Good news from the Cash-Carter camp: Johnny Cash, after years of phonographic complacency, has shaken the dust off his career and given us a splendid LP, Silver, which marks his twenty-fifth year as a recording artist. Surprisingly, he's turned from Nashville to Los Angeles for help — to Emmylou Harris' producer, Brian Ahern, and to such young studio hot rods as Rodney Crowell, late of Harris' Hot Band. Meanwhile, Cash's daughter, Rosanne, a firebrand who up and wed Crowell before I even knew she existed, really turns on the heat with her sterling first album, Right or Wrong, produced by Crowell. And Cash's stepdaughter — last year's musical deb, Carlene Carter — married Rockpile's Nick Lowe, but mistakenly didn't get him to produce Two Sides to Every Woman.
If you need proof that the lines between country music and rock & roll have become irreversibly blurred, these three LPs should do it.
Needless to say, Johnny Cash has been a prime mover in this transition. He started out with Elvis Presley on the Sun label and jumped from rockabilly stardom to the status of a country legend. In many ways, he's the bridge between country music's past and present. While retaining ties with the Carter Family (who made their finest records in the Twenties and Thirties), he's also championed young rebels like Kris Kristofferson and Bob Dylan, cutting numbers with the latter before it was fashionable. Still, despite Cash's glorious history, Silver is clearly an important album for him. It answers a big question — after all these years, can he keep up with his children, both the real and the spiritual ones? — with a resounding yes.
Musically, the new LP is an effective mixture of Cash's repertoire and styles from the very beginning to right now. Though this artist has always been known for his spare instrumentation, he's polished Silver with so many sidemen that it's difficult to keep count. The musicians are an interesting mixture, too. They range from hard-plunking bassist Marshall Grant — who was one-half (along with guitarist Luther Perkins) of Cash's original Fifties band, the Tennessee Two — to slick-picking Rodney Crowell, whose modern guitar lines are as sleek as can be.
Silver boasts the strongest song selection of any Cash disc in probably a decade. Born-againers will be disappointed to learn that there are absolutely no born-again tunes. Instead, the singer seems to add extra relish to his rerecording of "Cocaine Blues." Ricky Skaggs' booming twelve-string gives the track a raucous, Leadbelly-like ring, and Cash's authoritative vocal makes him sound years younger, even coltish.
Other cuts — three Cash originals, a Billy Joe Shaver composition I hadn't heard before and Jack Clement's delightfully Chaucerian "West Canterbury Subdivision Blues," which starts with the classic line: "I built her a castle of Perma-stone" — only reinforce Silver's message that Johnny Cash is ready, willing and able to mix it up in the C&W marketplace again. That's good news in times as bland as these.
As children, Carlene Carter and Rosanne Cash were part of the traveling Cash troupe that included Johnny and his wife, June Carter Cash, matriarch Mother Maybelle Carter and many others. In the Seventies, the daughters went off and did what they wanted to do. Indeed, Johnny Cash's Fifties smash, "Ballad of a Teenage Queen," might apply to both of them: strong-minded young women carving out their identities. Perhaps it's unfair to compare their talents, since Carlene leans much more toward contemporary rock, while Rosanne is a gifted stylist who, at this point, is as comfortable with modern country music as with her father's 1957 hit, "Big River."
Carter's second record, Two Sides to Every Woman, unfortunately suffers from an overproduction that does her songwriting and singing skills no favor at all. The producers, two New York guys you haven't heard from lately, apparently tried to remake Carole King's Tapestry or redo the Shirelles. Carlene Carter's original numbers and even Elvis Costello's "Radio Sweetheart" are reduced to less than nothing. Obviously, she'll do better next time.
Right or Wrong, Rosanne Cash's debut album, invokes memories of Carter's first: such a fresh new voice, so brave and unintimidated by tradition. Cash wrote only one tune ("This Has Happened Before"), and it's youthfully predictable, but her delivery is so sweet and convincing that her singing transcends the song. She manages the same trick with some of her husband's compositions, too.
The LP's loveliest cuts are "Right or Wrong" and "Take Me, Take Me," both written by Keith Sykes, who's now one of Jimmy Buffett's Coral Reefers. Rosanne Cash torches these tracks into little treasures you'd like to keep with you at all times.
Considering the sorry state of Nashville at the moment, I'm personally encouraged by three records like this. Johnny Cash is back, as full of piss and vinegar as ever. And the two little girls from the Cash-Carter combine are ready to take on any comers. They grow up fast in the South, you know.