<--Previous Review
Click Here to Return to Index of Reviews
Click Here to Return to Home Page
Next Review-->
Click the Cover Picture or Title to purchase this item from Amazon.com -- a new browser window will open.
cover shot Return of the Man In Black
American Recordings

Johnny Cash

One night some years ago -- it must have been in 1998 -- i got quite a jolt one night at a Cowboy Mouth concert. I was heading up to the restrooms, which are on the balcony level at the Roxy Theatre in Atlanta, and on the landing halfway up the stairs, i found myself face to face with something out of a spaghetti western; dressed in a long black coat, two dogs at his side, a guitar case in his hands, and the most powerful stare from dark eyes that seemed to ask "And what have you done today that was worthwhile?"

it was an almost life-size, autographed poster of the cover of this album, an amazing photo which has always reminded me of one of the less amiable prophets from the Old Testament just before he told some particularly egregious sinners where to head in.

And the "prophet" image is appropriate for Cash; sometimes in the sense of "a prophet without honour in his own country", as Cash has fallen from favour with the country music establishment more than once...

On their CD "Old Dogs", Waylon, Mel Tillis, Jerry Reed and Bobby Bare engaged in a joyful chomp at the hand that doesn't feed older country stars so well any more in a song by Shel Silverstein called "(Nashville is) Rough on the Livin' (But Surely Speaks Well of the Dead)", an indictment of the way in which the country music industry has tended to cast aside the older acts who created it in favour of the Hat of the Day, remembering them only in time for a hypocritical display when they die.

For a while, a few years ago, it looked as if that was going to be the way that Johnny Cash was going -- the majors seemed less and less interested in him, and he pretty much only got airplay on nostalgia-oriented programs.

And then he and Rick Rubin electrified the music world with this album, which cut a swathe across all genres and brought Cash back to the forefront.

This album was incredible when released, and it's still amazing now.

The weakest tracks on it are "Bird on a Wire" and "Man Who Couldn't Cry", which don't really suit Cash's delivery -- and they are Very Good.

"Let the Train Blow the Whistle (When I'm Gone)" and "Down by the Train", both using the classic -- and singularly American -- metaphor of the train as a transition, are both strong meditations on life, death and redemption.

But it's "Drive On" that i find myself coming back to, and it's "Drive On" to which i had the entire lyric memorised without trying within a few days of buying the CD; a song that speaks to me as strongly as Richard Thompson's "Wall of Death", that resonates so strongly with my own memories and emotions.

Cash got himself in trouble with the Country Establishment in the latter 60's/early 70's for daring to suggest that, perhaps, the war in Viet Nam might not be the best idea. But it was Cash (and June Carter Cash), not the Nashville Hawks who were all for the war from the safety of a recording studio, who went to 'Nam on their own dime and lived there in a trailer on an American base and entertained the troops on their way to the front and visited them in the hospital on their way back...

And twenty-five years later, Cash distilled what he saw and heard from those grunts into this one song, with its chilling repetition of the front-line soldier's mantra - "It don't mean nothin'." -- in a song that speaks to the ambivalence that America still feels toward that war and toward those of us (even REMFs like myself) who served in it.

It's The Man In Black still acting as our conscience, still reminding us that there are things that aren't right that we need to fix.

And still looking forward to that day that his faith told him was coming -- that day, maybe far far away, when "things are brighter"...

I hope angel wings come in black, though.