Johnny Cash 1970-86: A Re-evaluation

Prior to 2012, just a handful of the many albums recorded and released by Johnny Cash during the final decade and a half of his tenure with Columbia records had made it to CD.  Despite this, Cash had entered the 1970s with his popularity at an all-time high following the success of the two prison live albums and his TV series.  What’s more, Cash was as prolific during the period 1970 to 1986 as he had ever been, releasing over 30 albums.  So, why is the second half of Cash’s years at Columbia so neglected?

One of the answers might lie in Cash alienating some of his listeners, particularly during the early 1970s.  Ever since the move from Sun to Columbia, Cash had recorded a vast amount of gospel and sacred music, most of which would have been palatable even to non-believers.  However, starting around 1970 there were a few years when the religious material took on a new fervor that is often hard to swallow.  The Man In Black album opens with The Preacher Said “Jesus Said”.  Not only does the song have a rather awkward title, it’s like tuning in to the audio equivalent of the God cable TV channel. This isn’t Cash singing hymns or gospel music, this is Cash literally preaching to his audience – and he even brought in Billy Graham to help him.

The same album is even concluded with I Talk to Jesus Every Day, which is slightly less in-your-face, but is still enough to make many reach for the stop button before the album has concluded naturally.   A similar, preacher-like number, Here Was A Man was included at the end of the Johnny Cash Show album, which featured performances from the TV series.   Worse was to follow in the self-indulgent double-LP soundtrack to Cash’s The Gospel Road documentary.

Perhaps these types of numbers would have been easier to swallow had they not so often been coupled with tracks that found cash not just in sentimental, but saccharine mode.   Is there anything more vomit-enducing than, The Greatest Love Affair, the final track of The Baron LP?  Or the well-meaning-but-awful No Charge from Look at them Beans.  Cash had always had a penchant for these types of songs, but prior to the 1970s he had always managed to tread a thin line between putting over a sweet sentiment and making the listener want to hurl.

But what of the rest of Cash’s vast amount of recordings from this era?  Is it worthy of re-evaluation?  The answer is a resounding “yes”.  The road from 1970 to 1986 was a rocky one, and Cash fell over a few times along the way, but there is some really great music here amongst the saccharine and the mundane.

Look at them Beans (was there ever a worse title for an album?) opens with one of Cash’s greatest studio recordings, for example.  That opening track, Texas-1947, fits the singer like a glove.  Cash was a natural storyteller, and here he gets to do that with spoken verses and a wonderful, exciting chorus with Cash in total command, sounding like he’s having a ball.   Likewise, The Ballad of Barbara on The Last Gunfighter Ballad is a wonderful, catchy original that is well-produced and again finds Cash telling a story as only he can.  The title song of The Baron only works because of the great performance – the story of the song is predictable and manipulative, but Cash makes it work so well that it was the inspiration of a TV movie a few years later.   Cash also made mistakes – My Old Kentucky Home from John R Cash might have had acceptable lyrics in 1975, but in 2013 a song in which wife-beating is almost celebrated leaves something of a bitter aftertaste.

Despite his declining popularity during these years, Cash’s enthusiasm for what he did never seemed to wane, and he had a knack for finding great songs and making them his own.  There is a wonderful clip of him on The Late Show with David Letterman in which he enthuses about Here Comes That Rainbow Again, a song by Kris Kristofferson he had just recorded, before going on to sing it.   Seven years earlier he had successfully turned the Jagger and Richards song No Expectations into a Cash special on the lovely Gone Girl album.  His recording of the country standard Song for the Life from the same album remains the best version of the song and is still intensely moving.  He even took Bruce Springsteen’s Highway Patrolman and gave it the gravitas that Springsteen’s own recording lacked.

While some of the albums of the period are workmanlike, they are not dull and Cash always seems to be engaged.  He was also willing to take chances.  His album The Rambler  is almost a stage monologue interrupted by songs.  It fails as an album, but it is still a fascinating record and includes a couple of a very good songs, including Calilou.   Even each of the live albums of the period were memorable.  The 1972 prison album recorded in Sweden contains one of Cash’s very best performances in the intensely moving Jacob Green about a young man who kills himself after being arrested and thrown into jail for possession.  The 1975 live album Strawberry Cake is a much more relaxed affair, and even includes the theatre being evacuated due to a bomb scare.  And The Survivors finds Cash introducing Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins as surprise guests – and both are on superb form.

If there is a problem with Cash’s 1970-86 recordings, it is that there are too many of them.  Had some of the more mundane tracks been put to one side, and the albums been put together with the view of quality over quantity, we would be discussing some really classic albums.  One could even make the comparison with Elvis Presley – there is some great material on his 70s albums, but there is also some dross that was included in order to make more product.  But there is a significant difference – Elvis was recording that much because his contract made him, whereas Cash seemingly recorded because he got enjoyment from it, as is shown by the fact that he left behind numerous recordings from the period that were never even released at the time.   Cash himself sang “some were for the money, and some were for myself”, and that is something which comes through on these recordings – recordings that don’t deserve the neglect they have suffered for thirty years.

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