PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Music

Johnny Cash: Sings the Ballads of the True West / Songs of Our Soil / Silver

Adam Dlugacz

Johnny Cash

Sings the Ballads of the True West

Label: Legacy
US Release Date: 2002-08-27
UK Release Date: 2002-09-09
Amazon
iTunes

There's not much to say about Johnny Cash that hasn't been said already. He is the original man in black, the first musician to get the moral majority's panties in a bunch. He's a patriot and a rebel, Han Solo with a guitar instead of the Millennium Falcon. His rich baritone, brilliant story telling and immaculate guitar playing have helped him become one of America's finest singer-songwriters. But Cash is more than a folk or country singer; in many ways he is the embodiment of the American spirit. The gambler who is not afraid of any odds, tied to God but sinful, calling it how it is and doing things his way. He stands up for the little man, but remains deeply patriotic. Cash has never shied from controversy, unafraid to point out the faults and hipocacies in others as well as in himself. When the historian Howard Zinn set out to tell America's history from the common man and lowest classes point of view, he could have just as well used Cash's songs as his soundtrack.

Recently, Cash has seen a bit of a renaissance thanks to his 1998 release America III: Solitary Man. By imbibing more modern songs like U2's "One", Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down", and Billie "Prince" Bonnie's "I See a Darkness" with his wondrous voice, he transformed those songs into entities that were purely his own. Cash brought out a pain that even Bono and his 40 videos could never get at and turned Petty's track into a song of true defiance. Trying to . . . ahem . . . cash in, Columbia/Legacy is doing their best to turn around as much Johnny Cash as they possibly can. In this case they've re-issued Sings the Ballads of the True West, Songs of Our Soil, and Silver. The albums have been re-mastered, given new artwork, fine liner notes courtesy of Johnny Whiteside, and as the ultimate catch had unreleased songs tacked on.

The finest of the three releases is easily Sings the Ballads of the True West, which was first released in 1965. The album was Cash's first concept album, the tale of an early settler taking his family West to Kentucky through the land of Indians, Doc Holiday, the OK Corral and John Wesley Harden. If you're looking for a modern reference think OK Computer set to the Wild West. Beginning with a reading of Indian Chief Hiawatha's "Vision" in which he foresees the downfall of Native Americans to the White Man, Cash proceeds to show a very different side of the western expansionism. For instance, instead of fighters going down in a blaze of glory, we hear about the "Battle of Boot Hill" in which Cash mourns lives lost over the pursuit of silver. On "The Shifting, Whispering, Sands Part I and II", Cash tells of the slaughtered bodies hidden under our soil where as on "The Road to Kaintuck", he tells of Daniel Boone, not the fearless explorer, but the grieving father who has just lost his son.

Throughout the album, Cash appears only as an observer -- he is not trying to sell us one way or another but rather tell the tale as it should be told. He sounds old and worn, young and spry all at the same time and when he really gets rolling, his voice is like no other. The re-mastering job is well done, although something tells me that there is a certain appeal to this album that makes it best suited to be played on a record player. It's a bit of a reach to say that you should buy this because of the two unreleased tracks. "Rodeo Hand" is an obvious throw-away and had it appeared on the first go around it would probably have been its weakest track. "Stampede" is an 'alternate instrumental' that all but the most devout Cash completist can live without. While fans of Cash and music in general should own Sings the Ballads of the True West, it is because of the album's own merits -- not the sell job Columbia is trying to put on it.

Songs of Our Soil, first released in 1959, is another Cash must own. Cash also considered it a concept album. Although it doesn't follow in the cohesive story-telling style of Sings the Ballads of the True West, it is intended to be a collection of American folk songs. Personally, I was most intrigued by "Five Feet High and Rising", mostly wondering if it is where De La Soul got inspiration for their debut Three Feet High and Rising. In typical Cash fashion, "The Man on the Hill" tells the tale of a sharecropper while "Old Apache Squaw" is about the plight of the Native American. "Hank and Joe and Me" is one of the most upbeat songs ever written about someone dying of thirst while searching for gold. The two unreleased tracks "I Got Stripes" and "You Dreamer You" were both recorded around the same time and are worthy additions to the compilation.

The oddest re-issue is easily Silver, which saw the light of day in 1979. As the 1970s dwindled to a halt, Cash saw himself fall more and more out of public consciousness. As disco, punk, and new wave battled classic rock for the airwaves, Cash was finding himself without an audience. Silver was an attempt to gussy himself up for mainstream consumption. Unfortunately, everything about the project was pretty disastrous, from the picture on the back where the studio heads have him done up to resemble Wayne Newton, to the cheesy cover artwork, to the over-wrought string section. The album pretty much buries Cash. His songs do not fare well under the heavy studio treatment and the entire project comes off as the difference between seeing a wild animal in the zoo as opposed to in nature. The unreleased tracks are "I Still Miss Someone" and "I Got Stripes", both featuring George Jones and both as forgettable as this album was.

If you don't own Sings the Ballads of the True West and Songs of Our Soil these re-issues are both must-buys as they are but two standouts in a remarkable artist's impressive cannon. However, if you already own them, you should probably save your money for the other re-releases Legacy has planned for the next year.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.

Books

Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon
Music

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.

Music

'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.

Music

ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.

Music

The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.

Books

Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.

Film

Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.

Music

Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".

Music

John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.

Music

The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.

Music

Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.

Music

In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.

Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.