Johnny Cash: A Guide to the Music of The Man in Black

A list by Syd Fablo and Bruno Bickleby


Born: February 26, 1932, Kingsland, AR, United States
Died: September 12, 2003, Nashville, TN, United States

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Johnny Cash – The Junkie and the Juicehead Minus Me

The Junkie and the Juicehead Minus Me

Johnny CashThe Junkie and the Juicehead Minus Me Columbia KC 33086 (1974)

Ragged Old Flag was a transitional album in which Cash finished off with his folk-country phase that began with Hello, I’m Johnny Cash and started to establish a more contemporary sound with the help of producer Charlie Bragg.  The Junkie and the Juicehead Minus Me finds the new style firmly established.  It’s clearly influenced by the big country stars from Texas, like Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings (those three would team up with Cash to form The Highwaymen a decade later).   Kristofferson especially looms large, with two of his songs featured including the great title track.  It makes this album a little grittier, looser and modern than typical Cash fare.  A few other songs take on more of a bluegrass flavor.  Funny thing, though, is that there are a number of songs here where vocals are handed over to guests–all part of Cash’s extended family.  On these he sometimes delivers only one line (“Ole Slewfoot”), or nothing noticeable for the entire song.  But that’s actually not such a bad thing.  The album’s biggest weakness is the lackadaisical effort Cash puts into his vocals.  Still, the album tries for a contemporary sound and achieves it without it coming across as forced, and it has aged sufficiently well.  This is another of those 1970s Cash albums that’s fairly decent in an average sort of way, and no classic.  His next few albums represented a step down in quality from this one.

Johnny Cash – Rockabilly Blues

Rockabilly Blues

Johnny CashRockabilly Blues Columbia JC 36779 (1980)

The songs are a bit spotty, but Cash is doing the best he can and his band is at least competent.  Rockabilly Blues has Cash putting a pub rock sheen on some of the material.  It has a synthetic and compressed sound, which has left it a little dated now, but far less so than Silver.  His then step-son-in-law Nick Lowe is on board, and some of this is exactly like what you’d expect a Cash/Lowe collaboration in 1980 to sound like.  Other parts are more standard Cash fare for the era.  “Without Love” and “It Ain’t Nothing New Babe” are the standouts here.  For the most part, this isn’t going to impress anybody new to Cash, but it’s marginally more listenable than some of his other stuff from the slowest part of his career.  It probably earns second place in the beauty pageant of his 1980s albums.  The curious may want to ponder how this sets out some of the same objectives as Unchained almost two decades later, but just doesn’t deliver nearly as well.  It also is maybe worth mentioning that in a few years Dwight Yoakam would find success with generally more energetic music that bore resemblances to this (Yoakam would be a staunch and vocal defender of Cash later in the decade).

Johnny Cash – Hello, I’m Johnny Cash

Hello, I'm Johnny Cash

Johnny CashHello, I’m Johnny Cash Columbia KCS 9943 (1970)

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.

Johnny Cash – A Thing Called Love

A Thing Called Love

Johnny CashA Thing Called Love Columbia KC 31332 (1972)

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.

Johnny Cash – Any Old Wind That Blows

Any Old Wind That Blows

Johnny CashAny Old Wind That Blows Columbia KC-32091 (1973)

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.

Johnny Cash – I Walk the Line

I Walk the Line

Johnny CashI 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

Blood, Sweat and Tears

Johnny CashBlood, 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

Carryin' On

Johnny Cash & June CarterCarryin’ 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

Classic Cash: Hall of Fame Series

Johnny CashClassic 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.