It’s hard not to be a little skeptical of any “new” release from Johnny Cash. After all, it’s not often that a dead man puts out as much product as Cash. Really, it’s hard to get this much out of the living. Nevertheless, the last three years have brought the release of the fifth volume of American recordings (according to Rolling Stone a sixth is forthcoming); the mammoth American clearinghouse box set Unearthed, which also featured the new album My Mother’s Hymn Book (which was then released on its own); the compilation Life, an accompaniment to the earlier Love, God, and Murder trilogy; the box set The Legend and the similarly titled single disc The Legend of Johnny Cash; the collection of demos, Personal File; and innumerable repackagings of the Sun recordings, some justifiable, many more embarrassing cash-ins. I can’t think of a time in recent memory when an artist released this much stuff from beyond the grave. John Denver did alright, but no one tops Johnny Cash. All the more reason for Cash’s former labelmate, Bob Dylan, to stick around.
Those who like their Johnny Cash audio with a video component haven’t been totally shut out, either. But Man in Black: Live in Denmark 1971 is the first Cash-related DVD offering from Legacy, and it’s not half bad. If you’re on a budget, and hankering for some vintage Cash on video, well here you go. This disc presents an hour of Cash with the Tennessee Three, the Carter Family, Carl Perkins, the Statler Brothers, and a bunch of mostly blonde Danish folks lending occasional handclaps. It’s shot with absolutely zero sense of adventure in front of a background consisting of some oh-so-rustic-looking boards nailed together in no particular fashion. The mood of the studio audience seems up-and-down, and the Tennessee Three stand so still you’d think they were being photographed 100 years earlier and couldn’t move a muscle, lest they blur the image.
Fortunately, the camera focuses on Cash and the other singers. Cash’s repertoire is representative of this phase of his career: lots of material from the Kris Kristofferson songbook, Shel Silverstein’s “A Boy Named Sue”, and his own recent composition, “Man in Black”. Throw in a few old Sun chestnuts (“I Walk the Line”, “Folsom Prison Blues”, and a 45-second version of “Guess Things Happen That Way”) and that’s it for Cash’s solo portion of this show. “A Boy Named Sue” is the opener, and Cash neuters the song just a bit, singing “I’m the son of a bleep that named you ‘Sue’” and changing the final lines to “If I ever have a boy / I think I’m gonna name him… after you.” Puke. But hey, this was filmed for Danish television, and Cash was considerate enough of his audience to read something to the crowd in their native tongue. Thanks to the lack of subtitles, all the English-speaking listener/viewer will pick up is “country music” and “the blues”, but it was a nice gesture. Cash shines in his other solo turns, especially the title track, where he’s lit by a single spotlight, which turns everything else black.
The other performers, though, are seriously hit or miss. Carl Perkins, whom Cash introduces as “the originator of rock and roll”, comes on early in the proceedings and really rocks in a way no one else onstage, including the star, is capable of doing. He blazes through “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Matchbox”, probably for the thousandth time, but they’re so full of energy it’s like he’s just discovered them. He even dances, which makes the Tennessee Three look even more like mannequins. Perkins seems the most out of place in this crowd, an honor I was certain would befall the Statler Brothers. But the Statlers are so squeaky-clean and wholesome (at least on the surface—maybe they didn’t read the words to “Bed of Roses”) that they fit right in with Cash’s less threatening side, a side that rears its family-friendly head especially during the last third of the program.
After some duets with June Carter Cash (nothing spectacular, but this is further proof that they did make a nice pair), Johnny Cash introduces the Carter Family, “the latest addition to the Country Music Hall of Fame.” The Carters do some rote instrumental thing before tapping the figurative maple tree for some sap and dishing it up for the crowd as “A Song to Mama”. I wonder how Mother Maybelle Carter (who sits this one out but whose floating head appears in the left-hand corner of the screen) felt to hear lyrics about her “tired old shoulders”? Well, no point in wondering because you can see her wipe away some tears (of joy?) after its conclusion.
Can you guess what’s coming next? If you guessed “religion” you’re right on the money. The whole troupe comes out for “No Need to Worry”, an uptempo number that might’ve benefited from a piano. After the “thank god daddy’s quit drinkin’ and found Jesus” song “Rock of Ages”, the whole thing wraps up with an interminable version of “Children, Go Where I Send Thee”. All the principles get solo turns at the microphone (except Mother Maybelle), Carl Perkins looks bored stiff except when he sings (he gets the “six by six” verse), and nothing rhymes with “seven” or “eleven” but the big guy’s home in the sky. It’s a festival of repetition, but most everyone is so into it that their enthusiasm is contagious.
While Live in Denmark is a decent enough DVD, it makes me wish Legacy would just put out a really stellar deluxe DVD package dedicated to Johnny Cash, really take advantage of the medium rather than put one measly hour of footage (and no bonus features) on a disc and call it a day. In other words, give the man what he deserves.