We last left Johnny Cash on 2 notes, in one, we have the aging legend, at the end of his life, putting out an amazing album that drew from so many sources that one hesitates to even call it “Country”, and in another, we have Cash, just over the age of 40, recording an album that would not see the light of day until people would eventually realize that Johnny Cash works best with the least amount of resources save for his voice, a beautiful black Martin guitar, and a wealth of songs that go back to the time before albums and recordings.
Well, with the help of Rick Rubin, one of the last things Johnny Cash did was plan out the release of a 5-disc album that effectively combines those two notes to strike a very pleasant chord indeed:
The point of Unearthed is simple (so we’ll be done here quickly, right?): Take the best of the outtakes to the (then) 4 American albums, put them in some cohesive order, throw in another album of hymns, and a “best of”, and a book of stuff and you’ve got it. Slap a $75 price tag on it and give the completists something to drool over.
Of course, once you actually read that book of stuff, you find out that not only is each disc in Unearthed actually plotted out like an actual album, but there is a rhyme and reason for every single track on it. Rick Rubin, Johnny Cash (whether by his own words or vicariously through the testimony of an annoying journalist), and a few others give their thoughts and reflections on what, upon first listen, just seems like someone going through a grocery list of material. For the only time that I can think of, the liner notes are actually an integral part to the entire album. See, this isn’t so much a collection of “outtakes”, not any more than the actual American Recordings albums a collection of outtakes. The only reason they were taken out is because they didn’t fit in with the cohesion of the numbered albums in quite the way Johnny would have liked (sometimes they did and were shelved anyway because they kind of got lost in the pile, that’s how many songs there are).
It would be foolish of me to try and tackle every one of the album’s 79 tracks with a writeup, especially when the words out of the mouths of giants are to be better heeded. I’m listening to the album as I write, and I really just want to kind of go over the feel of the various parts of the collection, and perhaps shed some trivial light on the actual songs. Why not, I’m here all night!
The first three discs are the “outtakes”, and are each named after a line from a song within. The first disc is titled “Who’s Gonna Cry”, which is from “The Caretaker”, and is, of course, followed by “when old John dies?” That particular song’s inclusion is an interesting sentiment and we’ll get to it in due time. The album itself is entirely taken from those first sessions that would become the first American Recordings album. As such, with an exception or two, we have just Johnny Cash and a guitar.
As I may have mentioned before, the way albums with just Johnny Cash and a guitar go, there’s something just warm and family-like about the whole thing. Like the way one would look up to an older relative, Johnny’s playing and singing isn’t the strongest thing in the world, but the ineffable presence of the Man In Black is what keeps the album moving gracefully. In this case, the album itself isn’t quite as graceful because the tracks were intentionally left as unpolished as possible. This actually further adds to the charm on some of the songs for me, but may give the album a bit of a haphazard feel to others. Either way, Cash carries it by the weight of the songs involved, and the selection is spell-binding.
First off we have a re-treatment of “Long Black Veil”, with an interesting turnaround for the lyrics. The chorus is placed differently, and the “Scaffold” line is placed second, ahead of the line that reveals that the lady who “Walks these hills in a long black veil” is the “best friend’s wife” that Cash was in the arms of instead of committing the crime spoken of in the first line. At first I figured he just forgot the order of the lines in the song, but no reference is made to that in the album’s book, so instead I think it’s just a turnaround Cash wanted to make. An admission Cash does make about this song is that it’s dark and thus he wanted to include it, since that was kind of the theme to American Recordings as he puts it, “You don’t get darker than Long Black Veil!”
Re-visiting the love theme, but leaving behind the murder for now (well he does mention death once but nevermind), we move along to “Flesh And Blood”. First appearing in 1970 as an instrumental on a soundtrack, it came out as a single in the same year and unfortunately never really saw an album release until this one (the original with lyrics can be found on The Legend boxset). The song is a reflection of Cash on the beauty of nature and how “Mother Nature’s quite a lady, but you’re the one I need”. It was written for June Carter shortly after they were married, and it’s one of those songs that will make most people go “Aww”, but I personally can’t stand the word “flesh” so it took me a while to get to liking this song.
“Just The Other Side Of Nowhere” is a Kris Kristofferson song, who is a long-time friend of Cash’s, and tends to project a more vagabond kind of image, seemingly, but I don’t know much about Kristofferson so I can’t say too much about him. The song is touching though, about a character who has been chewed up and spit out of the big city and the chorus just tells it all:
I’ve got a mind to watch the headlights shinin’
On that old white line between my heart and home
Sick of spending Sundays wishing they were Mondays
Sittin’ in the park alone
Give my best to anyone who’s left who’s ever done me
Any lovin’ way but wrong
And tell that the pride of Just The Other Side Of Nowhere’s going home
A brilliant song, right up there with the strikingly similar hit “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, but without the “getting stoned” references.
The next song was extraordinarily hard to take for along time for me. It’s the single, stand-out number of this album that made me choose today to talk about this album, and I don’t even feel totally comfortable going into it in depth. It’s a song by Billy Joe Shaver, of whom Cash remarks is his “favorite writer”, and it’s called “If I Give My Soul”. The song is about an alcoholic musician praying to God about the wife and son he lost because of drinking and music, and ponders an interesting question regarding his Salvation:
If I give my soul
Will He clean these clothes I’m wearing?
If I give my soul
Will He put new boots on my feet?
If I bow my head
And beg God for His forgiveness
Will He breathe new life within me
And bring her back to me?
Indeed, what are the material changes in a person’s look and demeanor if they give their souls? The lines that really strike a chord with me are ones that are swapped out in the chorus like “Will He stop my hands from shaking?”, “Will my son love me again?”, and the kicker, “If I give my soul, and she knows I really mean it, if I make my peace with Jesus, will they take me back again?” The singer seems to not be looking for salvation from God as much as wanting to be accepted back into his family, and that’s a situation that flies far too close to my head for me to keep a dry eye through this song if it catches me by surprise. That’s about as much as I want to get into it, really. It’s a brilliant song either way, it makes no sense that Rick Rubin knocks it in the book for being “theatrical”, when it’s the most “real” song I’ve ever heard.
Either way, after that emotional mess, it’s time to liven things up a bit with a good old-fashioned breakup song! “Understand Your Man” is kind of an odd duck in Cash’s repetoire. Basically, it takes the tune of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”, which is already one of the most covered songs of all time, and becomes a song that’s like “Don’t Think Twice” but takes away all of the implicitly sarcastic consolations and just lays it all out on the line. Interestingly, this half-original song came out on a Columbian album called I Walk The Line wherein Cash re-recorded a lot of his old Sun hits, so it’s a half-original song stuck into a stack of non-original originals. Yeah, don’t think twice about that, why don’t you? As a final note about this song, Cash would later do his own cover of “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” on Orange Blossom Special not even one year later, which probably further confused fans at the time. Don’t do drugs, kids.
I know that Johnny said that there’s nothing darker than “Long Black Veil”, but I’d like to nominate “The Banks Of The Ohio” as a strong contender for the title. The song is about a man (called “Willy” in the song) who walks with his lover down along the banks of the Ohio river, and he proposes to her, and she shyly turns away and doesn’t say anything, which I guess is rejection? Anyway, he does the natural thing and sticks a knife in her chest and then drags her by her hair down to the river and drowns her. The final lines of the song are kind of a “What have I done?!” moment, but the whole thing is a murder ballad in the strictest sense of the word. The real kicker for me is that, for one, this is not the first time Cash has recorded this song, the first time was in 1963 and, for two, it was for The Carter Family because the song was written by Mother Maybelle Carter, Johnny’s future mother-in-law. I guess the irony should be that a sweet old lady like Mother Maybelle is the least likely person to have written a murder ballad like that, but then again she was instrumental in the creation of Country music, which definitely contains its fair share of murder ballads, so it actually does make a lot of sense. It’s a fun song when you get used to it.
Well, if murder isn’t your thing, how about rampant mysogyny? That’s my style, for sure! You may enjoy “Two Timin’ Woman”, which is one of the early songs that Cash wrote for Sun, though it wouldn’t be released until half a decade after he left Sun, so the song was kind of lost to the ages. Like many of the love-lost songs that Cash wrote for Sun (and there were many, believe me), this one is about a woman who is basically Satan and can’t seem to be faithful to the singer for even half an hour. This particular line has a great resolution though:
‘Cause if I ever find her, gonna chain her to the floor
And tell her “Now sit there, Honey, you ain’t leavin’ no more
I’m gonna tame ya, Mama, ’til you’re eatin’ from my hand
It’s not that I don’t love you, Honey, it’s just to make you understand”
I firmly believe only Johnny Cash and Bill Haley could get away with that one. Of course, I love it.
“The Caretaker” is a re-visit to a song Cash wrote long ago, originally for Don Law on an album they were working on together, but it wound up released on 1959′s Songs Of Our Soil (which I just realized, have I not talked about that album yet? I could have sworn I did! Weird!) The song was originally written when Cash was about 27 years old, so lines like “Who’s gonna cry when old John dies?” didn’t really resonate that well, but fit quite well with the album’s undeniable theme of death. Now, the song puts old Johnny in the role of a cemetary caretaker, and where there was once a lyrical commentary on people and their strange priorities, now there’s just Johnny, singing about his own death as the “world rushes by outside”. Still, the song isn’t as dark as all that, and a faint chuckle can be heard by Cash after finishing the song, as if the statement carries more of a comical tone than a dour one (who would have thought of Cash as much of an existentialist?)
Cash then throws out another Billy Joe Shaver cover in the form of “Old Chunk Of Coal”, which is a little more of a hymn in Shaver’s traditional style than anything. It’s just the singer’s insistence that, despite his rough edges, he’ll be a diamond someday. I quite like it, because people nowadays seem to think they need to be convinced that they’re already perfect (stupid self-esteem movement) and the truth is, we’re all chunks of coal that need a lot of work, and work is what we have to do. Well played, Cash. This song is absolutely perfect for him.
Next we get a strange one, but fitting, as it’s a prison song. “I’m Going To Memphis” is a song you might remember as kind of an ol’ Blues song (like, “Blues that predates guitars” Blues) from Ride This Train. The song is still as fun as ever, and its inclusion may not be that important, except to say that it’s a Cash original that was a hit and was good enough to be brought back for another round, as that’s kind of the way this album goes.
“Breaking Bread” is a song that Cash did for Little House On The Prairie, and has very little to say about it. I too am struggling with the words.
“Waiting For A Train” is another of those fun songs about vagrancy that was written by Jimmie Rodgers and first appeared on Cash’s working-man’s album, Blood, Sweat, And Tears. I do like the song a lot because it puts the singer in one of those adventuresome positions, where you don’t know where he came from or where he’s going, but you’re caught in that moment of him trying (and failing) to catch a free ride on a train. Of course, for Cash this was somewhat autobiographical, at least on his father’s part, so it says a little something about Cash’s character, even if it’s fiction.
“Casey’s Last Ride” is another Kristofferson song that desperately needed a re-working, because it’s a great song, but the original version that appears on Cash’s late-Columbian 1985 album Rainbow sounds like one of those terrible 80′s rock songs that would grace some kind of sunset-on-the-beach scene in some terrible 80′s movie with the wailing guitar, plastic piano, and everything else that was wrong with Cash’s sound in the 80′s. This version is just an acoustic guitar, and feels more like the ballad it should be.
“No Earthly Good” is a song I already went over in my writeup for Personal File. This version is also just Cash and a guitar, and I think the lyrics fit together better with this final re-working.
The next song is a bit of an oddity, as it tells the Biblical story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and how those three gay young men were saved from the flames of a vengeful king with help of a “Fourth Man In The Fire”. The oddity is that the song is actually a boogie, very similar in structure to something like “One Piece At A Time” or “A Boy Named Sue”, only it’s a biblical story, and it wasn’t even written by Cash, it was written by an unlikely character called Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith, who sounds by his name like he’d be writing rockabilly songs about chasing women (he’s also still alive, apparently, and is 88 years old). Either way, the only real thing of note about this song is that Cash had to recite a verse from the Book of Daniel as an intro, and every time he had to do a new take in the music, he had to re-take the intro to. Why? Because apparently Rick Rubin had no idea how to cut things and splice them back together, so you can visibly hear Cash lose patience in his recitation, and even the song seems kind of like they just used the best take of several and then moved on. It kind of disrupts the peaceful mood of the album, but it’s OK, we’re almost at the end.
“Dark As A Dungeon” is the final of many attempts to record this song and “get it right”, as Cash put it. It’s actually a Merle Travis song from years ago, and Cash has put it on an album, a live album, and has messed with it in a few ways, but the version that’s on Unearthed is not only his favorite version, but mine as well. The song itself is a cautionary tale to people who are tempted to work in coal mines for a living, a temptation which, in a slightly different way, has actually been presented to me at one point, and I took his advice to heart and ran away from that. I think what Cash or Merle are getting at with this song is that you shouldn’t waste your life away seeking out material wealth, as it will turn your blood as black as the coal. I’ve seen this happen in others, and that’s why I’m here writing a blog instead of working in some terrible oil field. I can tell you, I am actually having fun here.
A rare treat follows this song, a “Book Review”, which was just something that was put on tape while the engineers were moving microphones around. Basically it’s just a conversation between Cash and Rubin about Lebanese author Khalil Gibran’s book The Prophet, which Cash was being asked to narrate for a recording. This recording never happened, but Mr. Tramp Shining himself, Richard Harris, was kind enough to do a musical version of the book in 1974, so I think the world should be content with that. It’s an interesting little bit of conversation for those who want to hear Cash having an enthusiastic conversation about literature, you really get a sense of the fact that he was an extraordinarily well-read man.
Finally, we get an alternate version of the Tom Waits song that Cash did for American Recordings, “Down There By The Train”. There are almost no discernable interests that I can remember about the two, and this late in the game, I shall not seek them out. There are a few “alternate takes” on this album with not much to say about them that wasn’t said about the original songs.
With that, the first disc of Unearthed comes to a close, and I’m getting close to that myself. In my enthusiasm to tell the story of every track, I kind of let over 3300 words slip out, so I think I should close the book on this one for today, and pick up on the second disc next week. In fact, I might as well spread this album out over the next month by talking about each disc on Monday until the end of the year (when I plan to talk about one or two more Johnny Cash albums anyway).
Still, I do want to mention that the reason I wanted to talk about this album today was because it was one of the last albums I ever listened to with my dad, back when I only had the album in .mp3 format and I got to hang out with my dad on my birthday last year. We listened to this first disc and had stories to tell about the songs, and particularly the “If I Give My Soul” song told him the same story it told me, and was very moving. On the day he died, November 23rd of last year, I bought this collection and have listened to it dozens of times since. It means a lot to me for the two times in my life it (especially this first part) has come in very handy.
We’ll pick up on the album later, until then, thanks for reading.
Filed under: Albums | Tagged: 00's, 2003, Johnny Cash, Unearthed | 2 Comments »