(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
The losses this year of country music pioneers June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash have, I think, set some country music followers to pondering about not only what that couple meant to country music, but what may be in danger of being lost forever from country music.
Cash was all about honesty and truth and pure simplicity — of writing, of singing, of performing and, ultimately, of living. He was at his best, remember, with the Tennessee Three, with the Tennessee Two and — finally — just with himself on guitar. Cash was all about the message, not the delivery system. June was a performing dervish — vocally and theatrically– all about flashing teeth and dancing feet and flouncing skirts. But also about preserving the heritage of her Carter Family upbringing and heritage. And its warmth and devotion to family.
There are two revealing new CDs that bring back many early live performances from June and Johnny. And these recordings also point toward what made them not only fan favorites but also important flash points in the history of country songs and country performances and recordings. Both Johnny Cash: Live Recordings From the Louisiana Hayride and June Carter: Live Recordings From the Louisiana Hayride are, obviously, live appearances at that venerable radio barn dance in Shreveport, La. The Hayride was second only in importance and impact to the Grand Ole Opry and served as both a springboard to the Opry and a haven for Opry refugees. Hank Williams joined the Hayride in 1948, graduated to the Opry in 1949 and returned to Shreveport in 1952 after being fired by the Opry for drunkenness and no-shows. Cash debuted on the Hayride in 1955 and joined the Opry the following year. After a memorable appearance in which he destroyed the Opry’s stage footlights with a mikestand, Cash was disinvited from the Opry and returned to the Hayride in 1959.
In his first Hayride appearance, Cash and his Tennessee Two — electric guitarist Luther Perkins and upright bassist Marshall Grant — hit the stage in November 1955 with a raw and urgent sound that touched a vibrant chord in the audience. Both “Hey Porter” and “Luther Played the Boogie” unleashed the vital and stripped-down Cash approach that would become a trademark. Just before joining the Opry in 1956, Cash introduced “I Walk the Line” on the Hayride as a song that he was “proudest of.”
In subsequent appearances on the Hayride, ranging up to 1965, Cash demonstrated his penchant for saga songs, such as “Rock Island Line” and “Big River” and told corny jokes — he introduces the stoic Perkins by saying, “We haven’t had the heart to tell him, but he’s been dead two years.” And he dedicated “I Got Stripes,” which he notes is a prison song, to all servicemen because he himself was “in the Air Force for 12 years, from ’50 to ’54.”
June Carter first appeared on the Hayride in 1960, and nine tracks here from that June 4 show range from Chuck Berry’s “Thirty Days” to a parody of Marty Robbins’ “Big Iron” to the Carter Family songs “Wildwood Flower” and “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow.” There are frequent comedy breaks, proving her strength as a comedienne. She always joked that since she felt she couldn’t sing, she “talked a lot and tried to cover up all the bad notes with laughter.” She jokes that new touring partner Cash had sent her a new bathing suit that was actually just “a bottle of suntan lotion and a zipper.”
Two of her songs here and three of his were recorded on the same Feb. 24, 1962, appearance, when June had joined his traveling road show. They would wed six years later, but they sound very comfortable together on two duets they recorded in 1965 and that appear on the June CD. “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” is uneventful but that wasn’t so for another song. Cash’s 1964 recording of Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe,” with June singing harmony, was a No. 4 country hit. And their duet of that song on the Hayride months later exuded vocal sparks. Cash calls her out on stage and she responds by saying, “I’ll be pleased to sing if you’ll just quit that grabbin’ me, quit clutchin’ on me. … I know it’s the meanest man that ever lived. Don’t get close to him, girls. When the show’s over, run for home hard as you can go, get out as fast as you can! He’s wearin’ a new aftershave lotion called ‘Come and Get It.’ See there. But it don’t bother me none. I’ve got me on a new perfume called ‘I Wouldn’t Know What to Do With It if I Got It.’”
At least in my humble opinion, both June and Johnny’s work in their later years is far more rewarding and revealing musically than their earlier recordings. But there’s much to be said about the energy, verve, drive and purity about their early forays in front of live audiences. There is an iridescent immediacy and spark and direct connection with their audiences that both Johnny and June maintained right up to their final curtain calls. And, I have to tell you, both of their funeral services were far more compelling, engaging, educating and entertaining than most live music concerts I have ever seen.
They continue to be bigger in death than most country artists are in life.