Johnny Cash was a force of nature. There are not enough superlatives in the dictionary to do the man any kind of justice. J.R. was a magnificent songwriter. Just as magnificent, perhaps even more so, was he an interpreter of other people’s songs. However, in an (almost) fifty-year recording career, during a time when labels demanded and released two or three albums per year, The Man In Black gave us over ninety long players. Surely some songs must have slipped past quality control? Particularly during Cash’s ‘lean period’, spanning the mid-1970s up to the first ‘American Recordings’ in 1994?
Yes they did. They most certainly did. Here, in some kind of chronological order, and by no means an exhaustive list, are ten really lousy Johnny Cash songs for you to (probably not bother to) check out.
‘Straight A’s In Love’ (1959) Single only. It’s tricky to find anything really bad from the Sun era. That stark, chickaboom engine and slapback echo is so vivid and evocative. This nugget was released from leftover tracks after Cash had departed Memphis for Nashville and Columbia Records. I doubt J.R. intended it to be a key release. He’s trying to throw out too many hackneyed words; an exercise in bad rhymes, the kind that Sam Cooke probably rejected for ‘Wonderful World’. It’s a short song, so there’s a mercy.
‘Everybody Loves A Nut’ (1966). The title track from the album with the line: ‘Everybody loves a nut, everybody loves a weirdo’. The sentiment is great, the world is indeed a better place for strange, eccentric people. But the song, if you can call it a song, stinks the place up. A Jack Clement composition – it can’t have taken him too long.
‘A Cup of Coffee’ (1966). From the same album. A rambling monologue about Ramblin’ Jack Elliot. Essentially a few minutes of talking about coffee and enquiring about the health of Jack’s wife, Flo. Plus yodelling. Somebody pressed record by accident?
‘What I’d Say’ (1967). From ‘Carrying On With Johnny Cash and June Carter’. Johnny loved June and June loved Johnny. They were destined to be together, some might say, and they recorded some beautiful duets. There’s a reasonable take on Ray Charles’ ‘I Got A Woman’ on the record, but they overstretched themselves for this Charles classic, and missed quite badly. Johnny sings high up in his register, June sorts of chips in. There’s shouting and hollering. It’s a bit of a mess.
‘I’ve Got A Thing About Trains’ (1970). From the album ‘Hello, I’m Johnny Cash’. Although the man was at the height of his powers in 1970, this is another throwaway Jack Clement song, lamenting about how people don’t take train journeys anymore. Americana and American history adores trains. Cash sang many songs about trains. Some of which were sublime. This song is as poor a train song as you could (not) wish for.
‘Let There Be Country’ (1976). From the album ‘One Piece At A Time’. Not much more than a list of old country players still playing. ‘Let there be country, let the music roll along .. let me share the song’. A worthy sentiment, but the song’s a plodding, chickaboom by numbers affair. Co-written by Cash too. Not cool John. Not cool.
‘Sold Out Of Flagpoles’ (1976) From the same album, a talking blues about fictional pal Lonnie’s hardware store. Featuring a ‘boingy springy noise’ solo. Lyrics extolling the many virtues of America, plus the comings and goings in a small town. This ‘song’ has no redeeming features.
‘The Baron’ (1981). Again a title track, from a pretty ropey album. The story of a pool hall hustler meeting his match. Augmented by an equally cringeworthy 80’s video, featuring Cash as ‘The Baron’, and Marty Stuart as ‘Billy Joe’ the challenger. There’s a ‘Coward of the County’ vibe to the song, but when J.R. was reduced to attempting to emulate Kenny Rogers, then you knew his career was on the ropes.
‘Johnny 99’ (1983). From the album ‘Johnny 99’. Cash’s take on Springsteen’s ‘Highway Patrolman’, also on this album, is pretty decent. But here he makes Nebraska’s ‘Johnny 99′ sprightly and cheery, with an unnecessary twangy guitar solo, totally at odds with the bleak lyrical theme. Puzzling.
‘The Chicken in Black’ (1984) A single only release (mercifully). Our hero becomes part of a three-way brain transplant, receiving his new mind from an executed New York bank robber. J.R. is then neurologically compelled to become ‘The Manhattan Flash’, a terrible, universally recognised thief. He even holds up the Grand Ole Opry. A chicken takes Cash’s brain and starts the Johnny Chicken Show. A melody very similar to ‘A Boy Named Sue’, with the probable aim of a similar novelty hit. THE low water mark for The Man In Black. The video has to be seen!
There you have it. An entirely subjective list of songs to avoid. From an essential and unmissable artist. And in compiling this list, I’ve also had to work through many wonderful, sublime Johnny Cash songs. So you, Dear Reader, strike it lucky for not having to listen to these aberrations. And I win by reminding myself (once again) of the life-affirming, glory that was, is and remains Johnny Cash.