There are damn few figures of truly mythic stature left in the world of popular music -- a sad truth probably best laid at the doorstep of rampant hype and the micro-dissection that trails even moderate celebrity-hood like a determined slug. When paparazzi snap photos from rooftops and your maid sells her story to Hard Copy, it's hard to maintain the illusion of heroism.
The re-emergence of Johnny Cash, though, turns that common tale on its head. Because it's precisely hype that made this project -- which Cash has said is the album he's always wanted to make -- come together. And because on the evidence of these new songs, there's no illusion of heroism to maintain, just the truth of it to convey.
You're probably already familiar with the hype. American Recordings honcho and super-producer Rick Rubin, whose stable includes the death metal of Slayer and the retro-rock of the Black Crowes, offered Cash free reign after too many stifling years at Columbia, and simultaneously launched a campaign to reintroduce the prototypical man in black to a new generation of alt-rock buyers. Cash played invite-only showcases at Johnny Depp's hip L.A. Viper Room, sang songs penned by Glenn Danzig and Tom Waits and, finally, to cap it all off, served as keynote speaker at this year's South by Southwest, where he also performed to a wall-to-wall crowd at tiny punk rock club Emo's.
Savvy moves all, but none would have been worth the effort if Cash hadn't come through with the album of a lifetime. Aside from Danzig and Waits, Nick Lowe, Kris Kristofferson, Leonard Cohen and Loudon Wainwright III pitch in songs that turn, in Cash's weathered hands, into material that might as well be labeled "traditional." Cash's river-deep voice is tremulous with age, his tales of guilt and redemption carry an authority all the more commanding for its vulnerability, and his rudimentary self-accompaniment on acoustic guitar makes its point clearly: Johnny Cash doesn't need much to make enduring music, because Johnny Cash is enduring music.
All Cash apparently needed was the freedom to do what he does, and the audience to listen. Rubin's done a major service in providing both the former and a good hype to hook the latter. It's impossible to say what may happen to Cash's freshly rising star as the hype turns its attention to next week's concerns, but American Recordings will last on its own inimitable merits. And any time we feel the need for a hero to serve as anchor in the choppy pop surf, we won't have to look any further than this.
Catch Up with the Blues
Up front: Catch Up with the Blues is the strongest record of Johnny "Clyde" Copeland's career. Here are roadhouse blues both romantic and cynical, conjuring the smell of smoke and gin, the feel of Saturday night lust and Sunday morning heartache. Here also are big-band horn-driven tunes worthy of approving nods from Don Robey, T-Bone Walker and Joe Scott, country tunes kicking ass like a lizardskin Lucchese, tunes with the poignant mysticism of Copeland's continuing exploration of the emotions and memories inspired by his first trip to Africa a decade ago.
It's a sonic spread bigger than the King Ranch, and Copeland and his cohorts -- including Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Joe "Guitar" Hughes and Lonnie Brooks -- soar over it with the confidence of eagles. "Catch Up with the Blues" opens and defines the album, with Copeland and Hughes trading solos so smoothly as to blur rhythm and lead, while the Memphis Horns, harp player Sonny Boy Terry and pianist Floyd Phillips show just how far they can push Copeland's expressive, shouting vocals. "Rolling with the Punches" draws parallels between Copeland's experiences as boxer and romancer, and "Every Dog's Got His Day" reintroduces the Memphis Horns backing Copeland as he howls the broken-hearted anguish of a trusting hound done wrong.
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Throughout, Brooks, Hughes and Brown step in and out like friends of the family at a Juneteenth picnic, and Floyd Phillips' piano work is stalwart and professional at worst. The Brown-penned "Cold Cold Winter" finds "Gatemouth" deeply ensconced in Katie Webster-ish swamp-boogie to
Catch Up also earns Copeland a slot in every trucker's tape case with "The Grammy Song" and "Pedal to the Metal," wherein Copeland lays his country songwriting credentials alongside those of Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker and Robert Earl Keen. Anyone who still thinks of country music as purely Caucasian domain could get a quick education from Copeland, and from Brown -- whose fiddle has long been a bridge between country and blues.
With the death of Albert Collins, the mantle of Third Ward Ambassador to the World has passed to Copeland, and the record Copeland made in Memphis with his road band and some friends from back home underscores how well suited he is to the role. Catch Up with the Blues is a 12-tune definition of what Houston blues is all about.