Part 23 of a series that will run every Friday throughout 2012 as I discuss records that have affected me throughout the years – Flashback Fridays

In the late 90’s / early 00’s one of my best friends was a cowboy. Not in the sense of dealing with livestock followed by romantic nights in a tent – it was more like he wore cowboy hats and drove a Ford truck. For me, that’s pretty damn close to being a cowboy. We were opposite in almost every way imaginable, but for a time we hung out every weekend. I’d drag him to the Princeton Record Exchange with some of my other friends, and he’d drag me to the rodeo.

Ah, yes the rodeo. You may not realize this, but one of the largest rodeos in the United States is in Cowtown, NJ. My friend would get all decked out in his denim outfit topped off with his cowboy hat. I’d get all decked out in my ripped jeans, doc marten sandals, a Blur t-shirt and top it off with my skater haircut (shaved sides and back, really long on top). I got quite a few stares from the hardcore cowboys as every time the animals escaped the clutches of the lasso I stood up and cheered as loud as possible. It wasn’t quite my scene – but in the company of friends, all was well.

My friends musical taste veered towards mainstream country. Garth Brooks and Alan Jackson were in his regular rotation, but every once in a while he’d throw me for a loop – The Beatles, John Mellencamp, or even a bit of Weezer. At this point in my life I hadn’t really listened to any country music other than what my cowboy friend played for me. Concurrently, Johnny Cash was experiencing a wave of popularity that hadn’t been seen since the 70’s, if not the 60’s. I asked Cowboy about The Man In Black and he said in his usual, understated style “yeah, I think you’d like him”. He didn’t have a lot of words, but he could really get to the point when he needed to (platonic Ennis?).

I had just read a review of the latest, Rick Rubin produced album, American III: Solitary Man and figured that was the best place to start. Of course once I had taken in that album I purchased the two previous Rick Rubin records. I bought the Love, God, Murder box set. I worked my way back to the Sun Records albums. Jumped into the 70’s. Found the odd treasure in the 80’s records. Worked my way back to the 60’s records that I had missed. Were there any other records from the 50’s that I missed? Ah, yes. Picked those up. It’s safe to say that over the last 12 years I’ve amassed quite a Johnny Cash collection. And yet…this record is the one I always come back to. Is it because it is my 1st? Yes and No. For me, it represents a transition from Johnny’s strong voice into the “Old Man Johnny” – the voice that would give him his last huge hit, a cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt”. Time stops for no one – including The Man in Black. Knowing what was to come, this record has become a time capsule. A very, very special record.

Have you come here for forgiveness?

I Won’t Back Down (original by Tom Petty, released on the Full Moon Fever album) Johnny’s voice comes in after hearing the familiar guitar refrain of this song, made so famous by Tom Petty (sans Heartbreakers). The strength in Cash’s voice can only be described as chilling – he WILL stand his ground and he WON’T back down. Tom Petty stops by to give backing vocals and play on the track. Key lyrics (as sung by Johnny):

Gonna stand my ground, won’t be turned around
And I’ll keep this world from draggin’ me down
Gonna stand my ground and I won’t back down

Solitary Man (original by Neil Diamond, released in 1966) – clean acoustic guitars playing another famous song. Cash seems strengthened by the lyrics, having beaten his latest bout of pneumonia. A modern classic, sits easily along the original version. Key lyrics:

Don’t know that I will
But until I can find me
The girl who’ll stay
And won’t play games behind me
I’ll be what I am
A solitary man, solitary man

That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day) (a hit for Frankie Laine in 1949) – an old-time feel to this song, feels like something you would sing around a campfire with friends. Yearning and nostalgia ooze out of Johnny’s voice. Vocals are higher in the mix than the acoustic guitar. He really proves what a beautiful voice he has on this tune. Key lyrics:

Oh, show me that river, take me across,
wash all my troubles away.
Like that lucky old sun, gimme nothin’ to do,
But roll around heaven all day.

One (original by U2, released on the Achtung Baby album) – Not a knock on the cover of Nine Inch Nails that Cash released shortly before he passed away (because it is stunning), but this really should have been a hit as well. His voice is very strong, imbued with emotion whilst also showing strength (defiance). I really like the U2 version – I LOVE this version. It never fails move me. Acoustic guitar, Johnny, and synth / organ subtly in the background. In Johnny’s voice, the song becomes a plea to a family torn apart by religious differences. Key lyrics:

Have you come here for forgiveness
Have you come to raise the dead
Have you come here to play jesus
To the lepers in your head

Did i ask too much
More than a lot
You gave me nothing now
It’s all I got
We’re one but we’re not the same
Well we hurt each other and we’re doing it again

Nobody (original by Egbert Williams, released in 1906) – this is another campfire sing-a-long. Acoustic guitar, Johnny’s voice changing tones throughout as the story progresses. Key lyrics:

When Summertime comes
All warm and clear
And my friends see me
Drawin’ near
Who says “come on in and have a beer”?
Nobody

Well one time when things was
Lookin’ bright
I started to whittlin’ on a stick one night
Who said “Hey! That’s dynamite!”?
Nobody

I See a Darkness (original by Bonnie Prince Billy, released on the I See a Darkness album) – at the time of release I was worried that Johnny’s version wouldn’t hold up compared to Bonnie Prince Billy’s version (seems silly in hindsight). A very dark number, Will Oldham (who is Bonnie Prince Billy) sings back up vocals. Piano, acoustic guitar, and mournful vocals. As the song progresses the piano becomes more pronounced and the emotions seep from Cash and Oldham’s voices in tandem. Key lyrics:

Well, you’re my friend and can you see,
Many times we’ve been out drinkin’,
Many times we’ve shared our thoughts,
But did you ever, ever notice, the kind of thoughts I got?

Well, you know I have a love, a love for everyone I know.
And you know I have a drive to live, I won’t let go.
But can you see this opposition comes rising up sometimes?
That it’s dreadful imposition, comes blacking in my mind.

The Mercy Seat (original by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, released on the Tender Prey album) – the original had an angry, almost heavy metal feel to it. Johnny transforms it into a spiritual lament, acoustic guitars and organ / string embellishments in the mix. The song builds towards an emotional orgasm, pianos overtaking the mix – Cash’s voice as narrator. Key lyrics:

And the mercy seat is waiting
And I think my head is burning
And in a way I’m yearning
To be done with all this weighing of the truth.
An eye for an eye
And a tooth for a tooth
And anyway I told the truth
And I’m not afraid to die

Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone) (originally released by Tanya Tucker in 1974) – lighter fare after the last few emotionally exhausting tracks. Acoustic guitar lament, Cash is again in strong voice. Deeper album cut. Key lyrics:

Will you bathe me with me in the stream of life?
When the moon is full will you bathe with me?
Will you still love me when I’m down and out?
In my time of trial, will you stand by me?

Field of Diamonds – a Johnny Cash original from 1986, given the Rick Rubin treatment here. Another lighter toned song but with fancier acoustic guitar embellishments. Features harmony vocals with Sheryl Crow. Key lyrics:

Field of diamonds in the sky, like the night you pass me by.
I could touch you if I tried, fields of diamonds in the sky.
Am I just a star in some crown?
Or someone’s life sun going down, down, down?

Before My Time – another Johnny Cash original, written for this record. Acoustic guitar further down in the mix while Johnny croons over top – nostalgic, longing for a time that he never experienced before he then correlates that to the love he feels for his wife. A very affecting song, done in a way that only Johnny Cash could. Key lyrics:

But what the old-time masters had
Is what I feel for you
Love is love and doesn’t change
In a century or two
If someway they had seen and knew
How it would be for me and you
They’d wish for love like yours
And they would wish for love like mine
Before my time
Before my time

Country Trash – another Johnny Cash original, originally recorded in 1973. This song represents another view on how he thought of himself. It seems like something from the 1800’s, a song to sing after a hard day on the farm. Just acoustic guitar and Johnny singing from his heart. Very strong melody giving it a sing-a-long feel. Key lyrics:

I’m saving up dimes for a rainy day,
I got about a dollar laid away.
The wind’s from the south and the fishing’s good,
Got a potbelly stove a cord of wood.
Mama turns the left-overs into hash,
I’m doin’ alright for country trash.

Mary of the Wild Moor (originally released by The Louvin Brothers on the Tragic Songs of Life album) – Cash takes a well-known country song by The Louvin Brothers and gives the song depth by replacing the harmony vox with his deep baritone. In the hands of Johnny Cash it becomes a dirge like lament with timely violin passages. Key lyrics:

“Father, dear father,” she cried,
“Come down and open the door,
Or the child in my arms will perish and die,
From the winds that blow across the wild moor.”

I’m Leavin’ Now – a Johnny Cash original from the mid 80’s re-recorded here. Features another outlaw, Merle Haggard, on guitar and vocals. A fun little number, you can feel the friendship between Merle and Johnny as their vocals intertwine. Key lyrics:

If anybody asks where did I go
Tell ’em I went where the wild goose goes
I wouldn’t have me an area code
Don’t have a number, don’t need a row

I’m leaving now, me to
I’m leaving now
Get out of my face
Get out of my space
I’m leaving now, adios
I’m leaving now

Wayfaring Stranger (a traditional folk song) – the album ends on a haunting note. Johnny covers this old standard with the experience of life, the knowledge that heaven & the afterlife are closer than ever. Violin and orchestra embellishments, so restrained throughout the record are front and center here. In the last decade Jack White and Neil Young have also covered this song. While they also provided great versions, there is a depth to Johnny Cash’s version that is simply devastating. Key lyrics:

I’m just a poor wayfarin’ stranger,
While travelin’ through this world below.
Yet there’s no sickness, no toil, nor danger,
In that bright land to which I go.
I’m goin’ there to see my Father.
And all my loved ones who’ve gone on.
I’m just goin’ over Jordan.
I’m just goin’ over home.

Johnny Cash’s discography can be very daunting to the newcomer. The Rick Rubin / American Recordings era is a great place to dip your toes in and discover what all the fuss is about – yes it is all warranted.  This Johnny Cash album brings me back to hanging out with my cowboy friend and those nights among friends where it seemed like the weekends would never end. Join me next week as I talk about Dirt by Alice in Chains.

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