Then and Now (2/28/2001)
Johnny Cash, American III: Solitary Man (American/Columbia 2000) - The legendary Johnny Cash returned to the recording studios last year for his third project with producer Rick Rubin. The Grammy-winning Solitary Man (for Best Male Country Vocal Performance) finds Cash working in the singer/songwriter tradition, with the Voice front and center.
Johnny Cash previously recorded two acclaimed albums with Rick Rubin: Solitary Man (which won a Grammy in 1994 for Best Contemporary Folk Album) and Unchained (which won a Grammy in 1997 for Best Country Album.) Solitary Man finds Johnny in the same middle territory - not quite country, not quite folk, not quite roots.
The twist on Solitary Man is that Johnny wrote only four of the 14 songs - the other ten were penned by such artists as Tom Petty (an engaging cover of "I Won't Back Down"), Neil Diamond ("Solitary Man"), and U2 (an honest effort on "One").
According to Johnny, "I began this album in the middle of 50-acre compound, surrounded by cedar trees, deers, goats, and peacocks . . . Recording in Tennessee isn't much different then recording in California; the song is the thing that matters."
Cash continues: " I realized that generally songs don't say anything that songs weren't saying a hundred years ago; The difference is that we are saying it in a different way."
Johnny goes underground on a striking cover of Nick Cave's "The Mercy Seat," a stark tale about a convicted killer and his efforts to find salvation. And on David Alan Coe's "Would You Lay with Me (In a Field of Stone)," Johnny envelops himself in the challenges of this dark love song.
More optimistic is Johnny's own "Country Trash," a tongue-in-cheek look at Johnny's upbringing.
Of his several recent brushes with death, Johnny says matter-of-factly: "The Master of Life has been good to me. He gives me good health now and helps me to continue doing what I love. He has given me strength to face past illnesses and victory in the face of defeat. He has given me life and joy where others saw oblivion. He has given me new purposes to live and love. Let the music play."
Solitary Man celebrates a magical voice, but does not deserve Best Country Vocal performance; give that award to a fresher voice.
Willie Nelson, Milk Cow Blues (Island 2000) - With more than 200 CDs to his name, Willie Nelson is an American icon (Nelson penned such classics as "Crazy" for Patsy Cline, "Night Life" for Ray Price, and "Hello Walls" for Faron Young), and deserves as much acclaim as Johnny Cash. Unfortunately, the oddball Milk Cow Blues (described as his "first blues album") doesn't measure up.
Not that it's for lack of good intentions. Willie worked with a host of guest stars, and is backed by ace blues band from Austin, Texas. The problem lies in the delivery: Willie's laid-back, jazz-influence style that doesn't translate to the blues.
The origins of this collection of smokey nightclub songs go back to 1996, when Willie was between record deals. The core tracks were laid down with drummer George Rains, bassist John Blondell, guitarist Derek O'Brien, and keyboardist Riley Osbourn, all long-time members of the famed house band at Antone's nightclub in Austin, Texas. Explains Willie, "These guys are the best there are, and it just so happened they were right here in Austin."
The basic tracks sat dormant while Nelson released two other albums for Island; the subdued gems Spirit (1996) and Teatro (1998). Finally, Willie got the green light to wrap up this set.
Guest artists appear on twelve of Milk Cow Blues' 15 tracks, including B.B. King, Johnny Lang, and Keb' Mo. And here's another difficulty with the recording - most of the guest artists made their contributions long after the fact, without the benefit of working in the studio with Willie.
There are some rewarding moments; an easygoing duet on "Funny How Time Slips Away" with Francine Reed, a solid reading of "Texas Flood," anchored by the blues guitar of Kenny Wayne Shepard, and a wonderful, late-night version of the Willie standard, "Crazy," with Susan Tedeschi on vocals.
Willie certainly has the credentials to sing the blues: his parents abandoned him before he was three; Nashville turned a cold shoulder in the 1970s; the IRS cleaned him out over an unpaid tax debt; his marriages have ended four times in divorce; and his son killed himself on Christmas Day, 1991. Yet Willie maintains an optimistic outlook. When asked about retirement, the 67-year-old singer replies with a grin, "All I do is play music and golf. Which one do you want me to give up?"
And Willie still has his vices. He was visited by Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty, who was invited to the back of the bus. Says Willie, "We relaxed a bit, listened to some music, and drank a cup of coffee." Thomas' recollection is a bit different: "We smoked, like, 20 joints."
Chalk up Milk Cow Blues as a disappointment.
Willie Nelson, Red Headed Stranger (Columbia 1975/2000) - For the 25th anniversary of his landmark Red Headed Stranger, Columbia Records has remastered the original tapes, and added three bonus tracks, including an instrumental version of "Bach Minuet in G" that appeared on the subsequent film soundtrack.
Red Headed Stranger was a career breakthrough for Willie Nelson. An accomplished songwriter, Nelson had never built a following in his own right as a performer. After his Nashville home burned in 1970, Willie took the hint and returned to his native Texas, where he landed near a new Austin music hall called Armadillo World Headquarters.
Willie developed Red Headed Stranger with his wife, Connie, during a long car trip from Colorado to Texas. It crystalized his myth of an outlaw with a song cycle built around his song "Red Headed Stranger," which Willie used to sing to his kids as a bedtime story.
As discussed in the insightful liner notes by Chet Flippo (the former Nashville bureau chief for Billboard magazine), Willie came into his own with the burgeoning Austin music scene. Recorded in a local studio with his working band, Red Headed Stranger stands in stark contrast to the slick Nashville sound of then and now. Yet the LP hit number one for five weeks and earned multi-platinum status. Willie also scored his first Grammy Award for the song, "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain."
The players on Red Headed Stranger include Willie Nelson on vocals and guitar, Paul English on drums, Jody Payne on guitars and mandolin, Bee Speers on bass, sister Bobbie Nelson on piano, Mickey Raphael on harmonica, Bucky Meadows on guitar and Billy English on drums. Nelson has consistently employed a "less is more" recording style - while his band is as tight as it gets, they don't upstage his songs, which are the centerpiece of the album.
Recalls Willie, "I think Columbia was shocked by this record. They really didn't think it was a finished product, I guess." Bruce Lundvall (then-chief of Columbia Records) recalls, "About three weeks after I signed Willie Nelson to Columbia Records, I got a call from his manager Neil Reshen, who said, 'I got Willie's album. I want to come in and play it.' I said, 'Wait a minute, the ink is not even dry on his contract.' He answered, 'No, no, it's ready, I want to come over and play it for you.'"
Lundvall continues. "So Neal came over to the office with Waylon Jennings. They played the record in my office. And I said, 'This is pretty fascinating. It's not what I expected for the first record and is more like a collector's piece, in terms of its commercial value. Now Waylon Jennings jumped up and said 'That's what this is all about. That's what Willie's music is all about. He doesn't need a producer. This is the way it should go.'
Lundvall countered, "'Hold on, let me send a copy down to Billy Sherrill, head of CBS in Nashville, and I'll take a copy home and we'll talk Monday.' So I took the album home and played it all weekend. I couldn't stop playing it and ended up loving it."
Lundvall continues. "I had a meeting with the entire Columbia staff, and played the album, after setting it up with a longer speech about how special this is, it is an artistic endeavor, it may not be an important commercial record, but it will be a valuable catalogue album. And now, three million albums later . . ."
While Napster is doing its best to end the album as we know it, Red Headed Stranger shows that a fully-executed concept album remains a special delight. Willie's vision was completely realized, and beautifully framed by his tremendous studio band. An anti-Nashville album in every sense, Red Headed Stranger is a gorgeous recording, spare, somber, and haunting. It's never too late to discover Willie Nelson.
Johnny Cash, At San Quentin (Columbia 1969/2000) - At San Quentin represents the "complete 1969 concert and features nine tracks not included on the original recording." The album commemorated Johnny's fourth live performance in what was then-California's toughest prison. Cash, no stranger to life behind bars in his wilder days, struck a responsive chord with the wildly-appreciative audience.
Cash's first performance at San Quentin was a rain-soaked gig on January 1, 1958, which continued until guitar player Luther Perkins' amplifier drowned out. Among the inmates at that 1958 performance was Merle Haggard.
In a recent interview with Cash's friend and ex son-in-law Marty Stuart, Haggard recalled that the New Year's Day performance was "an annual occurrence that took place that the authorities put on for us as a kind of variety show. They brought in magicians, jugglers, and in this case, Johnny Cash." Haggard adds that, "Nobody except me and about 15 guys cared for the fact that he was coming, because country music was at an all-time low."
Yet Haggard also recalls that Cash had a special presence. Says Merle, "He offered beliefs that you and I were raised on. He brought Jesus Christ into the picture, and he introduced Him in a way that the tough, hardened, hard-core convict wasn't embarrassed to listen to."
Adds the Hag, "It's easy to feel the spiritual connection when you listen to this event. Cash had God's touch all over him. People latched onto him. I'd say 95% of those prisoners that were there that day have never forgotten Johnny Cash."
At San Quentin was recorded live on February 24, 1969, as part of a television special for British T.V. Cash's famous flip-the-bird photo came about when he was tripping over cords while trying to move around the stage.
At San Quentin has a different feel from his At Folsom Prison album of the prior year, which went double-platinum and featured the number one single, "Folsom Prison Blues." On Folsom Prison album, Cash does more of a variety show.
At San Quentin has more of an edge, with Cash showing more defiance for authority. Recalls June Carter, "I've never felt such as burden on my husband's heart, and I certainly never felt such a burden on mine. I held tighter to his hand, and I was still afraid."
By the time of At San Quentin, Cash had supreme confidence in his performing ability, and was consistently raising the audience's expectations. Cash was the music industry's top performer of the year, and brought his whole troop - Carl Parkins on electric guitar, Marshall Grant on bass, W.S. Holland on drums, June Carter Cash and the Carter family on vocals, Bob Wootton on electric guitar, and the Statler Bros. on vocals - up on stage with him.
Says June, "Some kind of internal energy for those men, the prisoners, the guards, even the warden, gave way to anger, to love and to laughter. It all came together. A reaction like I had never seen before. I was enraged inside, a feeling of fire, dangerously tense."
Cash performed his new song, "San Quentin," not once, but twice. He also played such favorites as "Ring of Fire," "I Walk the Line," and "Daddy Sang Bass." Johnny also introduced new songs, including the comic "A Boy Named Sue" (penned by the late Shel Silverstein), which propelled the album to number one on the pop charts for four weeks.
Johnny Cash had a special gift. Given today's music scene, it's hard to image any performer being able to reach across the genres like Johnny Cash did on At San Quentin.
- Randy Krbechek © 2001
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