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JOHNNY  CASH'S 

The title is, not surprisingly, a misnomer. Yes, the song “Rockabilly Blues” (  Texas  1955) came from the pen of J.R. Cash. Certainly the 1980 album that took its name from that song was probably meant (at least by   Columbia  marketing department) to suggest his early years on Sun Records. But Johnny Cash was not then, nor after, a rockabilly singer by any useful application of the word. (Nor, certainly, a bluesman, for that matter)

Well, it wasn’t the first time Cash was misunderstood by his label. He had moved to   Columbia  in 1958, when Sun wouldn’t let him record a gospel album, after all.

Born February 26, 1932, in Kingsland Arkansas (and raised on 20 acres of government munificence in Dyess Colony) Cash emerged from the same hard-scrabble Depression South that produced label-mates Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and so many others.

Racial lines blurred out in the killing heat of those cotton fields. No wonder the music that subsequently exploded from   Memphis  in the 1950’s had a raw, fully integrated urgency about it that must have been even more starting when it arrived plop in the midst of the Eisenhower years. Remember that senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist hearings dominated the news; so did the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown V. Board of Education of Topeka ruling, the Cold War with the USSR, and the Korean War and its confrontation with the other emerging superpower, China. Plus the bomb, all that, Elvis supplanted Sinatra and Eddie Arnold on the radio. No wonder bomb shelters sprouted in suburban back lawns.

By comparison, Johnny Cash presented fairly modest challenges to the establishment. Sure, the man in black’s persona was steeped in film noir, but that, at least, was something the culture could make sense of. More importantly, remember that Johnny Cash was hardly a navie, un-traveled, inexperience talent when he first he first burst upon the scene. Not a rube. But Cash had spent a month in the north working on a were new Pontiac, MI assembly line, then enlisted in the Air Force and was stationed in Germany as a radio operator. When he cut his first sides for Sun, he was married and taking night classes through the GI Bill. So Cash’s life experiences were substantially different from those of 19-year-old Elvis Presley, who still lived at home when he came bursting through the doors of the Sun Studios. No wonder Johnny Cash’s voice arrived with a dose of gravity. Elvis wore pink black. Simple as that.

Even back in the spring of 1955, when vacuum salesman/apprentice DJ J.R. Cash cut “Hey Porter” and “Cry Cry Cry” for the yellow Sun label –when one night have made the case, at least by association that he had something to do with that short-lived musical phenomenon that came to be called rockabilly he didn’t quite fit. None of the madness is there, none of the unmistakable bent, frantic genius that permeates early Elvis, Wanda Jackson, Charlie Feathers, Jerry Lee Lewis, or (especially) Little Richard. All that is high-spirited, libido-tinged music of adolescence, given an edge that has ever after stayed a part of Rock N Roll the very real possibility that the singer was about to come unplugged in front of you.

Unglued though Johnny Cash may have become in later years (and even then, mostly in private) even early on his singing voice has a stately, measured quality to it. Grave, world-weary, wise, (if still uncertain). And unmistakably country “Hey Porter” is about the powerful to pull to return home; early rockabilly was mostly about leaving that same place (or getting plenty likered up on the outskirts), and not looking back. And Johnny Cash was simply a country artist who opened that tradition to a broader spectrum of sound and subject matter than most did.

By 1980 and release of this record, however, rockabilly had become a singularly obscure sub-genre. It was seen principally by the younger, record –buying generation, if they took notice at all, through the curious lenses of revivalists like Robert Gordon (the singer, not the critic) and the cramps; the Stray Cats would follow shortly, cementing the revivalist archetype. (Ah, and let’s not forget the rose-tinted glasses of several million Elvis devotes, but Elvis put out enough records to keep them satisfied, or so it seems.) Today rockabilly is about vintage clothes and classic street rods, and whatever songs those punk-adopted figures stumbled upon in late 70’s have long since ossified into a rigid, unrevealing canon.

“Rockabilly Blues” Then is one of several albums (including the recently reissued “Johnny 99” Cash recorded in between the chart success of “One Piece At A Time” (1976) and “Highwayman” (1985) the collaboration with Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, and Kris Kristofferson that ultimately produced three albums. Always able to tour to appreciative audiences, Cash struggling in interest his record label in his career, and to interest his audience in buying his current releases. 

Maybe his frustration was showing, or, perhaps, Cash was beginning to become restive with his own mortality. In any event “Rockabilly Blues” begins on a singularly grim note, One Of These Cold And Lonesome Mornings” “You’re Going To Kill Me” “I’m Going To Lay There”  “And I’m Going To Die,” he sings Cold Lonesome Morning” was another new song from his pen, but his voice has changed little from “Folsom Prison Blues” still a bluntly frank instrument.

Which is to say that Johnny Cash has always sounded exactly like Johnny Cash, and little enough like anything else. And it’s worth nothing that “Rockabilly Blues” Texas 1955 was the first song recorded for this album, the last track in five sessions that began in December of 1979 and ended in July of 1980 one cut each was produced by Nick Lowe and old friend Jack Clement, the balance by Earl Ball.

That hardly means Cash is noted in, nor wishes to root around, his own past. From the subtitle “(Texas1955)” to the chorus of the title track, “There’s A Sad Song Coming” “ With the Rockabilly Blues” it’s pretty clear that Cash is carefully using the idea of Rockabilly to center a specific image in a very specific time, and title and a little beyond that. Even the instrumentation make no effort to replicate the conventional sounds of rockabilly.

“Cold Lonesome Morning” is followed immediately by “Without Love” written by then son-in-law Nick lowe. At the time one of the darlings of power pop/new wave. Yes, it’s a trifle up tempo for Cash, but love was and is a gifted songwriter, and this one sounds precisely and effortlessly like a Johnny Cash song. Whatever that may be.

Indeed, Cash has always had a good sense of what material best fits his distinctive voice. “Rockabilly Blues” features two cuts by the outlaw poet laureate, Billy Joe Saver – “The Cowboy Who Started The Fight” a wonderful urban cowboy morality tale, and the penultimate “Ain’t Nothing New Babe.” Add in one song from the “other” outlaw poet laureate, Kris Krisofferson’s Tejano-flavored “The Last Time” and one gets a better sense where Cash’s sensibilities are really centered on strong songs period.

Perhaps the most engaging track on the set resonates most today because its title is now hard upon us. The Steve Goodman/John Prine meditation , “Twentieth Century Is Almost Over” is a curious thing to have written back in 1977, Nixon (and Gerald Ford) driven from the White House, Jimmy Carter’s New South on the rise. It’s a jaunty, almost gospel number, with wordplay reminiscent of Roger Miller and the chorus ringing “Twentieth Century Is Almost Gone” “All Over The World” in the end, it had a survivor.

Few Johnny Cash outing are complete without a visit from his wife June Carter. Here, they duet through the song of another son-in-law. Rodney Crowell’s “One Way Rider” complete with a swinging horn section. Their voices twine together sweetly, and one can almost see them walk hand in hand off the stage together when it’s over.     

 

 

Revised: September 03, 2007

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