The advent of the 1980′s were not kind to Johnny Cash, and while it’s easy to blame what became a really glitzy decade for being incompatible with one of music’s least-glitzy stars, there are a lot of factors that contributed to Cash’s lapse in popularity. On top of a power shift occurring at Columbia Records, with the “new guy” being uninterested in trying to promote the aging Country star, which was the prevailing sentiment the 80′s had to Cash’s generation of musicians (most of them gave up or became quite weird to lash back at this apathy). Since he hadn’t really had much of a hit since his political albums in the early 70′s, Cash was about ready to part ways with Columbia, but not before releasing a legitimately great album for them, in the unlikely year of 1983:
Now, I am probably not the person to ask if you want to hear about a bad Johnny Cash album, because my fanship is such that even albums like Silver, Everbody Loves A Nut, and the as-yet-unwritten-about The Mystery Of Life are all great albums in their own right. The problem seems to be that, the times when the public eye wasn’t staring right at The Man In Black were the times where he did the most “project” albums. I guess you could also call them “Concept” albums, but the stuff he came out with in the 70′s and 80′s leading up to this particular album weren’t really “concepts” as much as just stylistic departures from the by-the-numbers Country that everybody seemed to want out of an artist who had spent the whole of his career up to that point shooting down the very definition of Country music. For this reason, Johnny Cash seemed to be ignored not only by his label, but the musical mainstream at large, and good riddance to both.
Johnny 99, at first glance, neither looks like a Country album nor a Johnny Cash album. For one, he’s got a fedora on, which was in style in cities during the 30′s, and in hipster gatherings nowadays, and for two, what is “Johnny 99″ supposed to mean? Is this some kind of futuristic concept album or what?
Actually, the explanation is pretty simple. “Johnny 99″ is one of two songs written by Bruce Springsteen that Cash covers on this album. Interestingly, both of the Springsteen songs on this album are from the same Springsteen album, which is perhaps a move I’ve never seen in popular music (a double cover).
The album that Springsteen recorded was, itself, very interesting (and up for its own writeup so I won’t get too far into it here), as it featured just Bruce and an acoustic guitar. Little more than a demo rather than a full album from an artist known for his fist-pumping Americana hits, Nebraska is one of the few albums by the Boss I’ve ever heard, but it’s pretty amazing how an artist known for his 3 hour rock-outs did with just his raspy voice and a guitar.
The strange thing to consider about this album is that, in a time when the ever-non-conformist Cash was the least popular and seemingly most sick of this glitzy Nashville sound that was eating into his more earthy sound, he would cover two songs from an artist who practically owned the 80′s, from an album that was perhaps the most earthy American-made album until Cash himself would take up the same tool and record his amazing American Recordings album. That was a lot to wrap your head around, I know, but think about it. Ok, you can stop thinking.
The first song, “The Highway Patrolman”, is the first Springsteen cover, and tells a story about a law-abiding good guy who has a brother who becomes the bad guy, and things get heated when the brother goes into a life of crime and the hero goes into a life of crime-fighting. The song is calm and, despite the presence of a full band, is about as stark and bare as you could get in ’83. The song is quite moving, and tells a story the way Springsteen could write it and Cash could sing it. Really, it’s an amazing combination these two had, it’s too bad they wouldn’t cross musical paths more.
The other cover, the song’s title track, is an upbeat rockabilly rocker about an appropriately-named criminal called “Johnny 99″. Basically, the titular character starts off getting laid off from an automobile plant, and has to steal to make ends meet, but gets caught and goes to jail and, well, it’s a crime ballad, Johnny Cash has been doing those so long, you would have thought Springsteen was covering a Cash song instead of the other way around.
Now that I think about it, I guess in the spirit of phoning-it-in, Johnny Cash did not write a single song on this album. They’re all covers! This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, after all, Cash’s ability to turn nearly any song into his own was always a thing of legend. Indeed, Cash was right at home singing an insightful ballad called “God Bless Robert E. Lee”, which may seem like a “southern pride” kind of song, but actually it’s about Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, and how his leadership prevented a lot of death, so it’s really as sympathetic a song as you can have about the South without also using the words “…shall rise again”.
Another interesting song is “Joshua Gone Barbados”, which is interesting on two counts. For one, Johnny somehow acquired a backup singer with a voice even bassier than his own, and there are some crazy low notes being sung in this song, and for another, there is a disgusting guitar going on somewhere in there. I might have it confused with another song, but basically the sound of Bob Wootton’s solo being run through an octave effect, a chorus effect, and lots o’ reverb ranks up there with some of the worst production to color Cash’s sound (another song that suffers from really silly sounding guitar is “Tennessee Flat-Top Box”, an otherwise solid hit). The song itself is about a sugar cane strike gone violent in Barbados, which is a really interesting topic and I wish I had expounded on it instead of complaining, but that’s how it goes.
Another highlight is a cover of the George Jones song “I’m Ragged But I’m Right”. The courts are still deliberating over which version is better, but my own judgment is colored. The song is about a guy who rambles, gambles, cranks and dranks (to borrow a phrase from a Billy Joe Shaver song though it fits here too) yet is also a respectable family man. I kind of love the way Cash sings the word “cool”, but that’s perhaps getting too specific.
The album also features a duet with June Carter, who is sounding lovely as ever, in the song “Brand New Dance”. It’s a pretty interesting song about a couple in their later years, considering the prospects of breaking up or trying harder or starting all over again. It’s a mature love song, and really there is hardly a more mature, long-lasting couple than Johnny and June Carter in popular music, so the song has this undeniable authenticity.
That, and the other songs I don’t have time to mention, make this a solid, varied, and altogether great sounding Johnny Cash album (despite some guitar hiccups). It could be said to be the pre-cursor to the American Records albums due to the material and attention to a simpler sound, but it still has this ghost of a phone-in ever looming, and the 80′s would not be defeated easily.
Indeed, the relationship between Cash and Columbia got so bad within just a year of releasing Johnny 99 that, in an effort to basically troll Columbia and even his own image, Cash released a single that would become an ironic hit: “Chicken In Black“, a legitimately hilarious song with an equally great video (why the super-hero cape? Seriously?) about a brain transplant gone wrong. After this and one more album, Johnny finally got dropped by Columbia only to be picked up by Mercury, and then the real humility would begin. Still, that’s another album for another day, so until then!