Category Archives: Country

“Hey, look a-yonder comin'”: Johnny Cash – Orange Blossom Special (1965)

obsSo, it’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Johnny Cash.  I dare say that I could talk about the merits of even the under-appreciated 70s and 80s work.  Y’know, the stuff that folks ignore (the declining Columbia output and the Mercury years anyone?).  In fact, two of my very favourite Johnny Cash records are from the 70s – Hello, I’m Johnny Cash and Ragged Old Flag.  Anyhoo, the subject of today’s post is Orange Blossom Special.  Perhaps my all-time favourite Johnny Cash album (who am I kidding, there’s no perhaps-ing about it!) and easily one of the most important in his catalogue.

Now, there will be many better writers than me who will detail exactly just how important a record this is, and while I could talk for hours about it (and have done!) I’ll keep it brief.  Orange Blossom Special was the first Johnny Cash album that I properly listened to.  Mostly due to the cover.  It’s also the album that I tell folks to listen to when they start that whole “yeah, but all his stuff sounds the same don’t it?” shenanigans.  This here was the point where I viewed Johnny Cash as the most important of all my influences.  There was no pigeon-holing him as a ‘country western singer’, cause he done what he wanted.  Here he took on Dylan’s folk, as well as songs about murder, prison and, of course, a train.  He made me smile and importantly he made me think.  With You Wild Colorado, he wrote a song that stopped me in my tracks.

While Cash was considered by many an ‘Outlaw’, there’s no denying that he was still very much one of the leading stars and voices of country music (the genre for Conservative America).  But like Bitter Tears (his curve-ball so to speak) he continued to bridge the gap between the country and folk worlds.  Cash’s embracing of Bob Dylan and the folk revival meant that he was also speaking to the disenchanted, anti-establishment, liberal youth.  An audience that generally had no interest in country music.  Likewise, he was introducing Dylan to a country audience.  It also, arguably, strengthened both Cash and Dylan’s presence in the pop market.
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Anyhoo, to the record … Cash included 3 songs penned by Dylan – It Aint Me Babe, Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind and Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright.  All of them, to these ears anyhoo, are utterly delightful.  It Ain’t Me Babe a duet with June complete with mariachi horns, while Mama, You Been on My Mind (which Dylan hadn’t released at the time) had a nice bit of sax courtesy of Boots Randolph.

The title track itself remains one of the finest train songs there is – penned in 1938 by Ervin T. Rouse following his experiences riding the Orange Blossom Special (the back of the record includes the most excellent notes about Cash finally meeting the writer, too).  It’s an incredible opening track and remains timeless.  The Long Black Veil is also a classic and this remains possibly my favourite version of it and the reading of When It’s Springtime in Alaska has a real haunting quality to it.  Other favourites are the spiritual Amen and The Wall.  The monologue at the beginning of Danny Boy is truly something, too.  Of the two Cash penned songs, You Wild Colorado is the pick – one of the best in the great Cash songbook.  That said, All of God’s Children Ain’t Free is a great song also.

So yeah, if you’ve yet to really immerse yourself in the music of Johnny Cash I would recommend this as the perfect starting point.

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A byrd in the hand is worth two in the bush (??): The Byrds: The Notorious Byrd Brothers / Sweetheart of the Rodeo (two-fer, 1976)

This one here is a good ol’ two-fer.  I’ve owned a few of these types o’ packages over the years on CD, but this is the first I’ve had on the ol’ vinyl. Picked this up for £4.49, too – back in October last year during one of my regular visits to the trove of treasures called the Record Fayre.  Although I’m still on the look out for these separately, I thought this was a nice catch.  Two very different but very splendid records from two very different line-ups of the 1968 Byrds, which just so happen to sound tremendous when listened to back-to-back (in whichever order you choose).

Notorious Byrd Brothers is a pretty spectacular album.  No kidding.  Despite the fact that the sessions were tense and resulted in the eventual departure of the notorious David Crosby, it’s an incredibly inspired record.  Filled with pop and country tunes coloured with the familiar Byrd harmonies, jingle jangley awesomeness and they go and throw in some spacey-oddness (moog!!!) for good measure.  That spacey-oddness is never overbearing though, so don’t let that put you off if you’ve never sat down with this one.

Artificial Energy is a wonderful opener and it’s lit up with some of that oddness. Draft Morning is a splendid slice of story telling, and Get To You had all the hallmarks of classic Byrds (Gene Clark written all over it and it’s since been confirmed that he’d co-written it).  The album ends with the space folk oddness of Space Odyssey – the alternative theme tune for Lost in Space (the Irwin Allen TV show from the 60s, not the re-imagined movie with Joey from Friends).

It didn’t sell, though.  Say what?  Yeah, the fans of 67 had turned their back on the Byrds!  What were they thinking!?  I mean, they had the delights of Natural Harmony, Old John Robertson and Tribal Gathering!byrdsInterestingly, the next step was to delve a little deeper into Americana – Sweetheart of the Rodeo.  For this ride McGuinn and Hillman hooked up with a young and hip country chap named Gram Parsons.

It’s common knowledge that Parsons became a major influence on the writing, arranging and recording of the album – essentially resulting in him steering the band to Nashville to record what is, essentially, a country album.  He also encouraged the involvement of some incredible session musicians who could deliver a specific feel and sound.

It starts and ends with two Bob Dylan tracks.  You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere (a track Dylan hadn’t even released at the time), I Am a Pilgrim and the Louvin Brothers’ The Christian Life really set the tone.  A really remarkable introduction to the record.  Despite the majority of his vocals having been replaced (there’s a whole book worth of chatter about why … and they’ve since been restored on the Legacy Edition of the album), Sweetheart of the Rodeo will always be defined by Parsons’ involvement and his wonderful Hickory Wind and 100 Years From Now (which really would have fitted nicely on the previous record).

Unsurprisingly, the album bombed.  The Byrds were no longer flying.  Parsons left soon after the recording was done, forming the Flying Burrito Brothers with Hillman following.

So, any one out there have any two-fers in the collection?  If so, are the albums a good combo …

“would-be-great, ungrateful, too-long, run-on songs”: Josh T. Pearson – The Last of the Country Gentlemen (2011)

josh“An all-timer, though?”.  That was a question I found myself pondering when I spotted this one at the weekend.  That’s a question I ask when I see something that I had bought previously on CD (the pre-record player days).  “If it’s not an all-timer then stick with the CD”.  That’s what I tell myself.  Sometimes that mantra doesn’t quite work.  Sometimes it works a treat.  Anyhoo, I digress.  This one I had on CD (the Rough Trade edition with the alternative cover and electric bonus disc).  While I don’t listen to it regularly (can anyone!), I still find myself bowled over by it’s power and solitude.  Heck, as I held the record I thought about the very first time I heard this.  I was completely speechless.  Staring at the speakers and just completely in the grasp of Josh T. Pearson‘s playing and his words. Ten years earlier, of course, Pearson and his band, Lift to Experience, were responsible for a most excellent and sprawling post-apocalyptic soundtrack.  Their album, The Texas-Jerusalem Crossroads, is one of the great albums.  The Last of the Country Gentlemen, however, is as clear an illustration as any that much can change.  The fuzzed-up guitar and rumbling rhythms gone and replaced with nothing but a sole acoustic guitar and some sparse and occasional violin accompaniment (Warren Ellis really lights up Woman When I’ve Raised Hell).  The Biblical imagery replaced by self-reflection and heartache. In terms of break-up albums, there’s nothing like it.  It’s blunt.  Really blunt.  It doesn’t have the melodies of Beck’s Sea Change (or the recent Morning Phase) or the swagger of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black.  There’s nothing moving the songs on but Pearson.  In his own time. So as I held this in my hands I thought “yup, all-timer”.  I might not listen to this an awfy lot, but I’ll still sit absolutely still when it plays.  Listening to every murmur.  Every sigh and every heartbreaking note from that guitar. … plus, there’s the magnificent ‘vinyl only’ title track.  Hurrah!

New addition: Steve Earle – Guitar Town (1986)

guitar townSteve Earle’s debut … a very fine debut, too.  Picked this up today for £3 in that ol’ record haunt of mine, Record Fayre.  A good shop … and today, like Saturday, I could have picked up a few more.  Me, though, I was happy with this.  Cause it’s just everything I love about Steve Earle.  Wonderful songs with loads of heart and he’s kicking dust all over the place.

Plus, Springsteen could only wish he could write songs as good as the title track or Someday.

An absolute wee treat on a Tuesday.  Seriously.