To these ears, Johnny Cash’s singing style was basically the same for the vast majority of his recording career. From his debut in 1957, peppered with classics heard regularly from that point on, to the ‘American II’ album in 1996, where the singing is energetic, enthusiatic and technically strong, he had great tone quality, decent intonation and put lyrics across convincingly. After the onset of Shy-Drager syndrome in 1997, there’s what seems like an involuntary wobble and a reduced lung capacity which caused some to question the wisdom of the powers that be continuing to record Cash, as opposed to allowing his condition to be treated out of the public eye.
So, if there is little change in his vocals from 1957-1997, what is it which makes us say ‘this is good, this is bad’ about Cash’s recordings? It seems to me that song selection, arrangement and production, elements of an album for which the singer is often given credit, but which are not normally part of their remit, are worth evaluating. Admittedly, we would think a singer chooses which songs to sing, but when the record company are paying the bill for prolific cover artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra or Willie Nelson, it FEELS like some of the time they are singing what they’ve been told, or at least persuaded, to sing.
On top of this, there’s a thing called ‘image’. I remember reading a book about songwriting once which suggested that the songwriter’s job is to compose something which fits the artist’s image. Johnny Cash’s promoters presented a few different images of their artist, which probably had an effect on record sales. Allmusic.com calls him “part rockabilly, part campfire storyteller, part outlaw in black”.
It seems like his first few albums following the ‘instant classic’ debut, ‘Johnny Cash With His Hot and Blue Guitar’, are a succession of attempts to establish the artist’s credentials as a hillbilly, a respectable chanteur, a preacher and a patriot. Production-wise, there will typically be slapback delay on the vocal, also on the flatpicking guitar behind it. But a different image of the artist is presented on each record cover, which seems a little contrived or cynical. Evidently it worked.
From the early sixties up to the late seventies, several concept albums were released under Johnny Cash’s name. As a general rule, his voice had more reverb, the flatpicking was used sparingly and there would often be lavish arrangements, including a chorus of backing singers and sometimes strings. Not that these had been completely absent on the albums before this, but it wasn’t exactly the Tennesee Two, his original band.
Sometimes there’s an uncomfortable feeling of cultural appropriation, when JC is doing songs like ‘Another Man Done Gone’, which voiced the cruelty inflicted upon a community of which Cash wasn’t a part. Another cringeworthy aspect of the artist’s worldview is the way in which, while he always pays tribute to and supports Israel, he neglects to mention the suffering undergone by the Palestinians who had previously had a claim to call the same ground theirs, particularly on 1969’s ‘The Holy Land’, made in the aftermath of the Six Day War of 1967 in a country with newly-redrawn borders. Johnny is happy to sing about the plight of the First Nations of the USA, and rightly so, but his Christianity seems to rule out any humanitarianism on this issue.
Having said that, the experimentation on these albums shows him at his best, and his ability to stand in another’s shoes stands out, up to and including 1978’s ‘The Rambler’.
Columbia to Mercury
Columbia Records successfully sold Cash as a lovable rogue who recorded in prisons. And they were on board with the opposite of this, the gospel material, as long as it wasn’t TOO gospel. They declined to release the excellent ‘A Believer Sings the Truth’ in 1979, perhaps because this sort of stuff wasn’t ‘of its time’. So in the mid-seventies they were trying to turn him into a Glen Campbell- or Helen Reddy-type act, with a slick, lush easy listening production. But his particular charisma was better suited to the offbeat, as on albums like ‘Look at Them Beans’.
On some albums from the late seventies, the vocals sound like they have some chorus on them to thicken the line. 1983’s ‘Johnny 99’ uses a musical fusion of country and rock which was later to be called ‘new’ country. But as the decade moved on, and this goes for the first two Highwaymen albums, the sterile, echoey, artificial production made decent performances of good songs a shallow listening experience, e.g. 1985’s ‘Rainbow’ LP.
So, picking up the baton where they did, Mercury Records did an excellent adjustment of the way Cash’s music was performed, arranged and presented. I agree with allmusic.com’s Thom Jurek when he says 1987’s ‘Johnny Cash is Coming To Town’ was “criminally overlooked”. And although it’s unlikely fans would want to listen to the star-studded albatross ‘Water From the Wells of Home’ more than once, ‘Boom Chicka Boom’ is indeed “a good record, not a great one”. I find the grooves that the rhythm section get into on this album relentless and infectious.
The so-called American Recordings, released from 1994 until Cash’s death and beyond, probably deserve all the praise they get. Unlike previously, there appears to be no reverb, delay or chorus on the lead vocal (this is just an appearance of course, but the listener hears it that way). Perhaps this connects with people because it sounds ‘real’, a feeling which is reinforced by the largely voice-and-instrument-only renditions on ‘American I’. The follow-up is in bold contrast ensemble-wise, but there is still expert singing and complementary playing by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. ‘American III’, recorded after Cash’s diagnosis of Shy-Drager syndrome and its accompanying vocal frailty, seems like a bridge too far.
But somehow, in spite of and not because of the involuntary wobble in the lead vocal, ‘American IV’ is a triumph. Cash isn’t singing any better than before, in fact, he sounds noticeably worse due to his illness. But as with all his output, what makes or breaks the album is not what the singer does, but what the folks behind the scenes do: song selection, arrangement and production. (Maybe ‘the video’, in the case of the song ‘Hurt’, should be added to this list.)