Tag Archives: Country

[170] Johnny Cash – American Recordings

8 Apr

I think maybe you already have to be a Cash fan to enjoy this album. So it should come as no surprise that I love this 1994 album, and the rest of the American Recordings he produced right up until his death in 2003.

170 cash american

However, I do find it slightly unexpected that it was these stripped down, cowboy-gospel tinged songs that caught the attention of a new generation and made Johnny Cash relevant (yet) again.

This is an album I bought when it first came out, one which I enjoyed, but which never really got into regular rotation in the list of Cash albums I periodically play. Perhaps this is because it is hard to hear the pain in every note here, a pain which grew stronger as the voice grew weaker with each successive American Recording release, peaking / troughing with the magnificently tormented cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” on American IV: The Man Comes Around.

Each track on this first American installment is a perfectly formed, tiny-clean morsel of story song which, despite the pristine nature of the studio work, is somehow leaner even than the raw live recording of At Folsom Prison. I find it sometimes hard to get through the entire thing in one setting, even if the run time is only a beat over 40 minutes.

Perhaps I am once again underestimating how much pain the rest of the music buying population is in at any given moment.

Cash actively seeks out difficult situations here – a crime of passion, a veteran’s sad return to civilian life, and lots of mortality – and the super-minimal orchestration leave nothing for the words to hide behind. Cash is preaching and, though I often dislike preachers, in this case I believe the things his eyes claim to have seen, believe the pain his heart claims to have felt, both of which are clear in the diminished yet still deep-wide voice.

Revisiting songs he first wrote and recorded over thirty years prior, as in “Delia’s Gone”, is fascinating, but it is the new recordings which truly catch the attention.

Returning to the well of Kris Kristofferson – who wrote Cash’s 1970 hit “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down” – “Why Me Lord” is a song that makes me profoundly uncomfortable yet which I can’t help but listen to again and again. And songs penned for Cash by Tom Waits and Glenn Danzig (as well as a Leonard Cohen cover) round out the stylistic feel of the album, setting the template for four more records in the series.

This is not the sound or style that I immediately think of when I hear The Man In Black in my head. And this is not an album I am going to queue up on Spotify when introducing him to my 10-year-old daughter. But in moments that call for quiet reflection on mortality, there are worse places I could start, and I can understand why Tom Moon paired this late career recording with the classic era At Folsom Prison as  bookends to exploring the career of the unique Johnny Cash.

Next Time: Dorival Caymmi – Caymmi E Seu Violao

Owned before blogging? Yes (14 of 170 = 8%)
Heard before blogging? Yes (23 of 170 = 14%)
Recommend? Yes (142 of 170 = 84%)

[169] Johnny Cash – At Folsom Prison

18 Mar

Well, this one takes me back.

169 cash folsom

When I was a kid, my Mom, Dad, brother and I would regularly take road trips from the suburbia a couple of hours outside of London to the suburbia immediately outside of the city proper to visit with the extended family that stayed put when my Grandma and Grandpa moved to “the back of beyond” in the ’50s.  And on those road trips my folks would always play one of the same four cassette tapes:  an Elaine Page collection, a Lloyd-Webber cast recording, an album by Israeli folk singer Topol, or Johnny Cash’s Greatest Hits.

It turns out that my Dad is a big Cash fan.

So I’ve known and loved these songs since before I had long hair, before I could choose my own soundtrack.  It’s probably fair to say that, however subliminally, “The Man in Black” helped to form my fashion sense, and predisposed me to gravitate towards outlaws and rebels, at least sonically.

At Folsom Prison is an album I have owned and listed to for years, perhaps decades, although I can’t actually recall the last time I hit play on it before revisiting those road trips for the 1,000.  And the sense memory of sitting in the back of our red Toyota Cressida, singing along especially to the comedy songs “One Piece At A Time”, “The One On The Left”, and “A Boy Named Sue” is immediate, and almost overwhelming.  The deeper-than-deep voice which still somehow finds range for melody, the inviolable boom-chikka rhythm of guitar and drum, the lyrical wordplay, the moments of laughter, the connection to the listener.  They are all immediately remembered, and immensely comforting.

The selection of tracks on this live recording is fascinating. There are the prison songs “Cocaine Blues”, “25 Minutes To Go”, and of course the track which brought the performer to this particular venue.  There are the traditional mournful sounds of “Green, Green Grass Of Home” and “Send A Picture Of Mother.”  There is the silliness of “Dirty Old Egg-Suckin’ Dog” and “Flushed From The Bathroom Of Your Heart.”  And there is the precise fire of the duet with June Carter, “Jackson”, perhaps my favorite song on the album.

Cash giggles his way through a number of tracks, teasing the inmates about not laughing during the songs since they are recording, so he “can’t say hell or [exletive deleted].”  His relaxed banter is as much a part of his persona as the songs, the image.  And the album is occasionally interrupted by announcements from the warden, making this a singular experience.

Listening to the range of 16 songs across 45 minutes I am as ever struck by the wide variety of styles that Cash perfects, how the raw warts and all recording elevates the whole, and how many signature songs are still missing.  Listening to At Folsom Prison makes me want to listen to a lot more Cash.

Could there be a better recommendation to listen to an album?

Next Time:  Johnny Cash – American Recordings

Owned before blogging? Yes (13 of 169 = 8%)
Heard before blogging? Yes (22 of 169 = 13%)
Recommend? Yes (141 of 169 = 83%)

[161] The Original Carter Family – 1927 to 1934

13 May

Country music, perhaps even America as we know it, would be profoundly different without The Carter Family.


Cataloging and recording the songs handed down the generations throughout the South, A. P. Carter preserved a legacy and honed a sound which is still relevant and recognizable today.  The range of musical ground covered is dizzying, well over five hours of songs of praise, of despair, of celebration, of love, of longing.

Spiritual or sea shanty, ballad or barroom romp, each song is anchored by a metronomic rhythm section usually consisting of nothing more than a single guitar which lays down an unbreakable beat.  Over this foundation, fascinating story songs unfold, cleanly melodic and enhanced by close harmony whenever a chorus rolls around, by strict unison singing elsewhere.

For nearly ninety-year-old recordings, the sound quality here is quite astounding.

I love the way just two voices and one guitar can fill a room.  I love the sheer quantity of found music in evidence here.  I love that I can enfold myself in the sound that  Johnny Cash and June Carter (and a multitude of others) heard, that so inspired them to create music of their own.

And I hate how often otherwise open-minded people will casually admit that “I like all kinds of music except Country . . .”

Next Week:  Elliott Carter – Symphonia

Owned before blogging? No.  (12 of 161 = 7%)
Heard before blogging? No.  (21 of 161 = 13%)
Recommend? Yes. (135 of 161 = 84%)

[33] Chet Atkins and Les Paul – Chester and Lester

22 Nov

When you imagine two guitar legends jamming, the sound you hear in your head is of rock and roll pyrotechnics, of power and showmanship. But when Les Paul and Chet Atkins got together, their collaboration resulted in Easy Listening perfection.

Chester and Lester

Chester and Lester











That’s not to say that their mastery of the guitar is not evident from almost the first note – it is – but the vibe and the mood they are shooting for is one of two old friends with nothing to prove, just hanging out and doodling with fingers and strings.

They nail it.

Not so surprising of two men so intricately linked to the instrument they play – one was known as “Mister Guitar”, the other all but invented the electric guitar as we know it today – after decades perfecting their art at the time of their collaboration here in 1977.

This is not so much “dueling banjos” as it is two old masters creating a space for each other to be heard, to explore, to entertain. And at the end of the day (which is the best time to listen to Chester and Lester) isn’t that why we’re listening to music in the first place?

The chatting between (and at times during) the songs is endearing, adding to the mood, and when they casually discuss how to start the next song in a sort of guitar shorthand – “You play something like this . . . then I’ll come in like this . . .” – my mind is blown.

I am thinking of starting a new collection – not a shock, I am sure, to anyone who knows me or my family at all.

I want to collect as many versions as possible of one of my favorite songs, featured here, “It Had To Be You.” Each time I hear the song anew I am struck by the different ways it can be colored – Frank Sinatra’s quiet certainty, Harry Connick Jr.’s frantic need, and now the lazy introspection of Chet and Les.

It is a highlight of the album, but also of my entire 1,000 Recordings experience to date.

Owned before blogging? No. (2 of 33. 6%)
Heard before blogging? No. (4 of 33. 12%)
Recommend? Yes. (27 of 33. 82%)

Next Week: Albert Ayler – Spiritual Unity


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