevolent attitude starting in the 1970s, the countrypolitan style faded almost in lockstep and is now commonly derided as low-class and unsophisticated). When it came to Willie Nelson’s career, the thing was, no matter how many great songs he wrote — and he was writing many — he just wasn’t cut out to follow in the footsteps of someone like Patsy Cline, at least not for long. In the end, Willie was better suited to being a pot-smoking, feel-good layabout with an endearing but weird way of singing that was largely incompatible with the implicit “countrypolitan” agenda of ascending (and reinforcing) a social hierarchy to find a comfortable place in it. Willie was, in a way, proud of his humble roots — post-fame, he often payed tribute to his childhood musical influences, who were always working-class heroes. There was room for all sorts of things in Willie best music, but not on The Party’s Over.
The title track here is a keeper, and a “A Moment Isn’t Very Long” clings to enough of a honky tonk feel to be interesting for the first half. But there isn’t much else here to particularly recommend. This isn’t a bad record by any means, but Willie is choosing to play by a strange set of rules. The lachrymose strings on “To Make a Long Story Short (She’s Gone)” epitomize the bland melodrama that swallows most of this. Excepting Good Times, Willie’s albums got somewhat less interesting in the late 60s, before picking up again in the 70s and then running away with the hearts and minds of listeners by the middle of that decade.
Here is an album that sort of epitomizes the problems with Willie’s early recordings for RCA. While it is common to hear that Willie’s recordings while part of the Nashville music machine are weighed down by the production, that is somewhat misleading. Certainly there were some recordings for RCA that were bloated with orchestration and effects that didn’t work — usually due to poor arrangements more than anything. But most of Willie’s RCA recordings in the mid-1960s had fairly minimal accompaniment. The biggest problem was that he sounded stiff, forcing himself into a “commercial” sound like a square peg in a round hole, coupled with an unfortunate willingness to pander to commercial gimmicks. Texas in My Soul is a prime example of Willie’s vocals sounding stiff, as he tries to feign gravitas by singing in a crooner’s style where he holds notes in a resonant way. In the early 70s he would start to move away from this style of singing, and would shed the last vestiges before his rise to fame in the mid-70s. The last part of the album gives way to western swing, which would remain a kind of self-indulgent interest throughout Willie’s career. The title track is a western swing number and is the best thing here. But, all in all, this is a lesser album.
Most musical artists still recording past the age of 70 tend to slow down and mellow out. There are exceptions of course (Yoko Ono, Elza Soares, Tom Zé, Scott Walker). But they tend to just prove the rule. In the twilight of his life and career, Willie Nelson has certainly not slowed down, still cranking out albums and touring incessantly, but he has mellowed some. In particular, he has indulged his fondness for western swing more and more often. There is some of that here. Though mostly God’s Problem Child emphasizes the slick contemporary country style of many of producer Buddy Cannon‘s collaborations with Willie. The best thing here is probably the novelty song “Not Dead Yet,” reminiscent of Tom T. Hall or Johnny Cash. It is an age-appropriate song for the 84-year-old Nelson. On the whole, this is just another of those decent but unremarkable albums of which Willie has so many.
The opening “Heartaches by the Numbers” is fairly good, and the follow-up “I’ll Be There (If You Ever Want Me)” has decent pedal steel (from The Time Jumpers). From there, though, there is nothing but varying degrees of schmaltz. The cloying orchestration by Bergen White is really too much. And often the orchestration is pointless too, as on “Faded Love,” where there is an orchestra introduction that drops off and does not return. It is as if the label paid for the orchestra in advance and felt like they needed to get their money’s worth. Take a hard pass on this one.
As the 1960s drew to a close, so did Johnny Cash’s era of concept albums, for the most part. This was both a good and bad thing. His concept albums were very hit-or-miss, and even at their best tended to include at least a little overwrought material, and at their worst could be downright embarrassing. Cash could be faulted for trying too hard to force albums into a particular concept. In the next two decades, the faults of his albums were almost the opposite. It can feel like Cash gave up on putting effort into recording. While he focused on touring (and, briefly, his TV show), he ceded control of the sound of his albums to various producers, many of whom did Cash no favors. The problem was often one of declining sales and ill-advised schemes that grasped at gimmicks. At other times, the problem was one of self-indulgence with some really disturbingly bad gospel and religious efforts. Though not everything from the 1970s proved to be a waste. Highlights from that period tended to be where Cash was in a more basic setting, framed almost like a singer-songwriter, going back to the way he sounded in the early 1960s. To that was added a good amount of twang. Hello, I’m Johnny Cash is one of the man’s more listenable albums of the era, one that another reviewer described as setting the tone for Cash’s output the rest of the decade (in truth, this sound only carried Cash through the first half of the decade). Much of the material is good but not great, but there also is a noticeable lack of any major missteps. One clear highlight is a duet with June Carter Cash on Tim Hardin‘s “If I Were a Carpenter.” It’s a song that is perfectly suited to the singers and the one that really reflects the best of the simple but refined production style, with clear yet soft tones and varied yet unobtrusive accompaniment. This is an enjoyable one for the Cash fan.
The best things on A Thing Called Love are “Kate” and “Mississippi Sand,” which isn’t saying a whole lot. Elvis did a superior recording of the title track. There is a general lack of really good material here. The album also never seems to come together. The approach to many of the songs is disjointed, with guitar parts draped with vocal choruses and strings that just don’t quite fit. Cash also struggles to find a good vocal cadence for many of the songs. Cash himself has claimed some of his work around this time was marginal because his focus was instead on his movie and album project The Gospel Road. In the end this one is not bad, and marginally more interesting than Any Old Wind That Blows, but otherwise it is one of Cash’s lesser albums of the early 1970s.
Weak songs, and very bland delivery. Producer Larry Bulter dresses much of this up with strings, and the hollow, slick sound just passes by without making an impression. The only surprise is the vague hippie-rock influence on “If I Had a Hammer.” A re-recording of “Country Trash” on American III: Solitary Man is much superior. Cash scored a few minor hits from the album, but in hindsight this is one of the least memorable of his early 1970s LPs.
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.
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.