(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Even though this two-CD package won’t be in stores until May 23, I think many Johnny Cash fans would enjoy a preview of the latest in his long line of releases.
Johnny Cash: Personal File is a collection of 49 previously unreleased tracks that had been stored on tapes marked “Personal File” in the House of Cash in Hendersonville. They were all tracks he recorded with just his acoustic guitar and his voice and then stored away in a private room where he kept such personal treasures as his Jimmie Rodgers memorabilia. Apparently at the time he recorded them, he thought no one would be interested in such a stripped-down sound. When he later cut his first CD for the American Recordings label with producer Rick Rubin (1994’s American Recordings), he remarked that he had made a similar record in the 1970s but could interest no labels in it. Those songs are here, in addition to some he recorded later.
The song selection reflects Cash’s far-ranging interest in all kinds of music. There are poems, old Carter Family songs, 19th century ballads, Irish songs, as well as original Cash material. Cash covers such country hits as Lefty Frizzell’s “Saginaw, Michigan” and Johnny Horton’s “When It’s Springtime in Alaska (It’s Forty Below),” as well as the Cash-Horton collaboration, “Girl in Saskatoon.”
Cash tells a charming story about the children’s song “Tiger Whitehead,” which Cash co-wrote with his friend Dr. Nat Winston. The song resulted from Dr. Winston taking Cash to see the 19th century gravesites of the famed bear hunter and his wife Sally in Whitehead, Tenn. Tiger’s tombstone noted that he killed 99 bears. His wife’s burial marker notes that she nursed two bear cubs that Tiger had brought home. Cash later recorded it on a children’s album.
There are songs by such contemporary writers as his then-son-in-law Rodney Crowell, his stepdaughter Carlene Carter, Kris Kristofferson and John Prine. And there are spoken introductions to many of the songs.
This is a treasure chest of vintage acoustic Cash. A cache of 49 songs is a lot to absorb all at once, so I’ve sifted through the songs over several days and found much to savor. Cash began recording these in July 1973 and cut 24 songs then. The other sessions came three months later in 1973 and in 1974, 1976, 1977, 1980 and 1982. The bulk of the recordings are from 1973, which astonishingly was a very prolific records release year for Cash, in which Columbia Records released four Cash albums, followed by three more in 1974. None of them sold especially well, and only 1973’s Any Old Wind That Blows broke the Billboard Top 10.
The first 1973 sessions are obviously songs that 1973-era Nashville record labels would never release, and you have to wonder if these songs amounted to pressure valves that Johnny Cash, the artist, wanted to cut versus songs Johnny Cash, the hit machine, couldn’t record. These were mostly covers, and some were very sentimental songs such as “There’s a Mother Always Waiting at Home,” “Missouri Waltz” and the Louvin Brothers’ “When I Stop Dreaming.” He also did a five and a-half-minute version of the epic poem, “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” which I memorized in college and which was a staple of Texas bars and I’m sure of bars everywhere late at night. I think Cash fans will be delighted to hear his lively rendition of this classic Robert W. Service poem.
It’s eerily like sitting in Cash’s den with him and listening to him reminisce about memories of people he had known, places he had been and songs he has loved.
Most revelatory perhaps is a series of original Cash gospel songs, reflecting his lifelong desire to record a gospel album. What became his only gospel album was My Mother’s Hymn Book, part of the posthumously-issued Unearthed boxed set. All of disc two of Personal File is made up of gospel or inspirational songs, 24 in all. Eleven of them are Cash originals (one co-written with his wife June). I especially like “One of These Days I’m Gonna Sit Down and Talk to Paul,” about St. Paul, with whom Cash was fascinated. He later wrote his only novel, Man in White about the life of Paul. “I know just how he felt locked in that jail,” Cash sings. “One of these days I’m gonna shake that healing hand.”