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Review: Johnny Cash, “Bootleg Vol. III: Live Around the World”

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The legend of Johnny Cash has been told and retold since the man’s passing in 2003, and so much is often made of his demons over the years.  But as the old folk song goes, “the old account was settled long ago.”  Intrinsic though those troubles are to Cash’s mythos, his devotion to family and God were both just as deeply ingrained.  Whatever may have lurked beneath the surface is largely absent from the 53 joyous songs that make up Bootleg Vol. III: Live Around the World (Columbia/Legacy 88697 93033 2, 2011).  The Bootleg Series designation has been reserved for legends the likes of Cash, Miles Davis and Bob Dylan; Cash’s first volume from 2006 presented solo guitar-and-voice demos, while the second from earlier this year offered previously unreleased studio material and singles new to American CD.  This volume, then, brings to light Cash’s time on the world’s stages, with tracks from 10 different concerts recorded between 1956 (by “Sun recording artist Johnny Cash”) and 1979 (by an internationally established superstar).

Though he lived long enough to see presidents from Herbert Hoover to George W. Bush, Cash’s signature sound remained constant.  It was sometimes reassuring and other times provocative, but always honest and uniquely American.  The dichotomy of Cash’s music, as well as its consistency, is on display in Bootleg III, produced by Gregg Geller and Steve Berkowitz.  It’s a worthy successor not only to Bootleg I and II but other recent Cash archival projects like The Johnny Cash TV Show and the expanded boxes of At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin.  Only 16 of the 53 tracks on Live Around the World have seen prior release.

The consistency wasn’t just of songwriting.  Bassist Marshall Grant, who died on August 7 of this year, appears on every concert here save one.  His bandmate in the Tennessee Two, guitarist Luther Perkins, is present on the first three sets.  (Perkins died in 1968.)  Two became Three with the addition of W.S. “Fluke” Holland on drums, but the hiring of W.S. was no fluke.  With the exception of the drum-less Newport Folk Festival gig of 1964 and the voice-and-piano recital from the Carter Fold circa 1976, Holland is heard on each set from 1962 on.

After the jump, join the jamboree in Dallas, Texas, 1956!

Screams and yelps from excited audience members punctuate Cash’s 1956 performance at Dallas’ Big “D” Jamboree.  The noise reminds one of  the equally-energetic performances from the same year that are included on Legacy’s Young Man with the Big Beat for Cash’s onetime Sun labelmate, Elvis Presley.  Three raw songs are included from this set, “So Doggone Lonesome,” “I Walk the Line” and “Get Rhythm.”  By the time of the next set at Maryland’s New River Ranch in 1962, Cash has moved on from Sam Phillips’ Memphis environs and is introduced as “the young gentleman who comes from Columbia Records.”

There’s sly humor in Cash’s banter, even at this early stage.  “I was in the Air Force for 12 years – ’50 to ’54,” he quips at one point.  At another, he compares breakfast to “something on a shingle,” to the audience’s wild approval.  Less sly are his off-the-wall impersonations, from the skipping of an Ernest Tubb record to an Elvis imitator doing Elvis doing “Heartbreak Hotel.”  Got that?  (Cash took pains to not rib The King…much!)  The vocal timbre isn’t quite as deep as we remember, but the playing is unmistakably Cash.  The tempi are brisk, with many of the songs clocking in at under two minutes’ length.  “I Walk the Line” is taken at a noticeably faster clip in Maryland than six years earlier in Dallas.  When Cash performed “Cotton Fields” in Maryland, did he ever think that his songs would become as traditional as this tune?  There’s a rare opportunity here to hear so many of Cash’s songs performed while they were still fresh on the charts and in the band’s playbook.

The Newport Folk Festival performance of 1964 is notable for the absence of Holland’s drums.  Cash’s reading of “I Still Miss Someone” here is slower and more nuanced than his earlier version in Maryland; it may be the most touching performance on these two discs.  He’s fulsome in his praise of Bob Dylan, and he performs Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” in this set with minor lyrical adjustment!  Cash even remarks that the young Dylan is “the best since Pete Seeger,” name-checking the folk legend who introduced him at Newport.  This entire set had been previously released by Vanguard Records on a various-artists disc in 1995, but it’s restored here to a rightful place of honor in the Cash discography.  (Speaking of the Bard of Hibbing, can we finally get the Cash/Dylan sessions released commercially?  Please?)

Between 1964 and 1969, much had changed in America, but Cash’s sound is intact in the 1969 Vietnam performance.   It’s as if the British Invasion and the advent of heavy rock had simply never happened.  Cash doesn’t have to try for “relevance,” as he achieves it effortlessly.  The set here is largely unique, with only “Big River” a repeat from the earlier sets.  He does solemnly introduce “Remember the Alamo,” evoking a much earlier war, with the song set to a stirring martial beat.  The audience eats up his naughty “Cocaine Blues,” and screams of “Go, Johnny, go!” address the good Johnny C.  The soldiers’ connection with Cash is most clear in this altogether winning set.  The audio is clear, with just a brief dropout in “Cocaine” and the abrupt fade of set closer “Daddy Sang Bass,” written by Carl Perkins, who had become a member of Cash’s touring entourage by this point.

Disc Two opens with the longest set, from April 17, 1970 at the White House of President Richard M. Nixon.  When Nixon introduces Cash over a respectful four minutes, he mentions the esteemed company that the singer is in: the comedian Red Skelton, the cast of the Broadway musical 1776, and the volatile Shakespearean dynamo Nicol Williamson.  (The 1776 ensemble possessed much the same resilient spirit and staunch moral fiber as Cash.  They stood up to Nixon’s aides when it was suggested that the song “Cool, Considerate Men” be cut from the show’s line-up, afraid that the President might respond negatively to it.  The cast refused, and the show successfully went on.)  Launching with a “bleeped” rendition of Shel Silverstein’s “A Boy Named Sue,” Cash then begins what’s the most polished performance of the two discs.  He narrates a song cycle that amounts to a miniature history of the South, and it’s both homespun and practiced.  Make no mistake; this is a rehearsed theatrical performance with a keen awareness of the audience, more reserved than raucous.  But Cash’s innate honesty and humility keep it from becoming mawkish. 

In his fine liner notes, Dave Marsh points out the irony of Cash performing “What is Truth” in front of the soon-to-be-disgraced President Nixon, but it bears repeating here.  In his poignant set, The Man in Black delivers a number of gospel-flecked songs from his hymn book, including a spine-tingling a cappella “Jesus Was a Carpenter.”  He frankly refers with a straight face to his own drug problems, and comes off as both canny and sincere in front of the buttoned-up audience.  For Johnny Cash, that’s not a contradiction.  It’s no surprise that Johnny Cash could find common ground with President Nixon, and express his values and experiences in song.

The three performances from Sweden’s Österåker Prison, 1972, are all fine excerpts from Cash’s least-known prison concert, but their inclusion is out-of-place here.  Those interested in this show would be better-directed to the complete album, På Österåker, available and reasonably priced as a Sony import.  The show deserves a stand-alone release stateside, and the three songs here just make that all too clear.

There’s not much contemporary material by outside songwriters in these sets; the finest exception might be Steve Goodman’s “The City of New Orleans,” heard from the CBS Records Convention of 1973.  It takes its rightful place among Johnny Cash’s long line of train songs.    (A sympathetic reading of “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down,” by Cash’s future fellow Highwayman Kris Kristofferson, is a highlight from the brief sample of the Swedish date.)

Vic Anesini has remastered these tracks with his usual flair, although even Anesini can’t salvage the fidelity of the sets from the Carter Family Fold (1976) and Nashville’s Exit Inn (1979).  Thankfully the material is good enough to warrant their inclusion, anyway, such as Cash’s sing-along “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and the deliciously larcenous “One Piece at a Time.”  The late seventies performances find Cash revisiting past triumphs, such as the rollicking “Hey Porter” at the 1976 Wheeling, West Virginia Jamboree.

Family played an important role in Cash’s life onstage and off.  In addition to the Tennessee Two and Three, beloved matriarch June Carter Cash joins her husband for “Long-Legged Guitar Pickin’ Man” the rave-up “Jackson” in Vietnam and also appears on “The Old Account” at The White House.  That performance features the whole troupe: not just June, but Carl Perkins, Anita Carter, The Statler Brothers and the Carter Family collective.  Carl Perkins contributes electric guitar and occasional vocals on three sets.  Instrumentally, there’s a bit of color when Larry Butler and Earl Poole Ball contribute piano to Österåker and the Exit Inn, respectively.  (Unidentified pianists play at the Carter Fold and the Wheeling Jamboree.)

In addition to Marsh’s essay, the sixteen-page booklet features a number of photos, many in full color.  There’s a solemn Cash captured speaking to President Nixon, and a great vintage shot of the singer high-tailing it out of a Holiday Inn.  Photos of ticket stubs from Cash’s many performances are a nice design touch, and both discs and the booklet are housed in a 2-CD jewel case.

Why does Johnny Cash’s voice still command attention today?  The sentiments of “Too Doggone Lonesome,” “I Still Miss Someone” and “What is Truth” ring just as true today as they did when Cash first sang them.  Love, loss, mortality, faith, family, country, history: Johnny Cash sang eloquently and persuasively of all such matters.  Bootleg III: Live Around the World shows The Man in Black was, in fact, a man of many colors.

Written by Joe Marchese

October 11, 2011 at 12:42

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