Tag Archive: Johnny Cash


modern-sounds-in-country-and-western-music

Having been a music major in college and a music teacher for sixteen long years, I have an appreciation for just about every style of music.  But if there is one genre of music for which I truly have a distaste, its the modern pop country movement.  I dislike it so much I don’t even know the names of artists to give examples.  I think they are all named Blake anyway.  But even though I can’t stomach current pop country, I do like country western quite a bit.  You know, the classics like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, etc.  That stuff is pretty good, and it is that rich history of songwriting that Ray Charles mines for this album, while of course putting his own gospel/R&B spin on it.

I’ve always been attracted to art that defies convention and stereotypes, and this album does just that and does it well.  And I’ve always admired musicians who step outside their comfort zone to try new and different styles, and again, this is what we have here.  At the point in Ray Charles’ career when he made this album, he was an established R&B artist.  He could easily have cranked out another R&B album and it probably would have been a hit.  But instead he challenged himself and his audience by recording this country western album and it wound up not being just a hit, it became a landmark moment in an already storied career.  And I could go on about breaking racial stereotypes and challenging social norms, which this album did in fact do at the time, but the truth is this album has had longevity because it is just simply good quality music.  Despite the somewhat depressing subject matter (it is country western music after all), Brother Ray imbues a sense of joy in each song through his iconic voice and his jazz-tinged arrangements.  I remember seeing this album at the Earnest Tubb Record Shop when I was down in Nashville a few years ago, but I didn’t pick it up until I found it used for $6.99 at the Half Price Books on Lane Avenue.  It is worth every penny.

Other Lists: “I Can’t Stop Loving You” is ranked #164 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.  See entry #54 for The Birth of Soul for other Ray Charles accolades.

Ch-ch-changes: This album dropped one spot from its original ranking at #104 on the original list.

My favorite track: “Half as Much”

Honorable mention: “It Makes No Difference Now”

Quote: “But that’s all in the past, and I’ll forget somehow.  Well, I don’t worry, ’cause it makes no difference now.”

 

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40 Greatest Hits

“Are you ready for some foosball?”  Oh, wait a minute.  It’s not that Hank Williams.  It’s his father?  Ok, got it.

When I went to Nashville with the Princess last summer I kind of messed up.  She really wanted to see the Ryman Auditorium (mostly because she really likes the movie Walk the Line) and I thought it was open later than it actually was.  So on our last day in town, we showed up around 4:00 PM and they were already closing up shop for the day.  She was pretty bummed, so I made sure that when we passed through Nashville on our way to Memphis this past spring that we were early enough to tour the Ryman.  And the paid backstage tour there is actually pretty boring, but the free to the public part in the actual auditorium is pretty amazing.  For a long time it was the home of the Grand Ole Opry (before they moved to their overpriced entertainment complex on the outskirts of town) and there are relics from that period on display in the back of the auditorium.  Well, almost an entire display case was devoted to Hank Williams, and knowing this album was coming up on the list, I took the time to learn me some history.  It turns out Hank Williams auditioned for the Opry, but was originally turned down as he was notorious for missing gigs because he would get to drunk to go on stage.  Eventually though he made a guest appearance, and his performance was such a showstopper that he was called back for six encores.  After that they had to hire him, but a few years later he was fired for…you guessed it…getting drunk and missing gigs.

So after learning about Williams at the Ryman I searched high and low in Nashville and in Memphis for this album, but no record store carried it.  I got back to Columbus, and I was about to buy it online when a copy suddenly showed up for $5.99 at the Half Price Books on Bethel road just a few blocks from where I live.  What luck!  And after digging into this album, I can honestly say it’s pretty awesome.  Minimal country twang with lots of steel guitar and violin.  Clever lyrics dripping with bluesy irony.  Just about every song is in a strong country western two-step, and almost every song is between 2 minutes 22 seconds and 2 minutes 53 seconds long.  How’s that for consistency!  And you can definitely hear the influence Hank Williams had on early rockers like Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly.  And obviously he was influential in the country world as well…anyone else hear the similarity between Williams’ “Wedding Bells” and Johnny Cash’s “Give My Love to Rose”?  It’s practically the same song.

Sadly, things didn’t end well for Williams.  He was being driven to a New Years Day gig in Canton, Ohio (another place the Princess and I visit frequently…great wineries up there) when he past away at the all too young age of 29.  Apparently the driver of the car didn’t even realize Hank Williams was dead until he stopped off for gas.  Another tragic end to a great musician.  Williams obviously had some demons, many of which were reflected in his song lyrics.  Of the 40 songs on this compilation, only 5 have an upbeat theme (one of which is the country gospel song “I Saw the Light” which always used to be a favorite of my church choir…until God laid me off last year).  The other 35, even when humorous, are about depressing subjects…but I guess that’s country music in general.  As for his son, I’ve never been a big fan of Hank Williams, Jr., but learning about Hank Sr. gives me knew respect for Jr.’s song “Family Tradition” (“Why must you live out the songs that you wrote?”).  And, well, Hank Jr. is following the family tradition by getting himself kicked off of Monday Night Football.  And I guess the grandson, Hank Williams Jr. Jr., is a punk metal rocker.  So the legacy lives on (sort of).

Other lists: “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” is #112 and “Your Cheatin’ Heart” is #217 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.  Williams is ranked #27 on the list of the 100 Greatest Singers and #74 on the list of the 100 Greatest Artists.

Ch-ch-changes: This album jumped up 35 spots from its original position of #129 on the 2003 list.

My favorite track: “Nobody’s Lonesome for Me”

Honorable mention: “I Saw the Light”

Quote: “I’m a rollin’ stone all alone and lost, for a life of sin I have paid the cost.  When I pass by all the people say, ‘just another guy on the lost highway'”.

At Folsom Prison

I think everybody has probably pondered the question “What would it be like to be in prison?” at one point or another.  I know I have.  Actually, it’s been on my mind a lot lately…not because I plan on committing a crime.  But one of my former students did commit a crime last fall…a pretty heinous one actually…and I doubt he will ever see the world outside a prison cell ever again.  So, yeah, it’s something I’ve wondered about, and I’m pretty sure it’s wouldn’t be a pleasant experience.  Well, this album is hopefully as close as I will ever get to being on the inside, but it sure offers some incredible insight into prison life.  Most people probably know it was recorded live in front of an audience of inmates at Folsom State Prison in California, and of course one of Johnny Cash’s first hit songs was “Folsom Prison Blues”, but I didn’t realize until I listened to this that most of the songs on the record are about being in prison.  And because of this, there is this sort of conspiratorial bond between Cash and the audience that really drives the record. He makes off-color jokes and teases the warden and really gets the audience on his side.   As for the music, there is the gallows humor of “25 Minutes to Go”, the bad-boy strut of “Cocaine Blues”, the irony of “Joe Bean” (a bonus track on the CD edition), the resiliency of “I Got Stripes”, and the final moment of inspiration and triumph when he performs a song written by one of the inmates (a guy named Glen Sherley) called “Greystone Chapel”.  And of course “Folsom Prison Blues” leads off the show, a song which contains the most bad-ass line ever written in popular music: “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”  Add in June Carter’s sexually charged vocals on “Jackson”, and you have a pretty amazing record that has aged incredibly well since it was recorded back in 1968.

I was never a huge Johnny Cash fan growing up.  Other than the occasional Kenny Rogers 8-track tape, we never really listened to much country music in my family.  Sure, I knew who Johnny Cash was…he was pretty famous, but I wasn’t interested in him or his music at all.  And it didn’t help that despite the Gear Head’s insistence that it was good music, I despised the pop-country revolution spearheaded by Garth Brooks and Dunn et al in the early 90s.  But then something happened in the mid-90s while I was in college…somebody (I think it was Lord Bacchus) played me Johnny Cash’s cover of Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage” from the American II: Unchained album.  And I thought it was so cool that this legendary country western artist was trying to connect with my generation…and doing it well.  And then a few years later he covered Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt” on the American IV: The Man Comes Around album, and I was blown away by how good it was.  And I realize that for Cash, he was pouring all his grief and anguish from the death of his beloved wife, June Carter Cash, into that song…but for me it was a reworking of a song that had gotten me through some pretty dark times in my life.  I connected with it, and it helped me to develop a deep respect for the Man in Black as well.

So after that I started picking up the American recordings, and I remember doing a tribute to him in my general music classes when he passed shortly thereafter. At one point I picked up Christmas With Johnny Cash because it is one of the few Christmas albums I’ve ever seen that has my favorite Christmas carol “I Heard the Bell on Christmas Day” on it.  And of course there was the biopic, Walk the Line,  back in 2005 which used the Folsom Prison concert to frame the story of Cash’s life (and even though Reese Witherspoon stole to spotlight in that movie, Joaquin Phoenix did a fine job portraying Cash).  But last summer I got to spend a week in Nashville with the Princess, and that’s when it all really started to come together in my head.  We went to the Johnny Cash Museum and we heard his songs played every night in the honky-tonks, and it made me realize that he truly was one of the greatest American singer-songwriters ever, regardless of genre.  There is something so strong about that vibrato-less baritone voice, the dalliance with both the light through gospel music and the darkness through prison songs, the redemption story of fighting drug addiction and actually not winding up dead like so many other musicians, and well, the fact that he managed to be relevant in six different decades.  You done good, Johnny, you done good.

I actually picked this album up at Ernest Tubb Record Shop on the outer-belt near the campground we were staying at while we were down in Nashville (there was a picture on the wall in the shop of two of the Princess’ relatives who were country-western artists back in the day).  I remember they had a bunch of copies with several different prices marked on them, and I got the cheapest one.  I think it was $6.99.  The CD edition has 3 tracks that were not on the original vinyl album.  Another Ernest Tubb store downtown on Broadway in the heart of the honky-tonk district had the 3 disc Legacy Edition, but it was too pricey and I wound up buying it later on Amazon.  What’s cool about the Legacy Edition is that it has both concerts that Johnny Cash played at Folsom Prison that day completely uncut, including the opening acts (Carl Perkins and the Statler Brothers).  All but two of the tracks for the actual album At Folsom Prison were taken from the first show, so the second show had been completely unreleased until recently (and it’s definitely not as good…Cash makes the same jokes, but they go flat, and his guitar goes out of tune several times).  It’s a cool piece of music history.

At Folsom Prison Legacy Edition

 

Other lists: “Folsom Prison Blues” is #163  on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.  Johnny Cash ranks #21 on the list of the 100 Greatest Singers and #31 on the list of the 100 Greatest Artists (Carl Perkins, who plays guitar with the Tennessee Three on this record is the #99 Greatest Artist).

My favorite track: “Folsom Prison Blues”

Honorable mention: “Cocaine Blues”

Quote: “When I was just a baby, my mama told me ‘Son, always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns.’ But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him die.  When I hear that whistle blowin’, I hang my head and cry.”