I just stumbled across this on the Sparklehorse site. It’s from a tribute CD to Johnny Cash from MOJO Magazine back in April 2006. Merle Travis wrote it, but Cash popularized it by featuring it on his live At Folsom Prison album.
So consider this a belated birthday celebration to the Man in Black. I’ve got some strong opinions about the release of American VI: Ain’t No Grave, but I’m keeping them to myself for now.
From the first strums on what sounds like a dime store student guitar and the odd orchestral backing, Bobbie Gentry‘s Ode to Billie Joe is clearly in a different sort of universe. Best known for the title track, which tells the story of young lovers and suicide from the Tallahatchie Bridge, Ode to Billy Joe is as complex as the subject matter suggests.
Country Soul is full of sultry songstresses with smoky voices. Dusty Springfield is probably best known, and her “Son of a Preacher Man” is probably the finest example of a genre all but forgotten today. Where the Mandrel Sisters, Dolly Parton and others opted for the lure of pop audiences that eventually brought us to the sorry reality of Rascal Flatts, Springfield and Gentry (along with Jeannie C. Riley of “Harper Valley PTA” fame) skipped the white bread for the grits. The late 60s and very early 70s produced a fantastic crop of Country Soul that sounds as unusual and compelling as ever. That it did not become the dominate cross-over sub-genre is too bad for all of us.
Then Cash himself, cracking a rare grin, moved in and sat and talked with him about Jimmie Rodgers, one of Cash’s heroes. Yes, Satchmo remembered backing him on “Blue Yodel No. 9,” and yes, it would be fun to try to recreate it. So with Cash playing Rodgers and Armstrong playing—well, himself—the pair brought the audience back to 1930. Cash and Armstrong swapped choruses on the old blues standard—Cash doing a swaggering vocal, Armstrong playing a dynamic, elegant series of trumpet breaks, in spite of the fact that his doctors in New York had told him to stop playing for good.
In a sense, this was one of those unique cultural cusps that seems to occur only in American music—the kind that gave rise to Western swing, rock & roll, and rhythm & blues, one of the better nights at the Ryman, a place, Lord knows, that has seen its share.
I finally got around to searching for it, and of course it’s up on YouTube (thanks to user opurkert). Check out this amazing historical artifact after the jump…
Johnny Cash’s Vault Opens – Revelatory, stripped-down tapes from the early 1970s discovered in archive: “Personal File delivers a Cash even his most devoted fans have never heard before: at the height of his career and vocal power, telling the story of his life in music, as if he were sitting across from you.”
I originally wrote this piece in November 2002 as a review of The Man Comes Around for Doog Magazine. It is reproduced here with permission from Doog.
Johnny Cash is on his way out. He is dying. But so are you. And so am I. We all are.
Rock and roll is rife with tales of death and mortality. Hank Williams said it best with “I’ll never get out of this world alive.” And then Jim Morrison paraphrased this sentiment with “No one here gets out alive.” Both of those guys were dead by thirty. But Johnny Cash has lived to be an old man. He’ll turn 126 this year and he just released the fourth album in his American Recordings series, produced by Rick Rubin.