One of the 33 1/3 volumes for 2011 that we’re most looking forward to is Tony Tost’s study of Johnny Cash: American Recordings.
You can listen to Tony Tost’s America here and I hope you enjoy this (unedited) extract from the book, which should be available in late March:
“My song ain’t done playing yet,” Cash sang in 1976, “so I believe I’ll hit the road and go.” On his staggeringly odd, nearly unlistenable concept album called The Rambler, Cash tried to update his conceptual records about cowboys, Indians and trains to a more contemporary image repertoire, transforming himself into an interstate rambler, a sort of mid-70s Dixie Kerouac.
Cash was as near to ordinary as he would ever be in the mid to late 1970s — he wouldn’t sink to sub-ordinary until the next decade — and in his quest to again be found relevant he alternated between updating and retrograding himself. After the attempted self-reinvention of The Rambler flopped, Cash beckoned the obsessions of his earlier self by recording The Last Gunfighter Ballad, featuring Guy Clark’s fine title track, which concerned a lonesome survivor of the West, a song that caustically bid the gunfighter and his landscape farewell. In his liner notes to the album, Cash recalled his habit in the 1950s and 1960s of practicing his fast draw, “shootin’ every tree in the yard full of holes” and staging gunfight duels, using blanks, with some of his buddies at that time. “I had a showdown with Johnny Western one night in Minneapolis,” Cash wrote, “and he killed me seven times in a row.” In a hotel hallway in Australia, Cash and Sammy Davis Jr. dueled, with the one-eyed hipster proving triumphant. “It only takes one good eye to shoot, Cash,” said Davis Jr.
On the album’s title track, Cash narrated the story of a displaced elder who tells stories of the old West no one believes anymore since “the streets are empty and the blood’s all dried.” Having spent his post-Folsom glow recasting himself as the patriotic, holy and happy husband of June Carter, Cash could have been reading Clark’s lyrics as a portraiture of himself, a once vigorous, dangerous man whom history had now passed by. In Clark’s song, the last gunfighter recalls how he used to stand in the street outside the saloon, back before the street was even paved, shooting down the slothful and foolish. “The last of a breed,” the song declares. As the song continues, the old man begins hearing vengeful ghosts out on the pavement; he heads out in the hot sun, reliving his past “and he’s killed by a car as he goes for his gun.”
Comically pathetic, the song illustrates just how the crowded confines of contemporary life offer little elbow room for old time American machismo, how the road limits freedoms as much as it offers them up. On Springsteen’s Nebraska, the car and the road likewise play a cruel game of trap and release. Even if bad brother Frankie is able to flee the repercussions of his violence in “Highway Patrolman,” each family member of “Used Cars” must silently confront their shared residence in the lower realm of the social hierarchy when driving around their neighborhood in a pre-owned vehicle. The narrator of “State Trooper” is simply a beast, caged inside his automobile with nothing to listen to but the radio’s static; the only remnants of the wide open American ideal of freedom still available to him are not freedoms at all but mere gestures: his defiant shout of “high-ho silver-o, deliver me from nowhere” at the close of the song, and the final battle cries he lets out as the song pulses into silence.
Cash was at his best when he focused on men caught between eras, men whose interiors matched the landscapes of some different, often imaginary time. The most compelling song on The Last Gunfighter Ballad was a Cash original, staging one possible consequence of such entrapment. In Cash’s reimagining of the ancient Barbara Allen legend, a song called “The Ballad of Barbara” (originally the b-side to Cash’s 1973 single, “Praise the Lord and Pass the Soup,” which is just as awful as you imagine), the narrator recalls his childhood in a southern town, where he worked the fields and traveled through the woods, in tune with the land and seasons and the smells of creation. He is eventually drawn away by the promises of a cultured city life, however, with its “breathtaking lofty steeples,” and he enters a world of steel and concrete that separates him from those vital sources. In that city, Cash’s narrator finds a girl and marries her and, without much surprise, soon longs to go back to his land and people, to return to the landscape that created him and that still is within him. At the moment of the narrator’s leaving, however, Cash’s investment in the folk tradition reveals itself with an image worthy of Ovid himself. “Then her hazel eyes turned away from me, with a look that wasn’t very pretty,” Cash sings. “And she turned into concrete and steel, and she said ‘I’ll take the city.’”
After his darling transforms into the unnatural elements that created her, Cash’s narrator hits the interstate that first brought him to the city (though Cash and co-producer Charlie Bragg, in an odd bit of inspiration, decided to soundtrack his rambles with percussive hoofbeats), hitchhiking his way back to the country life he had left behind. True to his cyclical method, Cash recorded the song yet again on the underrated, underheard Johnny Cash is Coming to Town, released in 1987. The album featured a superior version of “The Ballad of Barbara” along with its strong covers of Elvis Costello, Guy Clark, Merle Travis and James Talley, among others. But even on this album, one that contains such a disavowal of progress as “The Ballad of Barbara,” Cash again sounded like an old man trying to keep up with the times and with Jack Clement’s manic, machinic production.
The initial shock of American Recordings upon its release was that Cash had suddenly turned his back on the waves of progress and innovation he had spent decades chasing. Instead, he transmuted himself into progress’s shadow, haunting it. No longer attaching himself to automobiles and starships — though he would record a wrenchingly lovely version of Springsteen’s “Further On Up the Road” towards the very end of his American ride — Cash instead took a giant leap back, returning to the terrain that forged him. Suddenly, he was as incongruous as the gunfighter and the locomotive, a true folk image: an American world of Ovidian possibilities of tragedy and transformation seemed to come alive with a gesture of his hand, waving away the backing band and the innovative production values. Instead of chasing ghosts on the pavement he was creating a world in which only ghosts could thrive. It produced a singular effect, an aural profile of a man who was absolutely alone within our era but who contained many eras within himself.
It was Cash expressing not only the weight of solitude but also the transformational powers of a layered solitude. He had first forged the idea for such a stripped-down record way back in the 1960s, in a conversation with Marty Robbins, after noting Robbins’ tendency to end his concerts with intimate, acoustic numbers, inviting the audience to his own private campfire. Cash had always wanted to call his own imagined acoustic album Late and Alone With Johnny Cash, a title that conveys a particularly threatening edge to its intimacy. And by 1994, after so many dry, desperate years, late and alone was likely the only place where Cash could become a killer and a prophet once again. Late and Alone: this was the very flag beneath which Timothy McVeigh and Harriet Tubman, Col. Tom Parker and John Brown, Thirteen and Andrew Jackson had contrived the plans that tied their names to a bigger fate. Late and Alone: a midnight of the mind, the very logic of reckoning.