This review includes:
- The Fabulous Johnny Cash
- Hymns By Johnny Cash
- Ride This Train
- Orange Blossom Special
- Carryin' On With Johnny Cash & June Carter
These bonus track-augmented reissues provide thrilling examples of Johnny Cash's post-Sun Records growth as an artist.
His Columbia debut, "The Fabulous Johnny Cash" (1959), still embraced the style he made famous at Sun with the Tennessee Three (Luther Perkins, Marshall Grant, W.S. Holland), echo and all. However, producer Don Law used background singers more subtly than Jack Clement had, and he allowed his star a lot of creative latitude. Cash and crew can still be heard slappin' away rockabilly style on "Frankie's Man, Johnny," "One More Ride," and the gospel fantasy "Oh What A Dream." Yet, self-penned classics " la the melancholy "I Still Miss Someone," the hopeful farmer's mantra of "Pickin' Time" and the haunting gunfighter ballad "Don't Take Your Guns To Town," are telling examples of how eager he was to alter his trademark sound in order to become a more empathetic storyteller.
One of Cash's strongest albums, "Fabulous" is made even better by the presence of six bonus tracks, most notably the aching love song "I'll Remember You" and acoustic Delta rhythms of "Walkin' The Blues."
According to legend, Cash left Sun because Sam Phillips refused to let him record a gospel album. Other accounts claim Cash simply wanted the higher royalty rate and the prestige of being on a big label. Whatever the truth is, there is much of the Sun sound in "Hymns By Johnny Cash" (1959), the artist's finest gospel outing. An unpretentious, life affirming collection of original and classic sacred tunes, the disc features a refreshing glimpse of the Arkansas singer-songwriter's sentimental side with the honor-thy-father ballad "Snow In His Hair" and poignant self-penned "The Old Account."
That said, the 13-song set shines brightest when Cash & his Tennessee Three vigorously drive Gospelbilly style through both versions of "It Was Jesus" and the jaunty testimonials "I Call Him" and "He'll Be A Friend."
Cash eschews the Tennessee Three entirely for his first concept album "Ride This Train" (1960), which was recorded as the Americana Folk movement was reaching its peak. The sound of a chugging train and Cash's eloquent multi-perspective between song narration holds the LP's theme together.
Especially moving is Cash's preamble to Merle Travis' "Loading Coal" and his somber sympathy for the murderous John Wesley Hardin before "Slow Rider." Most controversial is the tale of a plantation owner entranced by one of his slaves songs in "Boss Jack," a tune that would've been risky to record in any era. While not a major work, the original eight-song set was satisfying on its own merits. The addition of four bonus tracks, including minor hits "Second Honeymoon" and "Smilin' Bill McCall," seems to corrode the set's simple acoustic charm.
By 1965, Cash's pill habit began affecting his voice and songwriting output. Yet, somehow the creeping vocal fog worked to his advantage and his stellar ear for songs made "Orange Blossom Special" one of his most spirited offerings.
The harmonica-laden title track with it's classic spoken passage ("Oh I don't care if I do die, do die, do die!") became a multi-market favorite. Likewise, his remake of Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice It's Alright," which sounds pretty clunky next to the Turtles' pop version. Fortunately Dylan's "Don't Think Twice It's Alright" and "Mama You've Been On My Mind" brilliantly fit both band and singer.
Cash's "All God's Children Ain't Free" is a catchy protest number, but his finest performances come via chilling renditions of Freddie Hart's "The Wall" and Lefty Frizzell's "Long Black Veil." Although he was stoned out of his gourd, Cash created a timeless roots-album by energizing everything from gospel and folk to schmaltz.
Recording with soulmate June Carter could've been risky for Cash in 1967. His expressive baritone was an established folk instrument, whereas Carter had generally been more of a personality than singer. On their duet LP "Jackson," they exhibit the type of sassy interplay typically found on Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood's hits. This is especially true on their chart-topping remake of "Jackson" and the prickly "Long-Legged Guitar Pickin' Man," which boasts some hot, twangy Carl Perkins licks.
With the exception of a ludicrous remake of Ray Charles' "What'd I Say" and the stunningly incongruous "From Sea To Shining Sea," the rest is lovey-dovey country on the order of "No No No" and "You'll Be Alright." Bursting with loving humor, this 13-song set smartly captures the couple's enduring chemistry. While none of Cash's albums are perfect, each of these historically important works remains artistically resonant and damned entertaining to boot.