(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
It was eight years ago this week that Johnny Cash died and, if anything, the years since then have only added to his aura and status as one of a handful of true icons and pillars of country music. In the years since World War II, Cash and Hank Williams have clearly emerged as the two country giants of the modern era.
And for different reasons. Williams was one of the greatest songwriters ever, in any music genre, and his tragic early death has only added to his luster as country’s doomed romantic poet. The caliber of the songs in his catalog looms more and more important as time passes.
Cash, as a masterful and charismatic performer, as well as a gifted songwriter, came to dominate the country music scene and the music’s worldwide image as few artists did before or since.
Then there’s their status as true Outlaws.
Both were banished from the Grand Ole Opry for alcohol/drug-fueled episodes. But more importantly, Cash and Williams were not posing as Outlaws or pretending to be Outlaws. Neither ever spoke directly about questioning authority or challenging the status quo or fighting the powers that be. They simply lived their lives and wrote and sang their music and conducted their careers as they felt was necessary and right for them. The fact they didn’t necessarily fit in with Nashville’s or country music’s accepted strictures didn’t mean a damn to them.
Both hit rock bottom due to drugs and alcohol and were reviled and condemned in many Music City circles. They both tried to climb back up from the bottom, but only Cash succeeded.
Both embraced religion and sacred songs. Hank, recording as his alter ego Luke the Drifter, wrote and recorded truly heartfelt songs and recitations. Cash regularly sang the hymns from his youth and made it a point to regularly include sacred songs in his radio shows and at his concerts. Cash also performed often on the Rev. Billy Graham’s crusades.
The reason for bringing this subject up this week is the release of more music from both Johnny Cash and Hank Williams.
Cash’s Bootleg III: Live Recordings Around the World spans his live career from 1956 to 1979. The earlier two editions of the Bootleg series cover home Cash’s home recordings, his early Memphis radio shows and work at Memphis’ Sun Records and Nashville’s Columbia Records.
Bootleg III, consisting of mostly unreleased recordings, opens with Cash and the Tennessee Two at Dallas’ celebrated Big D Jamboree in 1956. Cash’s voice was strong, and his audience link is palpable. From there, the two-CD set moves to Maryland’s New River Ranch in 1962, the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 and on to a rousing show at an NCO club during the Vietnam War at Long Binh, Vietnam, in 1969.
Disc two opens with a concert at the White House in 1970, moves on to a show in Osteraker Prison in Sweden in 1972, to the CBS Records Convention in Nashville in 1973, to the Carter Fold in Hiltons, Va., in 1976, to the Wheeling Jamboree in West Virginia in 1976 and finally closes with two songs at the small Exit In club in Nashville in 1979.
For the White House performance, President Nixon had asked in advance that Cash sing a Nixon favorite, Guy Drake’s “Welfare Cadillac,” a song about a welfare mother allegedly driving a Cadillac bought with welfare money. Cash flatly refused, and that was that. But he did include the mildly rebellious song “What Is Truth.”
Hank Williams: The Legend Begins includes 47 live songs from Hank’s Health and Happiness radio broadcasts on two CDs, plus a third CD of previously-unreleased early recordings. The 1949 Health and Happiness shows were sponsored by Hadacol, a patent medicine that its inventor, Louisiana State Sen. Dudley J. LeBlanc, claimed promoted health and happiness in its users. Actually, they were probably cheered up by the fact that Hadacol contained 12 percent alcohol. In 1950, Hank became the headliner for the Hadacol Caravan, a massive touring show with many country and Hollywood stars.
Disc three begins with Hank, at age 15, recording “Fan It” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” There are also four home recordings made when Hank was 18. The songs were “Freight Train Blues,” “New San Antonio Rose,” “St. Louis Blues” and “Greenback Dollar.” The disc concludes with Hank’s appearance on a 1951 March of Dimes radio broadcast. He sang five songs and read a PSA message about the importance of finding a cure for polio.
Overall, both the Cash and the Hank packages trace the artists’ growth and progress as singers, performers and songwriters.
Hank Williams and Johnny Cash could do it live just as well and as powerfully as they could do it in the studio. Flaws and all. They didn’t need auto-tuning or any other audio aids. This is raw music delivered straight from the maker to the listener.
Unfortunately, in the current atmosphere of country music, there is no incubator for nurturing long-term acts, for allowing young artists to take risks and make mistakes and literally have time to build a career.