Johnny Cash – One Piece At A Time

Today, despite my initial resistance to it, and the fact that I have like 85% of the songs on it already, I purchased the Cash: The Legend boxset. I’m usually against compilations, but this one was good enough to warrant a purchase, given that it has those few songs I haven’t heard yet, which is less of a brag and more of an admission of obsession.

One of the songs on the first disc is one of Johnny’s #1 hits of the 70’s (kind of a rare thing): “One Piece At A Time”, well, even though that album doesn’t seem to have ever been released on CD (unless I’m mistaken), I happen to have all the songs, so let’s talk about this crazy thing:

PSST! To whoever's in charge here... the scenery! Where's the scenery?!I have only briefly touched on Johnny Cash’s “Obscure Period”, which is to say, his career from about the mid-’70’s through the 80’s. At this time, he didn’t have a whole lot of hits, at least nothing to rival his amazing late 60’s and early 70’s work, but there were occasional glimmers of brilliance that wouldn’t become completely uprooted until his 90’s revival.

The main problem was his label, Columbia, simply not having much interest in him after a few albums came out (probably in the same year) that didn’t sail straight to the top. Johnny never said much about this period, except to say that folks just seemed to forget about him. Of course, he was far from unsuccessful; no matter how unsuccessful his albums sold, he could still entice ticket-goers on his endless tours, and he usually took his poor album sales with his trademark humility and good humor.

In a way, Johnny Cash became sort of a softer performer, middle-aged and sporting some fairly gauche attire by today’s standards (apparently the “Man In Black” had no problem adding tassles from time to time). This might have been a bad way to go out, with a fizzle, but all of us who know our history knows that he was just hiding until the 80’s were over so he could come back and make the same amazing music he’d always made.

A few albums made at the start of the “Obscure Period” are actually pretty great, bearing in mind the more grandfatherly material Cash decided to work with, and One Piece At A Time is one of them. It could be said that the album suffers from being a slight bit toothless, but it spawned a couple of hits that had some very unexpected consequences.

The minor hit of the album, peaking at #29 on the Country charts (yeah I totally never do research around here) was “Sold Out Of Flagpoles”. It’s a pretty good song, and I feel it kind of represents where Cash’s career might have been at that point. The song is mainly just the singer going to a hardware store where the owner, an older man, has kind of free-association mottos for every bad situation, always ending with “…and I’m sold out of flagpoles”. For instance:

I popped the top off a soda pop
Laid a quarter on the bar
I said inflation is a dirty dog
My payday sure ain’t goin’ far
Liberty, said Lonnie, E Pluribus Unum
In God we trust
And I’m sold out of flagpoles

That’s… that’s some pretty good advice there, Lonnie. Actually, I have run into old codgers like this before, and I’m endlessly amused by them. I hope to be one of these human non sequitors when I get old. Heck, maybe I’m that way now, who knows, and I’m sold out of flagpoles.

That whole “older man reflecting on whatever” sentiment is also shared by the opening track “Let There Be Country”, which busily names all of the old country stars and how Johnny (assisted by Shel Silverstein) feels about them. It’s an interesting number, especially considering these are all people Cash personally knew and were legends in their own right, but it mainly stands as Cash’s own testament that he is indeed an old grandpa of Country and that room needs to be made for the new, young kids that were coming up. Little did he realize those kids would be the likes of Garth Brooks, Billy Ray Cyrus, and Alan “My Other Truck Is A Truck” Jackson.

Another interesting song that makes its first appearance on this album is the song “Committed To Parkview”, which is an interesting Country song if there ever was one (whether there was one is another topic up for debate). The song is sung from inside an insane asylum, and though insanity makes plenty of appearances in many genres, it’s hardly touched upon in Country, other than the occasional “The boy ain’t right”. The song is very sympathetic, though, and went on to be a pretty decent number on an otherwise strange album called The Highwayman, which featured Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson as The Highwaymen, which I may have to write up some time if forced.

The real kicker for this album, however, is the title piece. Unfortunately, Johnny Cash didn’t actually write “One Piece At A Time”, but it was written for him, so just as well. It tells the story of a Cadillac plant worker who decides he’s going to steal a piece off the assembly line every day until he has enough parts to build his own Cadillac (“one that was long and black”). He starts in ’49 and finally finishes in ’73, and the resulting vehicle, thanks to the changes made to the car over the years, wasn’t quite was he was expecting:

Now, up to now my plan went all right
‘Til we tried to put it all together one night
And that’s when we noticed that something was definitely wrong
The transmission was a ’53
And the motor turned out to be a ’73
And when we tried to put in the bolts all the holes were gone

So we drilled it out so that it would fit
And with a little bit of help with an Adapter kit
We had that engine runnin’ just like a song
Now the headlight’ was another sight
We had two on the left and one on the right
But when we pulled out the switch all three of ’em come on

There are a bunch of fairly brilliant gags in the songwriting all through this song, and it’s a generally light-hearted number that went straight to the top of the chart for a little while. Two resulting events make this song kind of stand out among Cash’s hits. For one, an auto parts store owner named Bruce Fitzpatrick actually built this monstrosity, using the song as a model, and it was given to Johnny:

I drove my car to Reno, just to watch it die...The other, even stranger product to come out of this song is an entire musical genre. See, there is a spoken word ham-radio call that Johnny does at the end of the song which is quite funny and goes like this:

Ugh! Yow, RED RYDER
This is the COTTON MOUTH
In the PSYCHO-BILLY CADILLAC Come on
Huh, This is the COTTON MOUTH
And negatory on the cost of this machine there RED RYDER
You might say I went right up to the factory
And picked it up, it’s cheaper that way
Ugh!, what model is it?
Well it’s a ’49, ’50, ’51, ’52, ’53, ’54, ’55…

And, of course, the years are rattled off continuously as the song fades away. This is all pretty hilarious, but here’s the thing, that phrase up there? “Psycho-Billy”? That’s the first time those two words were ever uttered together, and in fact it was this song and that particular phrase, which subsequently showed up on a poster for The Cramps, that inspired the band The Meteors to call their fusion of punk and rockabilly “Psychobilly”, and thus an annoying genre of music was born. Weird how that stuff works sometimes.

Anyway, the album is really good, but you’ll never hear it since it was never released on CD. No, like me, you’ll have to put the album together one piece at a time. Fortunately, the really good songs can be heard on various compilations if you have a mind to dig through hundreds of them, or just buying The Legend. Either way, we’ll see you tomorrow!

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One Response

  1. While I am a Johnny Cash fan, I am also a ‘Ham’ Radio Operator. You have misidentified “CB’ lingo as ‘Ham Radio’. While I have nothing against the CB Operators, your error is akin to confusing a butcher with a brain surgeon! The most one ever had to do to become a CB Operator was to fill out a form, and even that has been eliminated, years ago! Many CB’ers do move up to Amateur Radio. Those are the ones with above room temperature IQ’s. I was a CB’er first, and I’ll admit that there are instances where it can be more useful than a ‘Ham’ transceiver, but those instances are rare. For those who wish to move up and become an Amateur Radio Operator, as I did almost a half century ago, look me up and I’ll help direct you. My callsign is WA5SWD.

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