Tag Archives: Johnny Cash

Sound ‘Round: The Louvin Brothers / Johnny Cash

Guilt and grace for your Easter holiday

The Louvin Brothers – Satan Is Real (Capitol, 1959)

Louvin Brothers - Satan is RealLaugh at the gaudy album cover — plywood Satan and all — but these Alabama brothers mean business about their Baptist fatalism. Look no further than the radio-play-as-title-track in which a backslider relays the woes of damnation to the congregation. “Hell is a real place / A place of everlasting punishment.” Yikes. As a devout atheist, I listen not to their sermons but to music as strong as the Louvins’ belief in the Almighty. Whether performing one of their five original hymns or singing the words of the Carter family and others, nearly every track sounds like a classic in the making. Ira and his earthly baritone play the melodies straight while little bro Charlie and his angelic tenor adds harmony and serenity to their heavenly pleas. The music, twangy and spry, is propulsive and buoyant despite lacking a proper rhythm section, and their brevity eases their heavy-handed Bible-thumping. Don’t be fooled by the stainless allure of their sanctimony. Ira was a notorious drinker who abused each of his four wives and ruined many concerts by smashing his mandolin in a drunken rage. Coupled with his ardent love for Christ, such inexcusable flaws make him a hypocrite. But they also make him human, adding resonance and realism to the brothers’ quest for forgiveness. GRADE: A

Key Tracks:  “The River of Jordan” / “There’s a Higher Power” / “Satan is Real”

Johnny Cash – Hymns by Johnny Cash (Columbia, 1959)

Cash album artFrom Jerry Lee to Katy Perry, reconciling faith and fame is a time honored pop trope. As a child of the Bible Belt, Cash spent much of his career grappling with the same dilemma. Despite his sinful ways, no twentieth century musical figure was more suited to sing the gospels than Cash. With a rich baritone as everlasting as the Ten Commandments, he sounds like Yahweh speaking through the burning bush. This is his first collection of religious music and it splits the difference between historic hymns and hee-haw hallelujahs. The four songs penned or co-penned by The Man in Black are rife with overproduction and are the weakest on the record. “It Was Jesus” and its overzealous call-and-response chorus renders the miracles of Christ cliche, and the plodding pace of  “Lead Me Father” stretches its 2:31 runtime to eternity. What’s left are seven songs that get by on the conviction with which Cash recites his lines. The traditional hymns of “Swing Low” and “The Old Account” are performed with such reverence they could kickstart a revival, and “Lead Me Gently Home” pleads for a heavenly escape as well as a guiding hand through the pitfalls of celebrity. Though he’s a country icon, records like this demonstrate his shortcomings, making him more man than myth. GRADE: B+

Key Tracks: “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” / “The Old Account” / “Lead Me Gently Home”

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Sound ‘Round: Leonard Cohen / Johnny Cash

Musical marble men dwell on eternal themes

Leonard Cohen – Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour (Columbia)

leonard cohenCohen’s second live album of the year is a hodgepodge of takes gathered from a globe-trotting tour undertaken to replenish his bank account of the funds stolen by a crooked publisher. He approached 80 at the time of these 12 recordings, but his signature baritone — rock-hard and unwavering yet delicate and somber — is wondrously intact. While reciting lyrics from his Labyrinthian discography, he relishes the kind of adulation rarely afforded a cult icon — at least while they’re still breathing. Though his recent studio output dwells on an impending expedition into the afterlife, being center stage softens his penchant for morbidity. The bulk of these songs are concerned with love of varying degrees. The French verses of “La Manic” doubles as an ode to instant attraction as well as his Quebec home, while “Light as a Breeze” equates the presence of a woman to a religious experience. Even the ones about mortality radiate with a poetic sense of ease. The paean to Joan of Arc turns history into a hymnal, and he gets self-deprecating on the one where he misses an important appointment. The chorus goes, “I can’t’ forget, but I don’t remember what.” Talk about aging gracefully. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Night Comes On” / Choices” / “Joan of Arc”

Johnny Cash – American VI: Ain’t No Grave (American, 2010)

johnny cashLeave it to The Man in Black to demonstrate the art of dying with dignity. Recorded five months before his passing and released seven years later on what would have been his 78th birthday, this is late-period Cash at his finest. The final installment in the long-running American series is the gloomiest and most dour of the bunch, but also the most tender and hopeful. His God-like voice is withered by age and diabetes, but he still injects his trademark grit into lyrics preoccupied with life’s end. The centerpiece recites I Corinthians 15:55. “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” When not quoting scripture, Cash gets sentimental on a collection of covers that prognosticate or philosophize. The title track celebrates the miracle of the Rapture while his rendition of Tom Paxton questions whether Heaven is real at all. Better than pondering the hereafter comes the songs wherein he says his gentle goodbyes. “For the Good Times” swaps the rainy-day sex of a crumbling relationship for a quiet deathbed snuggle — that fond embrace will have to do until, as he says in the closing bars of  “Aloha Oe,” we meet again. GRADE: A

Key Tracks: “For the Good Times” / “Aloha Oe” / “I Don’t Hurt Anymore”

Sound ‘Round: Bob Dylan / Johnny Cash

Grandpas singing their heartsongs 

Bob Dylan – Shadows in the Night (Columbia)

Music Review Bob DylanIconoclastic Dylan covers iconic Sinatra. Go ahead, roll your eyes. I did. I even went as far as Pitchfork’s Stephen M. Deusner and pondered if these 10 songs are secretly a troll job. That was until I heard the conviction in his vocal delivery: easy without schmaltz, forthright without melancholy and (most important) absent the phlegmy growl of 2012’s so-so Tempest. A wiser choice than simply clearing his 73-year-old pipes, however, is the song selection. Though Blue Eyes lent his pristine timbre to each of these whispering ballads, his respective takes were recorded past his peak on albums seldom mentioned or remembered. Steering away from signature Sinatra, the obscurity of the material allows Dylan to bend the melodies to his liking. He’s no crooner, and the music softens his raspy romanticism. Case in point is “Why Try to Change me Now,” in which a gentle lap steel uplifts verses about love on the rocks. He hasn’t sounded this rejuvenated in years. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: “Why Try to Change Me Now” / “I’m a Fool to Want You” / “Some Enchanted Evening”

Johnny Cash – My Mother’s Hymn Book (American Recordings, 2004)

Johnny Cash - My Mother's Hymn BookRubin-era Cash is a mixed bag of genuine iconography and clever image rebranding. The production is sparse and the subject matter grim so as to create an aura of legendary grandstanding. Of the entire American series, only IV and VI resonate with any sense of warmth or tenderness. So imagine my surprise when I discovered this collection of psalms a few years back. The production is barren — austere guitar and arrangements as minimal as his depression-era home of Dyess, Arkansas. What makes these hymns sparkle is their simplicity and the jubilation in Cash’s shaky croak of a voice. Cash clung to his Baptist beliefs throughout his life, whether finding solace from his emotionally abusive father as a child, or using the Word as a guiding point through decades of drug abuse and extramarital affairs. Though he most assuredly sought redemption in his last days, a search which lasted his entire life, there’s something more elementary at work on these 15 hallelujahs. An unapologetic mama’s boy does right by the mother who doted on him, and whom he equally loved in return. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks:I Shall Not Be Moved” / “Do Lord” / “Where the Soul of Man Never Dies

Sound ‘Round: Johnny Cash

The first and the latest

Johnny Cash – With His Hot and Blue Guitar (Sun, 1957)

johnny cash - his hot and blue guitarHis first LP is seldom mentioned in regards to his cannon because its best singles have been repackaged ad nauseam. The victim of an era when albums were a smattering of previously released hits culled for the lucrative holiday sales rush, it’s an intended toss-off which stumbled into posterity thanks to J.R.’s Hall of Fame career. Removed from the grandiose lore, however, the music becomes an exhibit of quintessential ‘50s Cash: a God-like voice heavy on charisma and Arkansas drawl contrasted by plaintive train track guitars and primitive Tex-Mex flair. It’s the blueprint for everything he’d ever be and a foundation for the house Nashville built. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: I Walk The Line” / “Folsom Prison Blues” / “Cry! Cry! Cry!

Johnny Cash – Out Among the Stars (Legacy)

Out Among The Stars cover art.  (PRNewsFoto/Legacy Recordings)The greatest quality of Cash’s infamous baritone is its versatility. The Man in Black can be anything to anyone: A hell raiser who kills for kicks, a preacher who loves Jesus second only to his mama, a comedian who mocks his own “Aw, shucks” demeanor or a grim reaper accepting his date with eternity. This lost album, assembled from tapes recorded and shelved three decades ago, is a diluted amalgam of such traits and captures an icon in transition. With Nashville having ditched him for a decade of over produced schmaltz and Rick Rubin still cutting his teeth behind the glass, Cash clandestinely settled into middle age. Subsequently, these dozen songs move with an ease rarely heard in any of his late period releases. Aside from the title number’s dark tale of a liquor store bandit and the finale which meets his God quota, a jovial sense of normalcy saturates Cash’s disposition – never more so on the pair of duets he shares with June Carter. Even in domesticity, he walked the line. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: Don’t You Think It’s Come Our Time” / “Out Among the Stars” / “I’m Movin’ On

Sound ‘Round: Daniel Domano / Johnny Cash

Ballads and bibles. 

Daniel Romano: Come Cry With Me (Normaltown)

Daniel Romano - Come Cry With MeWell versed in the tradition of Nashville tearjerkers, it’s easier to peg this Canadian as a dilettante than it is to rate his musical sincerity. Expressing heartbreak in ho-hum and hackneyed fashion, he fluffs up the choruses with whimpered coos and piles on lap steel in exact proportion to the melodrama. Add the Ron Jeremy mustache and Porter Wagoner suits, and the whole thing becomes more caricature than tribute. Though his intentions remain vague, his results are not. The melodies prove hefty despite his thin drawl, and the forlorn grief is so hyperbolic and rudimentary it borders on comedy. When he’s funny on purpose, however (he’s not “Crying Over You,” he’s sharpening his acting skills), he outdoes damn near every one of his mainstream country contemporaries stateside. GRADE: A-

Key Tracks: I’m Not Crying Over You” / “Between Me and You” / “That’s The Very Moment

Johnny Cash – Bootleg IV: The Soul of Truth (Sony Legacy, 2012)

johnny cash - bootleg IVA two-disc gospel set comprised of 1975’s A Believer Sings the Truth, snippets of 1984’s I Believe, and choice B-sides from the same era, this fourth installment in the Bootleg series captures my favorite facet of Cash. Though his hymnal stage stands in contrast to the weathered hard-ass Rick Rubin painted him as in his waning years, that baritone sounds like the voice of the Almighty himself. The second disk is the better find as it sports the most unreleased material. The first is notable, however, for appearances from the Carter Family and a country-jazz cover of Billy Joe Shaver’s “I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal.” When the horns kick in  this backsliding non-believer almost thinks about converting. GRADE: A-

Key Track: I’m Just An Old Chunk of Coal” / “Never Grow Old” / “I Was There When It Happened