Country music is pretty popular here at Hymie’s, but our first choice is rarely Johnny Cash. Our opinion really took a turn after reading his autobiography, in which we felt the country music legend came off as a boorish, self-serving boob. We’d say its all about the California condors, but if anyone here were judged on a single incident of stupidity we’d all be in real trouble.
And, as with so much other music, we’ve found approaching his albums from a new angle has improved our impression. It’s always interesting to re-visit records you didn’t enjoy in the past — your new reaction may surprise you.
More and more we’ve come to enjoy Johnny Cash’s records not for their rebellious themes, but for his consistently clever and dark sense of humor. “A Backstage Pass,” from his forgotten run at Mercury Records, is a great example. And of course, many of his early hits offer a humorous approach to hard luck through storytelling.
Recently, a friend loaned us copies of several of his 90s American Recordings albums, which we have enjoyed. At the time we’d thought the label’s model was gimmicky — taking a star whose career had long been floundering and having them cover pop songs still strikes us as tawdry — but the records undeniably resonated with a large audience. Too bad the same didn’t happen for Neil Diamond’s 12 Songs, which is a great album, too.
One can see how they re-framed Cash, (who was hardly a genuine outlaw in the sense that, say, Merle Haggard was) for generation X. And for whatever reason, we weren’t as tired of hearing “Bridge Over Troubled Water” as our parents were. Fortunately, the sextenarian’s songwriting acumen was still sharp, and the original songs from his American Recordings run are ripe with his delightfully dark sense of humor.
Our favorite song from the period was not one of the Rick Rubin productions, but a song from the Dead Man Walking soundtrack (a favorite disc which we have recently posted here). With its humorous approach to metaphysics, “In Your Mind” presages Cash’s appearance on The Simpsons as a coyote who serves as Homer’s spirit guide during a peyote trip. Ry Cooder produced the song, lending it his own irreverent approach.
When we found “In Your Mind” to post it this morning, we realized it recalled an older tune that’s likely far less known but a favorite of ours. “Let It Ride” is a single by country music songwriter Dick Feller from 1975. Feller had written a hit for Johnny Cash which made country music’s top ten three years earlier (“Any Old Wind that Blows”) and also a #1 hit for Jerry Reed (“Lord Mr. Ford”). His songs have a similar sense of humor, and his success led to his debut as a singer shortly after the release of “Lord Mr. Ford.” His first album, like those of many Nashville songwriters, played off his previous role and had him covering the tunes he’d written for others.
Never as famous as other country storytellers like Cash and poor, unlucky Tom T. Hall, Feller wrote some of the funniest songs of the seventies. Our favorite is “Uncle Hiram and the Homemade Beer.” Like Roger Miller, he lamented that nobody took him seriously when he wrote serious songs, such as “Some Days Are Diamonds,” which was a gigantic success for John Denver in 1981. If you ever come across a Dick Feller record give it a listen — you’ll probably laugh and maybe feel a little misty, too.
“Let It Ride” is a great gamblers’ tune, which captures the misplaced hopes of placing another bet. And “In Your Mind” sounds a lot like it. We’re not suggesting Cash and Cooder stole anything from Feller, just that they’re similar approaches to the mysteries of the unknown.