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 a vibrato-laden organ/electric piano (sort of like the organ on Vicente Fernández‘s “Volver Volver”) — the imagined version playing in my head is amazing.
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 the authenticity 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 individual 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
There are a few previously released songs here–an early 1956 performance on the Big “D” Jamboree from The Big “D” Jamboree Live volumes 1 & 2, all of the 1964 Newport Folk Festival performance from Nashville at Newport, and a few selections from På Österåker — but most of this is being released for the first time. Although the recording conditions aren’t always ideal, the vast majority of this was recorded adequately. Only a few tracks at the end of the second disc recorded at the Carter Family Fold and the Exit Inn deserve to be considered “bootleg” quality. It’s probably the case that this is going to appeal mostly to die-hard Cash fans, but for them there are some real treats. There is a 1969 performance in Vietnam on disc one that is pretty smoking. It was what inspired Cash to write the song “Singing in Vietnam Talking Blues” that appeared on Man in Black. He performed despite having pneumonia, and relapsed into taking amphetamines on the tour. Those recordings absolutely belong in the same conversation as Cash’s legendary 1960s prison concert albums. There’s a nice one-off solo rendition of “City of New Orleans” (about a train I used to ride!) from a record label event in 1973. Also of note is the appearance at the White House on April 17, 1970. There are good performances of “Where You There (When They Crucified My Lord)” and “Daddy Sang Bass” with The Carter Family and Statler Brothers, and Cash substitutes a big, polite “Whoooo!” for the word “motherfucker” in the performance of “A Boy Named Sue.” This was the show where President Richard Nixon and his staff requested certain songs and Cash famously said no for “Welfare Cadillac” and “Okie from Muskogee”, later explaining that it was because he didn’t have adequate time to learn the new stuff. That explanation actually makes sense, because if you listen to enough live performances by Cash you probably know that spontaneity wasn’t his strength. His explanations have differed slightly through the years though. Parts of shows where he cracks jokes and seems to make mistakes were often actually planned and rehearsed. He followed a pretty consistent regiment for his concerts and didn’t vary the formula much, though he did get better over time (as Dave Marsh eventually mentions in his liner notes here). It’s interesting that some of the live performances from the 1970s beat what Cash was releasing on studio albums at the time. So here’s hoping that there are more live recordings from that era awaiting release — along with something from the early/mid 1980s with Marty Stuart on guitar.
Johnny Cash had a sense of humor. One of his best characteristics was the breadth of his interests, his ability to strike a lot of different emotional notes, with humor being in that mix alongside his penchant for grim tales of murder, gut-wrenching stories of love and loss, and sincere professions of religious feeling. Everybody Loves a Nut is a collection of novelty songs. By this point in Cash’s career, he was looking for new twists on his old formulas. So this seems like just another gimmick. And it is a gimmick. But Cash brings a kind of unselfconscious earnestness to these songs that makes them a lot of fun. The best-known cut is the satire of the urban folk revival movement, “The One on the Right Is on the Left,” but the title track is pretty good too, and “Please Don’t Play Red River Valley” is a great performance. Almost a decade later Cash would make his Children’s Album, which took a similar approach without hardly any of the same enthusiasm or flair. This is a solid second-tier Cash album.
When Johnny Cash’s popularity sagged in the mid-1970s, his label Columbia stepped in to guide the recording process. Someone from the label picked out some popular songs, ran them by Cash to see which ones he would record, then went out and recorded all the instrumentals and simply had Cash sing over the top of the finished package. It was a very conscious effort to make Cash seem “relevant”, from the picture on the album cover of Cash with longer hair and a denim jacket to a warm, muted sound that fairly drips with the ambiance of huge American-made cars, faux-leather chairs, shag carpeting, dim yellow lighting, and other accoutrements of a time when the glory days of the American working man were starting to crumble. Cash practically disowned this album as a sell-out on his part. Yet, dated or not, this is a fair and listenable effort. It helps that there are lots of good songs, and the mellowness makes it a decent period piece. This may not be representative of anything else in Cash’s large catalog, but it isn’t nearly as bad as some would have it.
A ho-hum affair. There aren’t any real duds, but nothing to particularly impress either. The best is probably the rollicking “I Hardly Ever Sing Beer Drinking Songs,” which comes across something like a warm-up for his minor comeback novelty hit “One Piece at a Time” of the following year. By 1975, Cash was fairly consistently recording in a more contemporary style rather than the folky and frequently acoustic style established with Hello, I’m Johnny Cash. This new sound often had a kind of Texas barrelhouse or Bakersfield Sound flavor that seemed like a reaction to the Outlaw Country movement and the likes of Jerry Reed. Elsewhere string arrangements are common. A few tracks have a horn section, which seems to neither add a lot nor take anything away, it just sort of changes things up in a Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass sort of way. This is not the Cash album anyone is likely to reach for first, though fans will probably enjoy it well enough once its playing. He would go on to make quite a few more albums similar to this in varying degrees.