Sunday, 14 April 2019

Johnny Cash album by album

(Work in progress. )

When Johnny Cash died in 2003, one of the last of the mythical titans who strode the Earth in the 1950s and created modern music passed away. Rock music from its inception brought together folk, country, blues and popular music, so the early greats often had their feet in one or more of these styles. Cash was inclined more toward toward country and folk music than the blues, and was passionate about writing and singing songs about neglected areas of America - prisoners, poor people, Native Americans, railways and farms. He had a rich gravelly bass-baritone voice, and a rough, gravelly down to earth attitude that earned him respect from many quarters. This was a man who didn't take bullshit, and was prepared to stand up for those who didn't have a voice, and who throughout his career, from early in the 1950s up to his last tours, played for free in prisons. By the time he became famous for it in the late 60s, he'd already been doing it for over a decade.

Cash had three carers. He started at Sun Records in 1955 and had several rockabilly hits which continued into the early 60s when he switched to Columbia records. During the mid 60s he released a stream of gospel and Americana albums that, while sometimes interesting, were not consistently top quality, and lost him his main audience. The audacious live album At Folsom Prison, and its follow up At San Quentin, found him a new and wider audience; but through a succession of weak albums in the 70s this second career waned, and by the 80s he had became something of a has-been, recording mainly nostalgic country albums in collaboration with other aging country singers. By the 90s he was out of a recording contract, when Rick Rubin of American Recordings signed him up, and he entered his third, and for many, his greatest career. His voice, while no longer quite as powerful, was richer, and more emotional. And, for the first time in his career, he had a bold producer who moved him away from simplistic chug-a-chug tunes, into more sparse, sympathetic and beautiful arrangements. He was still recording with Rubin until he died - the recordings infused with his own knowledge of his impending death.

Cash was a prolific musician, releasing several records a year during the Sixties. During his career from 1954 to 2003, he released 96 official albums and 153 singles on several record labels. If all the collaborations and compilations and box sets released in various countries are totaled there are reckoned to be over 4,000 cataloged releases - not counting bootlegs.

His notable recordings are the albums he made with Rick Rubin for American Recordings from 1994 to his death in 2003, and the two live prison albums in the Sixties. Apart from these records, opinions will be divided as to what is interesting and what is too weak to listen to. This is my selection of what I feel are the more interesting and worthwhile of his albums, and the most useful of the many compilation albums. 


With His Hot and Blue Guitar

A solid and impressive debut album. This is a collection of a number of his major recordings with his first recording company, Sun Records, and was the first LP released by Sun (Elvis' first album in 1956 was with RCA). It contains "Cry! Cry! Cry!", his first single, released in 1955; "Folsom Prison Blues", also from 1955; and "I Walk the Line" from 1957, his first Country Music No 1, and his first Popular Music top 20; it also contains his cover of Rock Island Line.

BestEverAlbums: Cash's 5th best album, and the 6th best album of 1957.
AllMusic: 9
Score: 5

The Fabulous Johnny Cash

All the songs recorded in a three week period and then released as a purposeful album, this - Cash's first Columbia LP - has a unity that gives it a strength and focus. There's also some decent individual songs: Don't Take Your Guns to TownFrankie's Man, Johnny; and I Still Miss Someone.

BestEver Albums: Cash's 10th best album, and 25th best album of 1958.
AllMusic: 9
Score: 4

Songs of Our Soil (1959)

Felt by some to be a concept album, as many of the songs relate to death in some way. Contains Five Feet High and Rising, and The Man on the Hill. Competent songs, but not great.

Ranked by BestEverAlbums as his 20th best, and 49th of 1959. 
4 stars on AllMusic.
My Score: 3

Cash dressed as a cowboy, inserting a bullet into a gun
Ride This Train  (1960)
Intriguing album of railway songs each introduced with spoken narratives and sound effects. No great songs, and not for repeated listening, but an interesting idea. Cash released a number of albums in the Sixties which collected together songs (some traditional, some written by Cash) on a single theme exploring some folk aspect of America: working men, railways, Native Americans, etc - he regarded this and Bitter Tears as two albums he felt proud of.  The intro to Loading Coal is interesting and has a bite, and the song has an attractive chug along beat.

Ranked by BestEverAlbums as his 21st best, and 38th of 1960. 4 1/2 stars on AllMusic.
My Score: 3

Blood, Sweat and Tears
(Feb 1963)
One of Cash's themed Sixties albums - this one on working men. Fairly weak.

Ring of Fire: The Best of Johnny Cash
(Aug 1963)

A collection of the singles released on Columbia between 1959 and 1963. The album reached No 1 on the Country charts and was in the top 30 of the Popular charts. Contains Ring of Fire, and Peace In The Valley.
Ranked by BestEverAlbums as his 25st best, and 57th of 1963. 4 stars on AllMusic. My Score: 3

Bitter Tears (Ballads of the American Indian)

Another of the themed albums Cash released in the Sixties - this one on Native Americans. As with the other  themed albums the idea is interesting, and sympathetically (if unimaginatively) executed; however the songs are weak. Cash has a rich and evocative voice, so it's pleasant to listen to him sing-speak his way through these songs, but there's little depth, originality, or power here. I like that he made them, and this one was the most popular at the time - reaching into the top 50 of the main charts, but they are not great albums.

Ranked 11th best, and 29th for 1964 on BestEverAlbums, 4 1/2 stars on AllMusic.
My score: 3

Cover shows a close up of Cash's face, looking at the camera.
At Folsom Prison 
Classic. Without a doubt one of Cash's best albums, and some feel it is his best. The energy and focus of the performance is tangible, the songs are strong, the atmosphere is electric, the concept of performing in prison (not for soldiers in Vietnam or a President and his friends) and releasing an album of that performance is audacious, and consolidates and validates Cash's folk theme albums exploring some of the darker and more forgotten aspects of America. This is a true outlaw album in its empathy and affection for the thieves and murderers in the prison, and apparent contempt for the jailers and  prison authorities. Cash had been giving performances in prisons since 1957, and had previously played at Folsom, and that experience gave him the confidence which is displayed throughout the performance, where he takes an arrogant and contemptuous stance toward the prison itself, which is fully appreciated by the prisoners. The album propelled Cash into the mainstream and made him a legend. When I was a young hippy I had the San Quentin album and loved it - and in many respects I still feel it the more attractive, stronger and listenable album; however, Folsom Prison is a true landmark album - one of the greatest albums of all time.
Ranked 1st best and 207th of all time on BEA. 5 stars on AllMusic. My score: 9

At San Quentin
Classic. It's possible to debate until the cows come home which is the better album, San Quentin or Folsom. Both were best sellers, though San Quentin was the more popular, and produced bigger hit singles. That may be due to the film that accompanied the album, and partly due to the growing fame of Cash from the success of Folsom. Or it may be due to the power of the San Quentin song, and the reaction of the audience. Cash played the song again, and on the original (better) vinyl release this was followed by A Boy Named Sue, and then finishes up with Peace In The Valley and Folsom Prison Blues. Rarely has there been such a powerful side of an album. On the other hand, Folsom came first, and much of this album is a repeat of the atmosphere and tone of that landmark album. I had this album and played it often so I have an intimate familiarity with it. I prefer the cover, and I prefer the songs, and there is such an electric atmosphere that sizzles on the second side that for me this is slightly the better album. But, really, it's very close.
Ranked 3rd best, and 27th for 1969 on BEA.  5 stars on AllMusic. My score: 9

Hello, I'm Johnny Cash
A mature album of decent songs. This is a somewhat lost album: it is out of print, and a number of sources, such as BEA, don't list it. This is sad - the album was well liked on release, making the charts in both North America and the UK, and it's unclear why it has slipped into relative obscurity. This is Cash's first album since The Fabulous Johnny Cash in 1959 which is not composed of compilations of past releases, nor on a rickety theme (death, railways, Indians, etc). Cash's singing is mature and assured, and the song choices are good, included with four Cash originals are songs by Merle TravisKen JonesTim Hardin and Kris Kristofferson. Best song is probably the opener, Southwind, which though at core has the primitive Cash chug, chug sound, also has interesting counterpoint and interweaving rhythms, and great control and use of Cash's voice.
BEA - not listed. AllMusic: 4 stars. My score: 4

The Survivors Live  (1982)
Cash with Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins live onstage in Germany at an apparently unscheduled and unrehearsed get together when Cash noticed the other two in the audience and called them up onstage. All three had played together in 1955 during the Million Dollar Quartet session with Elvis Presley, and would again in 1986 for the Class of '55 album with Roy Orbison. Survivors Live is a loose, rocking album with some energy. Good fun.
Score: 3

The Highwaymen 
Highwayman  (1985)

The Highwaymen
 were a Country music supergroup involving Johnny CashWaylon JenningsKris Kristofferson, and Willie Nelson. Highwayman was the first of three albums they released. It has some strong songs. Though there is some uncertainty of how best to present four strong and individual singers together (they don't harmonise well, and the usual approach is for them to take one verse each, which makes for awkward disjointed listening), there is something attractive about the concept of these four aging music rebels getting together to sing songs such as Committed to Parkview, about being in a rehab centre, and The Last Cowboy Song, about "the end of a hundred year waltz". It's a knowing, nostalgic album which pitches itself carefully to its own aging audience.
AllMusic: 4 stars. My score: 3

Johnny Cash & Waylon Jennings Heroes

A collaboration with Waylon Jennings. A solid album of decent if a bit maudlin songs done well. During the Eighties most of Cash's best output was in collaborations with others.
AllMusic score 4 stars. My score: 3

Class of '55: Memphis Rock & Roll Homecoming
Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, & Carl Perkins  Class of '55

Cash, Lewis, Orbison and Perkins all return to the Sun recording studio with a film crew to make a documentary about themselves, and a record of old and new music. An interesting and at times a powerful moment. Tracks include Perkin's Birth of Rock and Roll; Lewis's Sixteen Candles;  and Cash's We Remember The King.
AllMusic score: 3 stars.  My score: 3

American Recordings
American Recordings
For the first time in his recording history Cash made a studio album with a strong producer who understood Cash's strengths and how to deliver them to a modern audience. Accompanied by some bold and evocative videos this sparse album of Cash's voice and guitar and a selection of great songs is a powerful statement, and the start of a collaboration between Cash and Rick Rubin that would result in several great albums up to Cash's death in 2003. Stripping him of his chug-a-chug backing band with its simplistic Country music associations was a master-stroke. Here is the man with his superb voice and delivery, and he clearly transcends style and categorisation. Some of the song choices are inspired - Tom Waits's Down There By The Train,  Leonard Cohen's Bird On A Wire, Nick Lowe's   Silbersdorf 's  Delia's Gone, and some of Cash's own songs, like Redemption and Like A Soldier.

Ranked his 6th best by BEA. AllMusic score: 4 1/2 stars. My score: 8

Listening again some months after doing the above assessment, and while in general I like the style, and some of the songs, I'm not quite seeing this as an 8, so I'm moving it down to 6.

All the American Recordings albums are strong, and this, the second, is not bad, though is weaker than the first. Rubin backed Cash with the rock band Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, and while that does work, creating a sound much stronger than the chug-a-chug of  the majority of Cash's pre-American Recordings material, it doesn't work as well as having Cash simply accompany himself on acoustic guitar.
Ranked his 7th best by BEA. AllMusic score: 3 1/2 stars. My score: 4

American III: Solitary Man
Getting old and weak now, there was a four year gap before Cash was well enough to make another American Recordings album. A little more sparse than Unchained, with a bolder and perhaps more appropriate selection of songs, this could be considered as slightly more successful than Unchained, though opinions will vary. It works better for me. And Cash's voice has acquired a  fragility in the painful cracks of its strength that is really quite compelling. What is clear at this point is that Rubin is good for Cash, and what they produced together is a monumental body of work. Some of the performances here could make a grown man weep.
Ranked his 4th best by BEA. AllMusic score: 3 stars. My score: 5

American IV: The Man Comes Around
The fourth American Recordings album is widely seen as the best - but that is possibly more to do with it being the one that contains Hurt, than because people have genuinely listened to all the recordings and felt this is the best. Because, Hurt and Personal Jesus apart, this album isn't as successful as the previous three. The song choices are weaker, and the arrangements are drifting toward mainstream country, so in places this sounds like any number of the records he released in the Sixties and Seventies, and sometimes weaker, as his voice is very weak now, and while it fits on certain songs like Hurt, sounds rather uncomfortable for a whole album. Go back and listen to the first American Recordings album to remind yourself what this voice was capable of when still strong and the song choices and arrangements were also strong and bold. His singing of Bridge Over Troubled Waters is painful in ways it shouldn't be, and it's sad for all the wrong reasons. By the time you get to Danny Boy (if you've listened that far) you're going to be feeling very uncomfortable. Dreadful.
Ranked his 2nd best by BEA. AllMusic score: 2 1/2 stars. My score: 2 (for the two great songs)

My Mother's Hymn Book
Originally part of the Unearthed box set which gathered together unreleased material from the American Recordings sessions, and was released shortly after Cash's death, it was later released separately. Cash had been intensely interested in gospel music from the beginning of his recording career, and over the years had released a fair amount of material, sometimes as individual songs, or as complete albums. But this is is best gospel work, and Cash himself was very pleased with the recordings. There's a pleasant warmth and sincerity about this album, which is in marked contrast to the forced sentimentality of The Man Comes Around. This is not to say it's a great album - but gospel singing was very much part of the man, and if you want to check it out, this is the album to listen to.
Ranked his 30th best by BEA. AllMusic score: 4 1/2 stars. My score: 2

American V: A Hundred Highways
A Hundred Highways and Ain't No Grave are from the last sessions that Cash recorded - they were released after his death. He was dying and knew it. His wife died during the recordings. His voice is no longer what it was, and sounds weak and tired and resigned. These are interesting and at times very moving recordings as they are the last recordings of an almost mythical artist - the last of the titans who strode the world in the 1950s and formed modern rock music. The songs choices are not as cheesey or inappropriate as on The Man Comes Around - though there's nothing here with the quality or power of Hurt from that album. 
Ranked his 8th and 18th best by BEA. AllMusic score: 4 stars and 4 stars. My score: 3

Gravelly and instantly recognisable. Cash's voice is rich with poignancy and rugged honesty. His voice is limited, and at times he struggles to stay in tune, even to sing at all, his voice occasionally dragging down to a spoken drawl - yet with the strength of conviction he manages to bring, and the emotional intensity he somehow drags into his songs, he is proof that the best singers don't always need to be able to sing.

All American Renegade. The Outlaw. The Man In Black. The man of the people. Rugged, tough, liberal, earthy and honest. He was around at the start of rock and roll, and though his main love was Country, he remained associated with Rock, and respected by a Rock audience, particularly during the Sixties with his San Quenton album, and then again at the end of his life with Hurt.  His legend is huge.

Down to earth, straight, not clever or poetic, but at times quite effective.Country.

Welcomed by rock audiences, came out of Sun Records with Elvis, but essentially a country artist. There's a rockabilly roughness and edge which males him more attractive than the average mainstream country artist, but the music is fairly limited plunky-plonky, and doesn't develop. With Cash it's all about the image and the voice.

The music and the lyrics are not going to be copied by anyone as there's nothing to copy. But the rough, tough, outlaw attitude has made an impression. The prison albums are something special.

He bridged the gap between rock and country. He linked music to social issues. He was the Man in Black. He's more important than Elton John.


Star quality

Emotional appeal
His voice is raw emotion.


Total = 63

Best albums:

At San Quentin  (1969)
At Folsom Prison  (1968)
American Recordings  (1994) - Score: 6
With His Hot and Blue Guitar  (1957)
Hello, I'm Johnny Cash  (1970)
Unchained  (1996)
The Fabulous Johnny Cash (1959)

Best compilations

There are various compilations - from big comprehensive box sets, through multi-disc offerings of narrow periods - such as his time with Sun Records, to single-disc top hits. The comprehensive sets are for hard core fans who have a lot of time on their hands.

   The best three-disc selection is: 

This covers his period with Sun and Columbia. It includes the major hits from the 50s and 60s, and a representative selection of his work from the 70s and 80s. Quite useful, and quietly respected.

   The best two-disc selection;

Similar to the other Essential, but condensed onto two discs and with slightly different selections. This one includes later work, such as The Wanderer, the song he did with U2 in 1993, but nothing from the American Recordings. A popular choice.

   The best single-disc selection:

The big songs from 1955 to 2002, On one disc. Obviously opinions will vary on what to include on a single disc, but this is a great choice, and I don't think there's a better one available (apart from my own selection - below). 

Johnny Cash 80 minute CD
(If downloading from YouTube and converting to MP3 for a CD burn, some tracks may have additional silence at the end that will need trimming to fit onto a single CD)

Cry, Cry, Cry (1955)
I Walk the Line (1956)
Get Rhythm (1956)
Don't Take Your Guns to Town (1958)
Five Feet High and Rising (1959)
Frankie's Man, Johnny (1959)
The Rebel - Johnny Yuma (1960)  (from Ride This Train)
Ring of Fire (1963)
Jackson (1967)
Daddy Sang Bass (1968) 
Folsom Prison Blues (First recorded 1956 - this is the live prison version from 1968)
 Wanted Man (1969)
Peace In The Valley (First recorded 1963 - this is the live San Quentin version 1969)
A Boy Named Sue (1969)
San Quentin (1969)
We Remember The King (1986) (from Class of '55)
Delia's Gone (1994) (from American Recordings)
Bird On A Wire (1994)   (from American Recordings)
Like A Soldier (1994)   (from American Recordings)
I Won't Back Down  (2000)   (from American III: Solitary Man)
One (2000)   (from American III: Solitary Man)
Personal Jesus (2002)   (from American IV: The Man Comes Around)
Hurt (2002)   (from American IV: The Man Comes Around)
Alloa Oe  (2003)  (from the posthumous American VI: Ain't No Grave )


*Cash at Glastonbury in 1994. Not a great performance, but interesting.
*A decent discography at AllMusic

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