The history of popular music is filled with stories of artists whose lives ended before their time because they weren’t able to control their excessive or otherwise destructive behaviour. Thankfully some have managed to avoid such a fate. One of the most famous of those was Johnny Cash.
While we might never know the depths to which he sunk personally, the October 11 release of Johnny Cash: Bootleg Volume 3 – Live Around The World (Legacy Recordings), a collection of Cash’s live performances from 1956 to 1979, provides a glimpse of how close to the edge he came at certain points in his career. You only have to listen to his behaviour and demeanour on stage in the early-to-mid ’60s compared to how he was from the late ’60s on to appreciate the difference between the two stages of his life. In fact, one of the most amazing things about this new two-CD package is how it manages to capture the arc of his career:
From the early days, the Big D Jamboree in Dallas, Texas in 1956, when he was still young and caught up in the excitement and thrill of being a musician; the middle period, performances given at the New River Ranch, Rising Sun Maryland in 1962 and at the Newport Folk Festival, Rhode Island in 1964, when he was on the verge of losing control, to when he turned it around and began again, a 1969 concert in Long Binh Vietnam at an NCO club, a command performance at Richard Nixon’s White House with the Carter family in 1970 and excerpts from concerts as far afield as Osteraker Prison in Sweden 1972 and as close to home as Exit Inn, Nashville Tennessee 1979.
While that distinctive voice never changes through the years, and he never makes any of those mistakes you would normally associate with substance abuse, there’s something awfully uncomfortable and almost embarrassing about listening to Cash’s performances in the middle period. Whether it’s because he sounds like he’s trying too hard to be the life of the party by doing his imitation of a record with a skip in it during the concert in Maryland or making bad jokes while playing “Rock Island Line” at the Newport Folk Festival or some underlying nastiness that comes through on occasion, he comes across like the drunk at the party who everybody spends the evening trying to avoid. These tracks are especially difficult to hear after listening to the opening three cuts taken from the Texas concert in 1956, where he comes across as happy and excited, just glad to be invited to the party.
So it’s something of a relief to listen to the recording of the 1969 concert at the NCO club in Vietnam to hear the Johnny Cash we’re all more familiar with. For while you won’t notice many differences in the quality of his performance or in the sound of his voice, he’s clearly no longer trying to prove himself the life of the party or acting the fool. Instead of being there for his own ego he’s there for the audience — and it makes a huge difference. Cash’s music has always spoken to people in much the same way Woody Guthrie’s did because of his ability to put the things that matter to us to music. He can sing about everything from his belief in his saviour to what it’s like to be a dirt farmer, and on some level or another we all understand what he’s talking about.
In those middle years when he was more concerned with showmanship and following a path of self destruction you can hear how the stories, while not lost, were certainly diluted. All you have to do is compare the way he sings the same songs at different points in his life in order to discern the difference. At first glance I was surprised to see how so many of the songs on the first disc were under two minutes in length, including ones I could have sworn were much longer. The reason is he was rushing through most of them and barely even listening to the words as he sang them. The contrast between those performances and the ones in later years, when he is taking the time this material requires, is so strong you can almost reach out and touch it.
While it’s hard to listen to Richard Nixon introduce Cash for the White House performance in 1970, that concert is unquestionably one of the disc’s highlights. First of all, there’s the fact that he’s joined by the entire Carter Family for all thirteen tracks, and whether or not you agree with their Christian message, you can’t help but appreciate their music. It also represents a chance to hear a piece of American music history as you listen to America’s first family of country music singing with one of the men who first started merging it with African American blues. Of course, the irony of hearing Cash singing “What Is Truth” to “Tricky Dick” is nothing short of priceless.
Needless to say the disc contains nearly all of everyone’s favourite Cash tunes, including “Big River,” “Give My Love To Rose,” “Boy Named Sue,” and “Walk The Line,” to name but a few. However, I was personally more thrilled to see some of his covers of tunes like “Sunday Morning Coming Down” by Kris Kristofferson and “City Of New Orleans” by the late Steve Goodman included. Those are tunes, especially the latter, I’ve had a hard time tracking down recordings of Cash singing; to find them as well as a couple of others is a real bonus.
While the quality of some of the recordings isn’t great — the two tracks recorded in 1976 at The Carter Fold are scratchy and the ones from the Exit Inn from 1979 sound like everybody, crowd included, are off in the distance — that doesn’t depreciate this set’s value. Most of the time collections of this sort shy away from casting the artist in a less than perfect light. Here though, intentionally or not, the producers have given listeners an incredibly accurate history of Cash’s performance career. It’s not always the prettiest of pictures, but it’s an honest one, and it makes you appreciate the road the man travelled all the more. Cash himself might have winced upon hearing some of those recordings, but I’d like to think he was honest and brave enough to have been okay with them being released. He always wore his heart on his sleeve and was always honest about who he was, and this release carries on that tradition.