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.
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.
Johnny Cash – The Mystery of Life Mercury 848 051-2 (1991)
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.
Johnny Cash – Christmas with Johnny Cash Legacy CK 90701 (2003)
Christmas recordings predominately fall into three categories: novelty (The Chipmunks, The Ventures, Jingle Cats), smooth crooning (Bing Crosby, Johnny Mathis, Nat “King” Cole), and solemn/devout (Mahalia Jackson, John Fahey). Far and away, most christmas music that receives radio airplay is of the novelty or crooning varieties (including more contemporary pop varieties of crooning). The solemn and devout material gets its due, but tends to have more private audiences. Johnny Cash doesn’t fit any of those categories. But he did record for a major label and it is axiomatic that long-term major label acts (unless obviously of a different religion) will record christmas music. There is nothing overtly “wrong” with Cash’s treatments of christmas warhorses like “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” and “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” but they don’t suit him. His voice — iconic though it was — wasn’t sweetly smooth and velvety like a good crooner. He did do novelty music, but with too much of a rural “aw shucks” kick to it for the peppy, sprightly style of most novelty christmas music. Cash was a christian, and it was often his Achilles heel by allowing him to coast on inferior performances that recycled stock protestant religiosity. This collection places him somewhere in between crooning and solemn music. It’s an awkward place. Nothing goes seriously awry. Yet, nothing ever clicks either. He’s going through the motions and there are no compelling reasons to go along for the ride.
Johnny Cash – Classic Christmas Columbia JC 36866 (1980)
Big orchestral arrangements of stock christmas tunes suit crooners like Johnny Mathis, but are not the first thing that come to mind when you hear the name Johnny Cash. He just wasn’t a sweetly-voiced singer who couldn’t hold notes smoothly and steadily. So although his performances are minimally adequate they don’t impress. Classic Christmas doesn’t play to Cash’s strengths. This one is pretty generic.
Johnny Cash – Sings Precious Memories Columbia C 33087 (1975)
Johnny Cash released no less than five albums in 1975. Among them was Sings Precious Memories, a gospel album. It is perhaps the worst of the year’s batch of offerings. It features a lot of wailing falsetto backing vocals likely to induce cringes, and tired, florid orchestral arrangements. The whole thing conjures up the kind of pastel-colored southern mega-church setting satirized nicely years later in the film Fletch Lives. An enormously superior demo version of “Farther Along” appeared posthumously on Personal File, which provides an excellent case study of how terribly the music is produced here. Cash, for his part, seems to be coasting on the fact that this music has religious content, without undertaking the necessary effort to make this compelling to the listener in musical terms. Pass.