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Foot Notes To album 

Invisible by his own lights, John R Cash quietly turned 51 in February of 1983, a few months before Johnny 99 first appeared, the Man In black had been hard to find on the charts for better than a decade, only the novelty of “One Piece At A Time assembling atop Bill board for two weeks in 1976, and his was quickly fading shadow at Columbia. But really Cash was missing only from the charts, both the first and least important place legends are made.

The first living inducted into the Country Music hall Of Fame (1980) and the first performer also inducted into the Rock N Roll hall Of Fame  (1992) joined six years later in that distinction only by his old mate from Memphis Elvis.

Presley (albeit unintentionally) all but killed country music, and his recent presence in that hall of fame is heavy with irony, and marketing, Johnny Cash truly belongs both places, for his voice alone carries across so many generations, genres, and geographies. Elvis was the voice alone of unchained libido and, after that first inspiration, lazy. Johnny Cash, more than other singer, grew to become the voice of America itself, Capturing in his spirit and his laconic phrasing many of its conflicts and contradictions. All America , even today. How many other voices resonate so powerfully with pierced punk rock kids and their bright-eyed grandparents ? And, no, the Rolling Stones don’t count. No other singer so deftly linked traditional Carter Family songs of the 1930’s to the rockabilly of the 1950s, cut classic country sides in the 1960s, and then carried those hot dripping torches towards the next millennium.

No, Elvis was about sex, but Johnny Cash came to the microphone bearing a stronger, higher authority. Notwithstanding George Burns role opposite John Denver, the deep woody baritone of Johnny Cash was and is the wise and weathered voice of a sometimes angry God, and of a man who is still a sinner. Hello I’m Johnny Cash, the greeting with which he began his short-lived and much-missed TV series in the late 60s is the distinctly American counter-point to Sean Connery’s “Bond, James Bond” and for all that a richer promise. The difference  between 17th century minister Jonathan Edwards and a contemporary Unitarian, as it were.

So despite the well-deserved kudos they received, American Recordings and Unchained didn’t signify Cash’s creative rebirth in the 1990s so much as reaffirm an artistic vision that had been fairly constant thought four decades, whether of not buying and programming public notice. Obvious, all that, and still too easily taken for granted. Still Johnny Cash was fifty-one-years old in 1983, his place un-slowed, his future oddly uncertain. He was also seven year removed from his last big charted success, and through he knew he could tour to large and happy audiences so long as he wished, , his remained a restless and creative spirit. Question was, would anybody at his label or at radio, that is, still listen to his future.

Cash was only a few years from turning in a album he says he called Chicken In Black (there’s even supposed to have been a video) CBS unaccountably paid for the Man In Black wearing a chicken suit and forcing the label to drop him. Not surprisingly, this effort at self-parody went unreleased, though its prospect gives pause.

Away, it is possible, staring through the dusty light of the past, to return to Johnny 99 today expecting to hear the work of an artist flailing for an audience, marking time possible, too, that his label heard it that way in 1983. Indeed, Cash himself spares not a word for the album in the annotated discography which concludes his second, self-titled autobiography.  Ah, but is it closer

Cash had worked with producer Brian Ahem then husband to Emmylou Harris before, on 1970s well-regarded Sliver Anniversary, so this was not a pairing simply indented to update an ageing star’s sound indeed, what today seems plain about Johnny 99 is how coherently it nestles amid the cannon. In many ways it is an archetypal Johnny Cash record, highlighting the works of, young songwriters, celebrating his Christian faith, surveying America ’s bloody past. And between daughters Carlene and Rosanne, son-in-laws Nick Lowe and Rodney Crowell, and a young Marty Stuart, then in his band, plenty of fresh ideas were running round his house, or tour bus.

In the studio for his album, Cash was surrounded by a pride of young lions that included Stuart (Guitars) Glen D Hardin (keyboards) Jo-Sonnier (accordion) and Norton Buffalo (harmonica). That comparative youth was paired with legendary drummer Hal Blaine and guitarist James Burton, with vocals support from June Carter (dueting on “Brand New Dance” a sweet kind of sequel to the fire of “Jackson” and Hoyt Axton. Not precisely Nashville A-Team. CA. 1983, but nevertheless a formidable collection of talent, and in any event they recorded in Los Angeles .

All that tends to sell Johnny Cash a little short, for his ears have always been open to the work of gifted songwriters, from a young Bob Dylan to Kris Kristofferson to Shel Silverstein,, from Joh Prine and Steve Goodman to Bruce Springsteen. And in selecting two songs from Sprinsteen’s bleak, acoustic Nebraska , Cash had certainly found a kindred spirit. Indeed, Charles R, Cross, then editor-publisher of Backstreets, the Springsteen quarterly, wrote, Johnny Cash was born to sing Bruce Sprigsteen’s Johnny 99. There’s an ancient wisdom in his voice that befits the material and is lacking in Springsteen’s version. And, anyway, if Columbia meant to market Johnny Cash to a younger audience by simply device of. cutting a few Springsteen songs, that message never got to their art department. The tightly cropped cover photo shows our hero wearing a gray fedora, a blue shirt, and a gray sport coat. The Man In Black as government agent. Not a rebel, this visage staring plain and firm across the years, but a grim elder statesman.

Presumably that image cements the singer’s role as Joe Roberts in the opening “Highway Patrolman” it proves to be the definitive reading of a song of the album. “Man turns his back on his family, he ain’t no good” Johnny Cash sings, bestowing upon those words a gravity Springsteen has yet to summon. But then, Cash has long been surrounded by family, his family and the Carter clan in which he married – and Springsteen has always been a loner. Indeed, and despite the song’s point of view Springsteen’s sympathies always seemed (to his listener anyway) to be with the younger brother, the messed-up Vietnam veteran prone to fits of violence. Cash gives his voice completely to the middle-aged Joe Roberts (nothing’s better than blood on blood) creating a rich vocal tapestry full of sadness and quilt and resignation.

The balance of the songs and songwriters are well-chosen notably Guy Clarks new cut road, and two from Englishman Paul Kennerly (oddly Emmylou Harris’s third husband) “That’s the Truth” and “Brand New Dance”. But even that makes too simple a story of Johnny 99, remember, counts among his friends not only the Outlaws but Bill y Graham, and his visited with every president in the White House since Richard Nixon. Even more to the point, he left Sun Records way back when because he wanted to cut out a gospel album and Columbia would let him. (There again, is Cash broad reach across the strata of society). And so it ought not to be a surprise that one of the strongest vocal performances on Johnny 99 surfaces on its sole religious number “Ballad Of The Ark ”.

Better still is “Joshua  Gone Barbarous”, part allegory, mostly a classic labor ballad transported tp the Caribbean world cash had to come up to know from his vacation home on a hill in Jamaica. Hoyt Axton’s deep baritone adds even more weight, somehow filling in the otherwise unexplored space below Cash. Followed hard on by the classic western outlaw story of “Girl From The Canyon” Johnny too bad, indeed. But for his role amid the highwaymen (joining Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson ) Cash would spend most of the 80’s out of the spotlight- invisible, to repeat his words. Columbia dropped him, Mercury put out a few records but couldn’t make anything happen, and ultimately took rock producer Rick Rubin and (Def) American, a label removed far, from Nashville to return Cash’s to the musical background

All of which serves to make Johnny 99, long deleted and as long sought by Springsteen collectors, an intriguing snapshot. What was. What might have been. Certainly it’s not Johnny Cash’s work, but as certainly it is work which defines the possibilities and promises of his restless, roving spirit.      

 

 

Revised: September 03, 2007

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