tue 23/07/2024

Album: Johnny Cash - Songwriter | reviews, news & interviews

Album: Johnny Cash - Songwriter

Album: Johnny Cash - Songwriter

The Man in Black returns

A mountain of a man with charisma to match

Wow, this is a trip back in time. A visit from "The Man in Black" 21 years after he passed away, just a few months after his beloved wife, June Carter Cash, who stood by him through thick and thin as together they made such beautiful music.

I saw him live only once, in the very early 1980s at the annual International Festival of Country Music, a three-day Easter extravaganza at what was then Wembley Arena. Mervyn Conn, the impresario behind the jamboree, was a sleaze bag and tight with his money but boy did he pack that stage with amazing stars! He’d watch over the shows like a Roman emperor, surrounded in the VIP box by the likes of Mary Reeves and Dorothy Ritter, who vied to be “first widows”. As the artists finished their sets, they’d glance up to where Conn was seated to see if he was giving the thumbs-up that was permission to play an encore.

As a guest of Times critic Robert Shelton it was fun indeed, and when I wanted a closer look I could saunter into the backstage area (Roy Orbison posed in the a red phone box, I remember) and then squat in the photographers’ pit. And it was from there that I saw Johhny Cash and June Carter with The Eighties Eight. What a presence he had, a mountain of a man, a face that looked like it had been hewn out of Mount Rushmore, and what charisma.

John Carter Cash, Johnny and June’s only child together, joined his mom and pop on stage at some point, an off-key pre-teen who sang, if memory serves, “The Wee Cooper of Fife”, a tribute to family heritage. And here he is again, 54 now, a musician in his own right and the producer with David Ferguson of Songwriter, a collection of 11 tracks his dad laid down but never released in 1993, his career at something of a low ebb before Rick Rubin persuaded him to join his American Recordings label. Cash enjoyed a career resurgence with a series of acclaimed recordings that have stood the test of time.

With the exception of the first two tracks, “Hello Out There” and “Spotlight”, Songwriter has a much more retro sound than those late masterpieces, with the walking bass and boom-chicka-boom drum so familiar from around the time I saw him. Cash’s magisterial, seemingly bottomless voice is out front and distinctive as ever of course. But however retro-sounding they may be, the instrumental tracks are newly recorded, the producer having stripped the original recordings back to just Cash’s voice and guitar, bringing in Marty Stuart, guitarist from Cash’s Tennessee Three, and bassist Dave Roe, who died shortly after completing work on Songwriter. Vince Gill adds a new vocal to “Poor Valley Girl”, while Waylon Jennings (“I Love You Tonight” and “Like a Soldier”) was part of the original sessions.

“Drive On”, with its sprechgesang vocal, has all the riffs and feel of “A Boy Named Sue” though the subject is far darker, a song about the physical and emotional pain of Vietnam vets written at a time when Cash himself was suffering the chronic pain of a broken jaw. Melodically, “Have You Even Been to Little Rock” sounds like a rewrite of Joe South’s “Games People Play”. The quirky and tongue-in-cheek “Well Alright”, about a pick-up in a laundromat, and “Sing It, Pretty Sue” take us back 60 years to “Tennessee Flat-Top Box”. Particularly memorable is ”Poor Valley Girl”, in which Cash recounts a slice of Carter family history, A P himself, the celebrated Mother Maybelle, and her daughters, including June. How amazing they were, what a dynasty.

So Songwriter is a new album that’s a trip down memory lane, a happy reminder of Cash’s great talent, a unique figure who triumphed over adversity and who generously helped so many young singers come to public attention. Let’s hope he’s using that old Tennessee flat-top box to accompany the heavenly choir.

Liz Thomson's website

Cash’s magisterial, seemingly bottomless voice is out front and distinctive as ever


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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