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Screaming whistle, smoking stack and some cover songs by the 'Man In Black'.

Johnny Cash

Orange Blossom Special

Released: February 22nd, 1965

9.2
Album Review Johnny Cash

The events we write about at Gaslight Records happened in some form or another 50 years ago to the day. Roll along with us and imagine you are back in 1969.

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Mentioning Johnny Cash in the same sentence as the words "cover songs" has a tendency to conjure up conversations about Rick Rubin, Trent Reznor, and an outstanding, highly acclaimed album released in 2002. But the history of Cash reworking the ballads of others is long, storied and illustrious - underpinned by the unique quality of Cash’s gravely baritone vocals.

Enter Orange Blossom Special (Columbia, 1965), an album so well constructed and so delightful to listen to, that I’m struggling to tap at the keyboard as it spins in the background. A nearly flawless (wardrobe selection for the cover art not withstanding) album, the twelve song LP only features two Cash originals; the writing credits on the other ten songs are as varied as the products of their respective labours, weaved into an outstanding musical tapestry by the man in black.

Track three…hold the phones…TRACK THREE! Excessive cheerleading is not the ambition of this review, but when it comes to “It Ain’t Me Babe” it’s impossible to avoid.

The opening song and namesake of the album, “Orange Blossom Special”, is an uncharacteristically subdued vocal rendition of a folk classic previously reserved for frantic fiddlers. Choosing to ditch the fiddle in exchange for double harmonicas and a spasmodic injection of saxophone, Cash reanimates the work (of the then unknown) writer Ervin T. Rouse - continuing a much vaunted love triangle between the artist, folk music and the railroad.

The second track is narrative prose with subtle country rhythms; a tale of lies, love and lost lives. “The Long Black Veil” was originally penned by Danny Dill and Texas’ country queen, Marijohn Wilkin. The song is said to be inspired by the death of 1920s Hollywood heartthrob Rudolph Valentino, and subsequent reports of visits to his grave by mysterious veiled woman on moonless nights. With minimal lyrical indulgence this song delivers a woe-begotten story of murder, justice and untold adulteress alibis.

Screaming whistle, smoking stack and some cover songs by the 'Man In Black'.

Track three…hold the phones…TRACK THREE! Excessive cheerleading is not the ambition of this review, but when it comes to “It Ain’t Me Babe” it’s impossible to avoid. This is one of the greatest songs you will likely listen to…ever. Cash and Carter’s duet shifts the lighting just enough to subtly and exquisitely twist the perception of a Bob Dylan masterpiece.

Harlan Howard’s prison song (and Johnny Cash staple) “The Wall” is a stirringly beautiful intermission between Dylan Songs, before Cash re-imagines “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” with equally impressive gusto.

"You Wild Colorado" is the first Cash original on the album, closing out the 'A' side of the LP in, it must be said, a fairly lacklustre way. The flip side begins with the then unreleased Bob Dylan demo “Mama You’ve Been On My Mind”. This track doesn’t blow the listener away by a long shot, it does however provide much needed control, proving Cash’s success with Dylan’s other tracks on the album was far from preordained.

Track eight guides the album into a slightly different direction with the plucky, stuttered style that made Johnny Horton famous. Cash delivers Tillman Franks’ unofficial anthem of Fairbanks, “When It’s Springtime in Alaska”, simply and superbly, immortalizing a song as enjoyable as it is scientifically convenient (-40c = -40f).

That final-frontier simplicity gives way to one of Cash’s more intricately written, and quietly outraged, original pieces: “All of God’s Children Ain’t Free”. This song acts as a brilliantly subtle indictment of the ‘Jim Crow’ South, highlighting both the imposed financial slavery of share cropping, and the clearly unfair racial rebirth of the civil rights movement that unfolded in earnest around the date of the album’s release.

Screaming whistle, smoking stack and some cover songs by the 'Man In Black'.
Cash & Dylan in 1964

“Danny Boy” is, well, timeless, and while Cash’s rendition of the song isn’t particularly unique, the song doesn’t demand originality to effectively evoke emotion from the listener. The real treat in Orange Blossom Special’s version is the introductory monologue, delivered by Cash with a simple truthfulness that is beyond description except to say that it gives a depth to the version in American IV: “The Man Comes Around” (American/Universal, 2002) that will have you, if you weren’t already, in tears.

The album trails away at the end with “Wildwood Flower”, before a gospel harmony - so close to Cash’s heart - flows forth in the aptly named “Amen”. The song and the album (and likely the listener) finish by saying the word, and there aren’t many others that spring to mind after experiencing something as seraphic as the voice of Johnny Cash, or as divine as Orange Blossom Special… Amen, Johnny, Amen.

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