One of the things I dislike most about the music industry is the way the compartmentalization of popular music limits people’s view of each genre to the industry’s definitions. As a result most people’s perceptions of each musical genre are limited to what they hear on the radio, meaning the majority only hear the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what they each have to offer. This has been going on for ages, of course, which along with bad drugs and greed explains why there are still people to this day who are convinced Duran Duran are representative of music in the 1980s and have never heard of the Talking Heads.
As far as I’m concerned the genre which has been most misrepresented over the years though has been country, or, God help us, country and western, music. Each new generation of radio listeners, and now video watchers, has been presented with the lowest common denominator as representative of the entire genre, which has meant that for decade after decade we’ve been swamped with sentimental songs about broken hearts, cheating wives/husbands and undying devotion. Kenny Rodgers, Shania Twain and a cast of assorted other slick and polished figures may have made the industry millions of dollars with their cherished crossover appeal, but they also created such a horrible misconception of the genre large numbers of us would never have discovered its real potential except by accident.
What they call country music these days has its roots in the Anglo/Scot/Irish folk songs brought over by those who settled in the Tennessee mountains. They adopted the banjo from the African Americans, who had brought with them from Africa, and the six-stringed guitar soldiers returning from the Spanish American wars brought home with them from Cuba. Lyrics of old songs were changed to suit their new lives and for a largely illiterate population it was easier to learn song lyrics than read the hymns in church each week, resulting in the creation of simple devotional songs based on familiar Bible stories. With the Depression in the 1920s and people being forced on the road, the music spread across the country. It was only natural people like Woody Guthrie used the same tunes they had heard at home as the basis for the material they wrote out in the world, whether protesting about working conditions or describing life trying to survive the dust bowl.
Unfortunately, based on what I had heard on the radio, I knew nothing about that type of country music until much later in my life. Which is one of the reasons I was so late in coming to Johnny Cash. It wasn’t that I had never heard of him; if I paid any attention at all to him, though, it was to simply lump him in with what I was hearing on the radio and not bother checking out his music. Of course the first time I heard him that changed. How can you hear his voice and not be affected by it? Even when he’s singing some of his more sentimental stuff — the same type of song in another person’s hands that would have you reaching for a bucket — there’s a quality of honesty to his voice which makes it impossible not to believe him or ever doubt his sincerity. For those of you who may never have experienced, or maybe somehow forgotten, what Cash’s voice can do to you, the latest release from Legacy Recordings of previously unreleased or unheard material from the earlier part of his career, Bootleg Volume ll – From Memphis To Hollywood, provides ample examples of what made him so damn special.
The two-disc set, with extensive liner notes giving the history of each piece, is divided up according to the year the material was recorded or performed. Disc one, the 1950s, is divided up into four parts. The first part is an entire radio broadcast, including Cash reading commercials for the Home Equipment Company, that was originally broadcast on August 4 1955. This show was the first recording ever of Cash and his band, The Tennessee Two, Luther Perkins on electric guitar and Marshall Grant on upright bass, performing live and his nervousness shows during his in-between-song patter. However it’s the songs that really matter, and what struck me the most is if I hadn’t known these were recorded in the fifties, there was no way I could have told you by listening to him when the broadcast had taken place. Even at this early stage in his career he sounds like the voice of ages; a voice that carries the scars of having seen the best and the worst of what humans are capable of doing to each other.
The second part was, for me, the most intriguing, and best part of this disc as the fourteen tracks feature Cash accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. These are the earliest versions of some of his most famous material: “Walk The Line,” “Get Rhythm,” “Belshazzar” and “Leave That Junk Alone” to name just a few. Recorded between 1954 and 1957 when he was still with Sun Records they are not only an indication of the multiple directions his career would take thematically, but musically as well. Even this early acoustic version of “Get Rhythm” can’t hide the fact it had all the elements required for a classic rock and roll song and Cash does an amazing job of making it move with just his voice and guitar. A couple of songs later he’s moved over into gospel, and while “He’ll Be A Friend” is a typical country gospel peon in praise of Jesus, “Belshazzar” is an Old Testament rocker more along the lines of what you’d expect to hear in an African American church.
What really shines through on all the demos, and on all the tracks on this early disc for that matter, is his voice. All the expressiveness he would become famous for is there, as is the rough-hewn quality, if a Tennessee oak could sing it would sound like Cash, making his a voice an audience could identify with far easier than any polished pop star. Long before Dylan draped himself with the “voice of the people” mantle a la Woody Guthrie, Cash was not only singing in a voice that sounded like your neighbour’s, he was singing about things you were familiar with. In rural communities across the country his was the one voice they probably heard from the outside world they could recognize as being one of their own. Yet, even today, when some of the material is dated or might sound a little hokey, these songs appeal because you never once doubt his sincerity. He’s not trying to sell you a line or convince you to be who he is, he’s just telling you what he believes with an integrity you can’t help but respect.
Disc two is primarily B-sides of singles and other material that never made it onto albums when Cash was signed to Columbia Records in the 1960s. Some of them have made it onto records in other versions — his recording of Dylan’s “One Too Many Mornings” for instance was not only on Dylan’s Girl of the North Country but also recorded as a duet with June Carter Cash and again with Waylon Jennings. (If you’ve never seen it you should really check out this video of Cash and Dylan recording “One Too Many Mornings.”) The main thing you’ll notice about the material he’s doing in the 1960s is how Cash was starting to expand his base. It wasn’t just Dylan’s music he was performing, he was also reaching way into the past to record American folk music by Steven Foster, “There’s A Mother Always Waiting” plus contemporary stuff like “The Frozen Logger” by James Stevens and “Girl From Saskatoon” which he co-wrote with Johnny Horton. (It has to be the earliest popular music references to the town of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada — of course the Guess Who raised much confusion among their American fans by naming a song “Running Back To Saskatoon” — but that was years later).
There’s also an oddity on this second disc, “Shifting, Whispering Sands,” featuring a spoken-word performance by Lorne Greene. This song was recorded in 1962 when Pa Cartwright was riding high in the saddle every Sunday night on Bonanza. This is definitely the lowest point of the disc as far as I’m concerned, but thankfully it’s not too long and easily forgotten what with twenty-four other songs on this disc. There were also some pleasant surprises as well. I hadn’t known Cash had written one of my favourite sarcastic songs, “Foolish Questions,” and his dry delivery is absolutely letter perfect as he pokes fun at people’s habit of asking stupid questions.
Even on such stinkers as the Lorne Greene piece, Cash’s presence shines through. He had a voice which probably would have allowed him to sing the phone book and still be able to keep an audience riveted. Bootleg Volume ll – From Memphis To Hollywood gathers together close to sixty demos, unreleased tracks and other material from the 1950s and 1960s which proves that right from his earliest recordings Cash’s voice was unique in music in the way it allowed him to connect to his audience. There have been few artists before and since Cash who have been as genuine in their delivery of their material and these two discs testify to his greatness. If you’ve never really appreciated his voice before, this collection can’t help but impress upon you just what a gift it was and how the world is a lot less interesting now that its gone.