Johnny Cash: Songwriter (digital outlets)

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Poor Valley Girl
Johnny Cash: Songwriter (digital outlets)

In his thorough Johnny Cash: The Life biography in 2013, the writer Robert Hilburn didn't flinch from pointing out that for a couple of decades before the American Recordings series, Johnny Cash was in a wilderness of pills, ill-health, poor decisions and pretty lousy albums.

As Hilburn notes, “In the 23 years since he cut his first record at Sun, Cash's resume included some 1800 concerts, nearly 50 albums, five movies, dozens of television shows, a divorce and thousands of pills – and he was tired”.

In his quest for an audience he continued to spread himself thin.

However by the Nineties even when he was motivated and believed in a song (if not a whole album), the public was largely indifferent.

And when he was indifferent towards an album – falling back on old gospel, gimmick story songs and the familiar train-clack rhythm – no one much noticed.

There were conspicuous low points, the '84 single Chicken in Black among the most notable, a song he actually believed in until people told hm it was an embarrassment.

As a songwriter he defaulted to what had worked previously – a bit of humour, cliched songs about outsiders, love songs – but mostly he just turned up and recorded whatever he had in hand.

It took Rick Rubin who sat with him, listened and put more interesting material in front of him, to turn it around.

This collection of enhanced demos unfortunately comes from mostly just before Rubin's steady hand and finds him with some trite material – the dreadful Well Alright about meeting a woman in a laundromat the worst – and familiar sentiments which he doesn't sound much committed to.

The Vietnam vet story of Drive On (which Rubin liked and re-recorded) isn't much better because its message and gravitas is somehow lost -- whatever it might have been -- and I Love You Tonight is among his weakest and most lyrically clumsy love songs to June: “Can you believe we made it through the Eighties?”

Sing It Pretty Sue was a song he recorded as far back as 1962 and often returned to.

Like a Soldier was also one which Rubin liked, including a re-recorded version on American Recording and is among the better songs.

But there is the customary sentimentality here: the biographical Poor Valley Girl about June and the Carter family; Have You Every Been to Little Rock? and the rather pretty She Sang Sweet Baby James.

Embellished by strings and musicians (Marty Stewart, Dan Auerbach, Harry Stinson among them) under the stewardship of John Carter Cash, some songs make the grade, notably the edgy Spotlight.

But over the duration this isn't an album for those who arrived at Cash back in the early Sixties or in the Rubin years.


You can hear this album at Spotify here.

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