|Posted by BigBlackHatMan on August 21, 2012 at 8:50 AM|
Country Sounds: Johnny Cash’s American Recordings
In my first two additions of country sounds, I covered an obscure group known as The Little Willies, but I thought I would move on to an artist with a little more reputation. If a person has followed me at all, he would be aware that I am a huge Johnny Cash fan. I became a fan in the late 1990s while I was in high school. I started out listening to classic Cash or the songs that most people would associate him with, but I soon discovered that the legend was still producing albums and picked up American IV: The Man Comes Around. I loved it. I would soon fill out my collection with the other volumes and bought V and VI as they were released. I will go over all these eventually, but it is easiest to start in the order they were released.
By 1994, Cash was considered a dinosaur in country music. No one was beating down his door to do more albums or release singles. Faced with an industry that no longer wanted him, Cash ended up with an unlikely partner. Rick Rubin was a music producer, but he was better known for heavy metal. However, Rubin could not pass on working with Cash.
The two men produced a somewhat eccentric album. American Recordings, the album was titled after Rubin’s recently renamed music label, was a combination of Cash doing acoustic work in his home and live performances. The songs also vary considerably. Without further eloquence, let us look at Johnny Cash’s American Recordings or American I as it came to be known to some fans as further volumes were released.
The first track is one that Cash had covered over thirty years before. “Delia’s Gone” is one of those old ballad songs with slightly mysterious origins and based very loosely on a real incident. The song is about the murder of a love interest that was supposedly cheating on the singer/main character of the song. It stands out as a dark start to the album, but a good one. One of the more significant things about this song is the video which I will link below. The executives at Country Music Television were supposedly so appalled by the dark nature of the video that they decided to never show it and refused to show any of Cash’s videos until "Hurt" from American IV. I think this was an overreaction on their part, but judge for yourself.
Track two is a little more upbeat, “Let the Train Whistle Blow.” It makes a statement about shedding a lover rather than, you know, killing that same person. The song is an original by Cash. It is also short and sweet at two minutes fifteen seconds. There really is not too much to say other than I personally enjoy this vintage Cash tune.
The third track is a song by one of the many country and folk artists who managed to marry one of Johnny Cash’s daughters. Admittedly, Nick Lowe merely married one of Cash’s stepdaughters, but the two men developed a congenial relationship. “The Beast in Me” is a dark song about self-control and the demons we all face as people. Very few singers seemed to capture the dark nature of themselves the way that Cash did and managed to express it so clearly in their music. Very few other artists could have made a song like “Sunday Morning Coming Down” an enjoyable experience since it deals with drug and alcohol addiction and the cost of those things. “The Beast in Me” has a very similar tone and appeals to anyone who has ever had to go to battle with their own dark side.
Track four is another Cash original. “Drive On” tells the story of a Vietnam veteran and dealing with all that entails. I have had a couple vets tell me the song really hits home with them and touches on what they have dealt with. That is amazing considering Cash was long out of the military by the time Vietnam got started and never experienced combat while in the military. As a songwriter, he had a great power for empathy as he wrote songs sympathetic with many groups over the years. Cash conveys how the events cast a shadow over the rest of a life and gives an idea of how hard it can be for some.
The fifth track is the most popular single ever performed by legendary song writer, Kris Kristofferson. In spite of having so much success as a writer, Kristofferson only performed one solo number one in his career. “Why Me Lord” sounds like a song of pleading from the title and at times during the song, but is actually a theme of thanks for life and the comforts bestowed upon the singer. Cash’s rendition is great. Kristofferson’s talent as a writer is not in question, but his singing remains par at best. Cash could exude a much great emotion, and it comes out here. This is how this song was meant to be sung.
The sixth track reflects the genre of the label Cash was doing the album on. Glenn Danzig is associated with heavy metal, but he wrote the song “Thirteen” especially for Johnny Cash and this album. The song is inner darkness again, but this one is more about a sort of ingrained darkness assumed throughout a person’s life. Admittedly, it is not a personal favorite track, but it has a really solid sound.
Track seven comes from the cowboy tradition. Cash flirted with cowboy music throughout his career and sang a great original rodeo themed song called “Bull Rider.” Very few songs are more iconic with the cowboy then “O Bury Me Not,” and the lead in to the song is a great piece of cowboy poetry. This was not Cash’s first performance of this song and poem, but it was a very romantic one.
The eighth track, “Bird on a Wire,” has a very religious theme to it and was written by a man known for his Christian themes named Leonard Cohen. Cash sings spiritual songs very well, and this one fits in nicely. Cohen’s version was wistful while Cash is a little more desperate. Cash exudes humbleness in almost every religious song he sings. For a song that is overall encouraging, it can bring a person down a bit.
Track nine is one of the two live tracks. “Tennessee Stud” is a classic of country music written by Jimmy Driftwood and first made into a hit by a legend of country music in Eddy Arnold. When I reviewed The Little Willies, they also did a version of this song. It may be easier to find as country music singer who has never sang this song rather than naming all those who had. The song tells a very clear story. It seems like it would be easy to make a movie based on the song if a director or writer wanted to. The audience is clearly small, but gets into it as Cash sings along. I do not know if this is my favorite version of this classic song, but it very close to the top of the list.
Track ten is “Down There by the Train” and was written by rock ’n roll legend Tom Waits. It has a religious flare combined with a classic railroad theme that was written for Cash. It seems like it could have been written by Johnny Cash. It really works and is a very enjoyable five minutes.
I will combine my thoughts on track eleven and twelve. They are a pair of Cash written songs that are both good and fit in with the low tone of the album. “Redemption” and “Like a Soldier” are spiritual and psychological works. Most of the album deals with a sort of self-examination in terms of body, mind, and soul. Neither of these songs are special individually, but they fit in nicely with the overall listening.
The twelfth and final track is the other live track. “The Man Who Couldn’t Cry,” written by Loundon Wainwright, is a very deep song. It could be interpreted as a song about the hardship of life, our mistreatment of each other, or the dark side of things we want to ignore. I have always heard it as a sad song and a commentary on injustices to our fellow man. It makes the audience giggling during some of the offbeat lines a little awkward. I really enjoy the mellow way Cash sings it. He does not sing in quite the same folksy Wainwright did, but he gives it some real power and wraps up the album nicely.
Well, that is American Recordings, and it is great. It is an uncomplicated work that depends on an acoustic guitar and the legendary voice of Johnny Cash. The album was highly acclaimed and won a Grammy. So, even if country music’s main stream did not recognize one of their legends, people were taking notice. It was clear that Rubin and Cash were off to a great start and next time we will review one of my all-time favorite albums, American II: Unchained.