NASHVILLE SKYLINE: A Summer of Johnny Cash and Julie Roberts

Some Great Music From a Veteran and a Neophyte

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

So far for me, this is a summer of the sounds of Johnny Cash and Julie Roberts in my various music delivery systems. I ran into Julie at our neighborhood Publix supermarket the other day, and it was good to talk to her again. Outside the world of the whole Music Row hoopla, she remains an exuberant, fresh-faced girl you like to know. One who just plain exudes good karma.

I thought her self-titled debut album was one of the more extraordinary in recent years and still think so. Her smoky, blues-tinged vocals and incendiary attitude and world-wise mien bring a fresh approach to modern country. Her steamy video for “Wake Up Older” is one of the most overlooked modern classics in recent country. It showed that she is obviously older than her years. And that’s borne out in her new CD, Men & Mascara, set for release Tuesday (June 27). The title refers to the obvious fact that men and mascara both run. She’s writing songs now, and her writing is on a par with her singing.

Her new album is another gem of reality-based country music — no generic happy love songs for her — and it’s good to hear a young singer getting a grip on the basics of country music. Want a vivid picture of domestic squalor? Got it right here in “Paint & Pillows.” How about bitter estrangement? Listen to “Smile.” A graphic depiction of bittersweet sexual initiation? “Too Damn Young” has it for you. “He kissed me like he meant forever/And we were too damned young to know any better.” It’s an album of real situations and real music and real emotion. Good for Julie Roberts for keeping that tradition alive.

Meanwhile, the legend of the late Johnny Cash, whose whole life was all about gritty reality, will be everywhere this summer. A new DVD from performances 35 years ago in Denmark, Johnny Cash: Man in Black: Live in Denmark 1971 is one of the best of the live Cash shows available. That was, I believe, the first time he performed “Man in Black” in public, which was released as a single that year.

Then there’s the whole marvelous Personal Files, a 49-track package of very personal and intimate performances recovered from tapes found at his House of Cash studio near Nashville. And, now, there’s yet another in the series of Cash’s collaborations with Rick Rubin collaborations in the American Recordings series with American V. And it’s a moving set of songs. Admittedly, had this not been the swan song from a great artist, it would not be regarded as highly, but it is a set to be respected. Failing in voice as Cash was in his last days, he was no less motivated to convey his message to the end, and he does so, very well indeed, with such songs as the moving “Help Me.” Finally, the album includes the last song Cash wrote, the emotional “Like the 309.”

What’s most poignant about the album, to me, is Cash’s very telling reading of the Don Gibson classic song “A Legend in My Time” which he addresses very frankly and personally. If anyone in recent history understood the significance of legend, it would be Johnny Cash, and he brought a very focused and jaundiced view to it, and it echoes in his delivery of the song. In his fading days, Cash seemed to become publicly more his true self than he had ever been.

But to address that fully, I really recommend the Personal Files set more, just because it’s so intimate, so much Cash up close and at home. It really is like Cash visiting in your living room with his guitar.

At any rate, Johnny Cash and Julie Roberts are nestling comfortably together in my CD player right now.

It might not seem that Johnny Cash and Julie Roberts have much in common. But both are deeply Southern products, and both are idiosyncratic artists who are out of the mold. I like to think she is one of the few new artists who are pursuing the vision of a progressive new country music, one that is still steeped in tradition.