So, 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.
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.