There’s little here that doesn’t back up the opinion of Cash as an American Original.
John Robinson 2011
Notorious for many things, Richard M Nixon should maybe have got more recognition as a music journalist. Introducing Johnny Cash at a 1970 White House concert, the President tells the gathered notables that Cash "was born in Arkansaw, lives in Tennessee, but belongs to all America".
It’s the kind of heroic language that now routinely accompanies Johnny Cash. A musician who had high times, nearly lost it all, then enjoyed a final act that conferred on him a spectacular gravitas, Cash embodied qualities his home country likes to think of as representatively American: honour; integrity; wisdom enough to learn from mistakes.
Had Cash died in 1984, after the release of his novelty single Chicken in Black, it’s extremely unlikely we’d be listening to a third volume of his posthumous bootleg recordings. As it is, it’s possible to sit with these two-and-a-half hours of low-fidelity recordings and find very little in it that doesn’t back up the opinion of the man as an American Original.
Here he is, just conducting his business, at cathartic scenes in the country’s growth and development, and its culture. We join him in 1956 introducing I Walk The Line at the Big D Jamboree in Dallas, as a "new one". Eight years later, he’s at the Newport Folk festival, introducing Bob Dylan, and performing Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright. In 1969, he’s entertaining the troops in Long Binh, Vietnam, and a year later, at the White House, on the day that the Apollo XIII mission failed.
Cash was at the sharp end of the country’s public life, but refused to play its PR games. Nixon had that day wanted him to play Okie from Muskogee (an anti-counterculture song the President failed to recognise as satirical), but he refused. Rather than someone with an overarching plan, Cash’s skill, as revealed here over and over again, was to take the temperature of a particular crowd (from GIs to Swedish criminals – there are selections here from a set at Österåker prison) and work it.
You’ll have heard his riffs on prison water before, but he could turn similar gags many different ways. One heckler suggests he have a beer. "No, I don’t drink any more…" Cash says. There’s a perfect pause, before he continues: "…I don’t drink any less."
Of course, we’ve become accustomed to wit and candour in the accepted legend of The Man in Black, but are maybe unprepared for finding these joyful moments as regular features. There are better tapes, better performances – but the strength of this collection is proving that in whatever company, be it President or criminal, Johnny Cash couldn’t help but be himself.