12 September 2006

Johnny Cash: American Recordings

I’m a Southern girl, with roots that go way back. My paternal grandmother’s family can be traced back to James Oglethorpe and the founding of Georgia — not quite the prestige of the Plymouth Rock gang, though, as our fledgling state was populated by Brits from debtor’s prison (and I’m keeping that family tradition alive to this day). Being an umpteenth-generation Southerner means I love grits and fried chicken and Co-Cola and fried okra and watermelon and fried peach pies. And country music.

Not this current crop of country music, though. For the most part, I find most country pop bland and lifeless, adult contemporary with a twang. Nah, I’m a purist, a traditionalist. George and Tammy. Waylon and Willie. Loretta and Conway. Merle and Dolly. Dwight Yoakum and Randy Travis.

And Johnny Cash. I grew up listening to and loving his songs: “Ring of Fire” and “I Walk the Line,” “I Still Miss Someone” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” Johnny and Bob Dylan’s “Girl from the North Country.” And, of course, his duets with June Carter Cash, especially “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” “Jackson,” and “If I Were a Carpenter.”

My sister once spotted June Carter Cash in an airport restroom. June, of course, was talkingtalkingtalking to everyone milling around the sinks. Sister hurriedly washed her hands, hoping for a glance at the Man in Black. There he was, Johnny Cash, standing right outside the ladies’ room door … holding June’s purse.

Johnny’s career in the late 1960s and 1970s suffered the same indignities as Elvis’: over-produced schlock. And so he disappeared off my music radar for many years. I saw Johnny and June in concert during the early 1990s, and they were wonderful. June would grab the mic and talktalktalk, and then they’d sing one great song after another. I regret that I saw Johnny Cash just once in concert.

And then 1994 rolled around.

One of the bennies of working in a bookstore is the advance reader — a copy of upcoming book that publishers send out, in the hopes that booksellers will read the book, fall in love with it, recommend it to customers. Although our bookstore did not sell CDs, we received a few advance albums one day. Being the only true Southerner in our bunch, the store manager tossed me American Recordings. I had a lifelong history Johnny Cash, the cover photograph was cool, I was curious what Rick Rubin would do with him, so I played the CD right then. And halfway through the first song I was hooked. Thrilled. Dancing and twirling and squealing with excitement (I do that when an album knocks off my nonexistent socks). That began a weeklong listening obsession and a lifelong love affair wih the album.

Rick Rubin was best known for his Def Jam and Def American labels, his work with Run-DMC and Public Enemy, Ret Hot Chili Peppers and thrasher metal bands — and he producing an album for a country music legend. The two set up shop in Johnny’s living room and recorded tons of songs — stripped-down, just Johnny and his guitar. This album now defines the Americana genre.

Rubin encouraged Cash to sing anything he wanted, and the covers in the series are remarkable. American Recordings includes Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” and Nick Lowe’s “The Beast in Me,” Kris Kristofferson’s “Why Me Lord” and Loudon Wainwright’s “The Man Who Couldn’t Cry.” Tom Waits wrote “Down There by the Train” and Glenn Danzig wrote “Thirteen” for Johnny to record on this album. And here they’re all classic Cash.

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The album begins with a new version of “Delia’s Gone” (Johnny originally recorded it in the early sixties). How can you not be hooked by a song with lyrics such as If I hadn't have shot poor Delia I'd have had her for my wife and She was low down and trifling / And she was cold and mean / Kind of evil make me want to / Grab my sub machine

Why did Johnny record it again? As he said after the album came out: “The other is the new lyrics to 'Delia's Gone,' which is a really old traditional song. I cut it before, but this is a newer version. I couldn't remember enough verses of the old one to sing it, so I wrote some new ones. I sing that one a lot in concert, as fans are always asking for it, so I thought I'd cut a new version and try to get it before a new audience.”

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Nick Lowe’s “The Beast in Me” is a near-perfect song, one that seeps down to my marrow every time I hear it. Johnny Cash (Nick's one-time stepfather-in-law) makes it his own. Lowe’s version is melancholic and questioning, while the Cash cover has a resigned, world-weary, beaten-down quality. As I grow older, I find myself preferring Johnny’s version … and I never thought I’d say that. Old age is a bitch, isn’t it?

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As mentioned above, Tom Waits wrote “Down There by the Train” for Cash to record for American Recordings. He has performed the tune in concert, but had not included a version on recent releases … until now. His version will be included on his upcoming three-record set, Orphans, to be released November 21.

American Recordings kicked off a new, much-needed movement among the greats. Since Johnny and Rick recorded these now-Americana classics, we’ve heard back-to-roots brilliance among the legends, such as Loretta Lynn’s Van Lear Rose (produced by Jack White), and two 2006 releases I love: Kris Kristofferson’s This Old Road and Jessi Colter’s Out of the Ashes, both produced by Don Was. I hope the trend continues; can’t wait to hear what may be coming from George Jones and Merle Haggard.

Johnny Cash Must-haves
  • Johnny Cash’s entire American Recordings series is amazing. I can’t pick a favorite among the five discs. If you like the selections I’ve included here, you’ll probably enjoy any of the discs. Will & Ben's Record Room has an excellent review of American V: A Hundred Highways on that must-read blog.
  • If you want a greatest hits disc, the best is The Essential Johnny Cash. It’s a comprehensive two-disc set, and includes his best duets with June.
  • If you’re a member of eMusic, I highly recommend The Complete Sun SinglesVolume 1 and Volume 2.
  • And don’t forget June Carter Cash — after all, she co-wrote “Ring of Fire.” I love Wildwood Flower, her final album, which she recorded at Mother Maybelle’s home.

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At 9/13/2006 07:39:00 AM, Blogger Marni said...

Fan-damn-tastic review. Makes me want to go pick up this album. Carl would LOVE for me to do that. He loves Mr. Cash...

Thank you!

At 9/13/2006 07:41:00 AM, Blogger Cup said...

It's a brilliant album, Pug Girl. I highly recommend it.

At 9/13/2006 08:05:00 AM, Blogger Dale said...

Excellent review Beth. I love Johnny by way of my Daddy and those prison recordings. I have a boxed set that I love.

Your sister's story is so sweet!

I love the anecdotes and analysis you mix in with all that love.

At 9/13/2006 08:10:00 AM, Blogger Cup said...

Thanks, Dale. Music is so tied into memories that it's hard for me to right a straight-out review.

And isn't my sister's brush with Johnny greatness sweet? I think it defines Johnny and June's relationship perfectly -- this big ol' tough guy, madly in love with his woman, holding her purse.

And I knew you'd be a Cash fan.

At 9/13/2006 08:51:00 AM, Blogger Will said...

I'm a Johnny come lately fan of the American recordings series, and I too love them all.
It's difficult to choose the best from the series Beth, and I agree with your point about Rick Rubin. He emphasises the most important aspect of Cash's music, the quality of the song and Cash's incredible voice. There's no fancy production tricks or unecessary instrumental additions.

At 9/13/2006 09:19:00 AM, Blogger Some Guy said...

Johnny Cash transcends genres. I never really liked country music, but I do like Johnny Cash. His voice is one of a kind. Other than him, I enjoy old banjo-heavy bluegrass music and the Ween country album.

At 9/13/2006 09:30:00 AM, Blogger Old Lady said...

I watched a documentary on Cash making that album-it was deeply gripping.

At 9/13/2006 10:52:00 AM, Blogger haahnster said...

Nicely done, Beth! I'm ashamed to admit that I do not have Cash's American recordings. Love his stuff with Dylan, though, as well as the remastered Folsom Prison concert from '68. Great stuff. He was a true legend.

At 9/13/2006 12:00:00 PM, Blogger Bobby McGee said...

I have two of Cash's American recordings. He is a legend, and all of his covers are awesome and never trite.

I love your tribute to Dinah Webster. It is informative and heart-breaking. While these days have a sting of pain, the lives lost truly show what America is.

You are on my blogroll, under "Personal_blogs/sites."

Much love
- Bobby McGee

At 9/13/2006 12:28:00 PM, Blogger Cup said...

BEN: I knew you'd agree with me about the American Recordings series. They're perfect. Who would have guessed that Johnny Cash could cover Roger Miller and Nine Inch Nails?

CHRIS: I need to get that Ween album; I hear good things about it.

OLD LADY: I need to see that!

HAAHNSTER: Next time you're in the mood for a great CD, pick up one of these. You can thank me later.

SUICIDAL MICKY MOUSE: Such honesty in his voice. And I'll be blogrolling you this week; I've enjoyed your archives.

At 9/13/2006 04:51:00 PM, Blogger lulu said...

I am a Northern Girl, not a Southern one, and I don't listen to much country music, but Johnny is something else. He transends that North/South, Country/Urban thing. His voice is pure America, and the American Recordings are damn near perfect.

At 9/13/2006 05:46:00 PM, Blogger Cup said...

You're right, Lulu. We have Brits and Midwesterns -- even a Canadian singing Johnny's praises here. When you're as honest and real as Johnny and June were, you transcend all those genre barriers. Glad you agree with me about the American Recordings series.

At 9/13/2006 05:51:00 PM, Blogger Dale said...

He proposed to June here in Canada so what's not to love? And Reese is on the red carpet up here for the film festival so it's tie ins galore today Beth!

Even a Canadian? I guess I took the bait.

The video for the NiN song is absolutely heartbreaking.

At 9/13/2006 05:55:00 PM, Blogger Cup said...

You know I love you, Dale. That's why you get the best teases.

Doesn't that video rip you apart? One of the few videos I own. Never grows old. I love that he was so honest in his age and frailty.


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