The Johnnys, who bill themselves as the world's only all-girl, all-Johnny Cash band are getting talked about like crazy these days, with many high-profile gigs and events internationally, and high praise from Cash's daughter Cindy. They are playing at Bar Bodega in Wellington this weekend and it sounds like an absolutely fantastic way to (at least temporarily) replace the mid-winter blues with Folsom Prison ones.
It's normally time to worry when a record company decides to put out "lost" product by deceased musicians, even (especially?) by legendary figures such as Johnny Cash. Taking this apprehension in mind, Cash's recently released Out Among the Stars is a welcome rather than disappointing event. The album is comprised of recordings made in Nashville in the early 1980s but only recently recovered. At that time Cash, despite his iconic status was treated as a rather money-losing proposition, and was even dropped by his record label--the same one that is now releasing this record, ironic no? At any rate, the songs are often overproduced, as is typical of so-much eighties music, whether recorded in Nashville or elsewhere, but there is a residual warmth to Cash's voice and a light, engaging humour that is contagious. While Cash's later Rick Rubin-era recordings benefit from their stripped down empathic approach, even some of the best material is difficult to listen to as Cash was so clearly in decline, ill and not long for this world. Notwithstanding the self-inflicted damage to his voice that Cash incurred due to his wild living, the songs on Out Among the Stars find his voice steady and reassuring even as it often relates narratives of down and out souls and hard times. You can read Cash's son John Carter Cash's track-by-track run down of the album here. And watch a film featuring covers of some of the songs by Brandon Flowers, Father John Misty, and Local Natives. And below you can listen to Out Among the Stars.
Perhaps not everyone will want to read a 600+ page book on Johnny Cash. But if you are that sort of person, Robert Hilburn’s new biography is a much more comprehensive tome than any of the previous attempts to filter through the manifold complexities of the Man in Black’s psyche. While Cash’s contributions to American music are pretty much incontestably clear today, this hasn’t always been the case. As Hilburn outlines, in painstaking fashion, throughout the 1970s and 80s, even as Cash became lionized as an iconic figure of popular culture, his record sales were poor, production values mediocre, and he was dropped from his longtime label. Of course the rejuvenation of his career during the later years working with producer Rick Rubin turned this around to an enormous degree, enabling a reconsideration of Cash’s importance to so many musical genres: rock and roll, rockabilly, country, blues, folk, and gospel. Hilburn, a veteran music critic gets his facts straight, sometimes at the expense of a gripping narrative, as the second half of the book gets rather more pedestrian. Cash’s own autobiography, while sketchy in terms of some of the particulars remains a riveting read and offers a nice compliment to Hilburn’s archival and journalistic foraging. However both are probably good recommendations for airplane reading if you are a Cash fanatic, and if you aren’t, what’s keeping you?