Friday, June 6, 2014
Johnny Cash: With His Hot and Blue Guitar (1957)
This is a crossroads of two great legacies. It is the first LP not just of Johnny Cash and his most distinctive and unusual backing band, the Tennessee Two, but of Sun Records and therefore Sam Phillips, one of the two or three people most individually responsible for the existence of rock & roll. Cash never fit quite perfectly as a rock & roller, nor do the country or rockabilly labels seem entirely appropriate. For the majority of his career and certainly in his brief period at Sun, during which he cut what would arguably remain his best and most unblemished studio recordings, he'd strike the same curious tone he does on this album -- a murder balladeer expressing sympathy for the blackest hearts, a novelty performer of sly and eccentric humor, a gospel singer, a dark and heavy romantic, and a menacing, sneering badass. He's among the most unique individuals ever to wander into a studio, and he was from the beginning.
With His Hot and Blue Guitar is as much a hodgepodge of material as its art deco cover, its songs mostly the A- and B-sides of singles in addition to some recorded haphazardly in the interest of eventually generating a full album. Some of Cash's best material for Sun -- including the stunning "Hey Porter" and the rockabilly classic "Get Rhythm" -- never made it to a longplayer until after he left for Columbia, and a few songs that are here seem comparatively weak. Yet the record feels like a singular, perfectly shaped piece because of the intriguing starkness of the Tennessee Two. So labeled by Phillips, they consisted solely of bassist Marshall Grant and guitarist Luther Perkins, the latter of whom altered the future of country music with his odd, leap-frog playing style, backing Cash, whose history was something he carried unapologetically. A religious singer by trade, he only reluctantly made the switch to secular music at Phillips' insistence that he wanted something more commercial. He'd never fully embrace the change. He frankly doesn't even do so here -- on the godly "I Was There When It Happened," he fires up with a play and enthusiasm that makes Burt Lancaster's Elmer Gantry seem staid and pallid.
Nor is this rockabilly in the sense of other Sun artists like Elvis Presley -- who hopped, galloped and grinned more in those days -- Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, not one of whom was well-versed enough in backroad American traditionalism to have spent time in the '50s on folkie throwbacks like "Wreck of the Old 97" and "Rock Island Line," which opens the record in a burst of oblique energy. Cash settles in to tell a story and aligns himself perfectly with the release of tension and increase of speed inherent to his narrative, and all the while Perkins and Grant make a noise so minimal and rhythmic it's hard to compare it to much of anything -- but for certain, it bears few marks of any mainstream vision of country music then or now, and has the effect of making Cash's work from this period sound distant, almost hazy.
His voice, of course, plays the central role -- still with the ragged anxiousness and hunger of youth here, he nevertheless already is possessed of a baritone designed to make you sit up and listen. As much as his work can break your heart or even charm you, part of its appeal is how much it commands your respect. On just the succession of four cuts that opens this album, you can hear a versatility that might be easy to miss at a surface glimpse. "I Heard That Lonesome Whistle" puts a rough, masculine spin on the broken Hank Williams, "Country Boy" is downright sensual in its purr and holler, and "If the Good Lord's Willing" has a grit and playfulness that seems inaccessible to most rock or country vocalists. Perkins, Presley and Lewis were all great performers, but none of them could quite put across the range of emotions and tricks in Cash's repertoire.
The songs here that are fully Cash's are largely autobiographical. Though he would grow more assured as a curator of his own material and to a lesser extent as a singer, he was from the earliest moments of his public life an extraordinary songwriter. Significantly, all four of the big hits included here were his own work, gathered up from the difficulty of maintaining a relationship in amidst a life on the road, from his former life in the Service, from aches and pains and wanderings. Not only was he instantly one of the great storytellers in rock & roll, he was one of the most gut-splittingly personal. It says something that the four most surprisingly intimate, confessional songs he'd written by now (and included here) were all major singles.
"So Doggone Lonesome" is witty, self-deprecating and defeatist in the obvious mold of Hank Williams, covered elsewhere on the record. But the breakthrough hit "Cry! Cry! Cry" suggests more about what Cash would achieve in very little time. Adorned by an almost inaudible clopping along from the Two, Cash lays into a lover who's spurned him and engages in catharsis upon what's obviously meant to be the immediate aftermath of a breakup -- a guy saying things when he's not thinking. His grievances are rationalized: she only lives to see the lights uptown with her lecherous Sugar Daddies, it's happened again and again, and when she comes back he'll be gone. The important verse is the last one, in which Cash engages in a human fantasy, a lie on top of a lie; the premise is already that she, not he, is being rejected, and now he thrillingly indulges in the hell-to-pay moment, when the nameless woman comes crawling back and finds nothing except a cold "bye, bye, bye." It's an angry song, but there's a smile in it, a recognition of the adolescent or adult miseries so familiar to most of us in our worst dejected moments. It's crucial both that the song is not explicitly teenage and that it's readymade for a cover version by either gender; it's not about being trashed by a woman, it's about being trashed.
In the same way that "Bye Bye Love" and "Heartbreak Hotel" would speak to almost universal, earth-shaking truths, "Cry! Cry! Cry!" made Cash a star because it is so adaptable and simple, and its reveling in depression is perversely fun. Cash's most enduring pair of songs from this period, however, are far more serious -- and are essentially perfect. "Folsom Prison Blues" would eventually become the definition of Cash's entire aesthetic, of the complicated sympathies arising from a realism about evil and strife tempered by a general belief in humanity and decency, even in its most unforgiving corners. It's essentially a murder ballad, replete with an unusually complex third act about wishing to avoid being reminded of the world outside while acknowledging the reasons for one's imprisonment, remembered by many -- Cash himself included -- as a sort of revision of gun-toting blues braggadio and anticipation of the most violent moments in early '90s gangsta rap, largely for its heartlessly vile but curiously perceptive "I shot a man in Reno / just to watch him die" line. Cash takes John Wayne violence to its obvious conclusion here and recognizes its ugliness, but he also doesn't flinch before the other side: the misspent youth of a bored, wrongheaded moment, the permanent alteration of a life by a single instant of bad judgment, and the fact that even in the villain there beats some sort of a heart. In reality, it's not a celebration of violence, though Cash wouldn't be immune to writing such a thing; it's a profoundly compassionate examination of what it means to do wrong and to then live the agonizing consequences.
As massive and world-expanding as such subjects may be, and as much as it may seem an obvious and even boring statement, it's difficult to make a strong case that "I Walk the Line" is not the greatest song Cash ever wrote. The performance is one thing -- dramatic, calm, reflective, perfectly restrained and almost devastatingly emotional without ever once tipping its hand into sap or pausing for a moment to allow us to truly ponder what it's saying, it is one of the most beautiful recordings of the early rock & roll period. But the lyric bears much responsibility for the song's place in the world. Its complexity is almost unheard of in chart-hit pop love songs of the period, a constantly self-doubting pledge of devotion to a lover, almost explicitly a direct message from the continually touring Cash to his wife Vivian. He chronicles the struggle of fidelity, the wanting to be faithful, the temptation everywhere, and after opening the song at perhaps the highest register he could muster, he's descended by the end of the record to a low, tentative moan even as he sings the same words: "Because you're mine, I walk the line."
Along with the Kinks' "Strangers," it's one of the most realistic and unsentimental songs about marriage ever written -- dark, confused but winning and devoted, more about the romance inherent to that idealistic devotion than by the strict practice thereof. Its wavering, the difficulty of a long history, is included in the words and the performance. On top of being tirelessly romantic and moving, it's just tough -- effortlessly so. Cash would spend the next decades defining himself as an artist of integrity, humor and toughness, but in some ways it could be argued that he had long made his point in a primitive studio on Union Avenue in Memphis, with fire in his eyes, paper behind the strings of his guitar and a dedication he never thought could fall away. Maybe that's pure rock & roll after all, and maybe Phillips -- who was aware he couldn't keep a lid on all this for long -- knew before we did.