Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Revisit: Johnny Cash: Sings the Ballads of the True West

Johnny Cash
Sings the Ballads of the True West

Revisit is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that now deserve a second look.

In 2010, we know the album title is just plain wrong. The equally romantic and tragic view of the American West that dominates Johnny Cash's Sings the Ballads of the True West is the stuff of old black and white TV shows and movie westerns, where the men were macho and the women were either virtuous (boring) or loose with their morals (preferable). Much like Gone with the Wind once did so much to shape the public's perception of the Civil War South as a time of honorable men, beautiful belles and contented slaves, True West offers a narrow interpretation of an American past that existed - still exists - only on Hollywood stages and in dimestore novels. The "other" West, that of early industrialization, transient workers and immigration, plays no part in Cash's work.

But True West remains among Cash's most consistent concept albums, even if some songs, particularly those with an excess of strings and background singers, sound campy. The album cover of a mustachioed Cash, reclining against a tree and gripping a gun, is also about as hokey as it gets. But what kind of world are we met with in True West? Primarily it is one of death. In the traditional "Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie," the dying youth with the "pallid lips" begs not to be buried in the middle of fucking nowhere. His wish isn't granted; Cash as narrator here is respectful but coldly matter-of-fact: "In a narrow grave, just six by three/ We buried him there on the lone prairie," he coolly sings. The similarly-themed traditional "Streets of Laredo" also takes as its subject a dying young man who's "done wrong"; what exactly he's done is never stated, but like the figure of "Prairie" he dies with his final request, cold water to drink, unfulfilled. Other songs chosen for True West fit this mold as well: in "A Letter from Home" yet another dying cowboy - already bummed because no one in his family writes to him - croaks with only a stranger and an unread Bible for company, while in Harlan Howard's "The Blizzard" a man traveling the plains is found frozen to death "just a hundred yards from Mary Anne."

Yet however limited its historical scope or understanding may be, history does inform much of the album. It's in these songs where Cash's familiar world of violence, criminals, outlaws and, ever so rarely, heroes is at its most prevalent. Cash performs Ramblin' Jack Elliott's "Mr. Garfield" - its subject the assassination in 1881 of the President by Charles J. "Charley" Guiteau - with no small amount of black humor, especially in the dialog between the two brothers who tell the story. Cash approaches Carl Perkins' "The Ballad of Boot Hill" rather differently, portraying Billy Clanton, shot dead in the famous Tombstone gunfight of 1881, as a purely innocent, and altogether tragic, figure (the actual events of what transpired are more ambiguous than Cash suggests). In a shade over four minutes Cash summarizes the bloody life and death of the infamous namesake outlaw of "Hardin Wouldn't Run," though the singer's version infuses the criminal with traces of nobility and bravery (or stupidity, as the fact that he "wouldn't run" is what gets Hardin killed, bullet to the back of the head). Hardin's killer, John Selman, would reportedly shoot him three more times after that head shot; Cash omits this rather brutal, and decidedly less folksy, detail from his narrative.

The accuracy of the Merle Kilgore-penned "Johnny Reb" is likewise dicey; desertion from the Confederate army was frequent, even at the war's early stages, and thus Cash's praise of Southern soldiers who "fought all the way" must be seen as idealized Southern mythmaking. But one gets the sense that Cash, regardless of his exhortations in "Reflections" to see "now and then the West as it really was," was primarily interested in that mythic version of the Old West as he saw it instead of historical objectivity. Throughout the album Cash conjures up a vision of the West that primarily resides only in the American imagination, an ethos that Cash also furthers in the album's liner notes. Some songs from True West would later succeed outside the album's context - most notably, "25 Minutes to Go," which Cash would include on At Folsom Prison - but most of the songs here work best when heard in an album context. True West often blurs that thin line between historical fact and poetic license, but folklore and music have always been intertwined. Few artists have managed to meld these two sometimes-contrasting aspects as well as Johnny Cash, and it's in his abilities as a storyteller that we are still able to appreciate True West as an example of how we remember, and in some cases idealize, our collective history.

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