Saturday, 25 July 2009

Rockin' Song of the Week No.58 - God Bless Robert E. Lee - Johnny Cash

God Bless Robert E. Lee comes Johnny Cash’s 1983 album, Johnny 99. Although JC was no longer a regular on the charts he was by no means a fading light. No longer the shooting star that had blazed across the Memphis sky thirty years before, he had become more like the North Star – always there, solid, reliable and something reliable to guide your ship home.

The good thing about him being off the charts was that he was able to record, what, how and where he wanted without having to appease fickle, radio friendly ears. The Man In Black was now a middle aged, seasoned pro who could cut what he fancied, something that made Johnny 99 such a good album. For start he recorded it in North Hollywood at the Magnolia Sound Studios, away from the restrictive 2 hour - 4 song Nashville formula. The band was a mix of the West Coasters James Burton, Hal Blaine and Glen D Hardin and his own country boys, Bob Wootton and Marty Stuart.

The songs were taken from writers across the country with Nashville exiled Englishman Paul Kennerley providing a pair of peaches. That’s The Truth tells how you don’t really find the truth about a gal until the lights go out and the duet with June, Brand New Dance, which would have been an absolute classic if the wife had been replaced by the sister-in-law, Anita. Even better were the two numbers from Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska, Johnny 99 and brilliant opener, Highway Patrolman, which allowed JC to preach about right and wrong like only JC could. Another highlight is Guy Clark’s New Cut Road which sees James Burton show why his clean picking was so revered.

God Bless Robert E. Lee comes from the pens of B Borches and the amazingly talented Mack Vickery, whose portfolio is up there with the best in the business. It pays tribute to the General’s common sense when the war was slipping away from the Confederacy. JC has the voice of authority, and his reading here sounds like a narration for the History channel. If Johnny had chosen a second career in this area, Morgan Freeman and James Earl Jones would have been out of work. When he sings he heard a Yankee say “yesterday Nashville fell”, his deep tone sounds like the thundering cannon blasts that would have been guilty of felling that Southern jewel. The music is strong an delicate in turns, like the quiet waiting and then sudden battle cries of the Civil War in question. It all takes place behind the Dixie beat, and is up there with his Ragged Old Flag for best compatriot song of his illustrious career. I’d love to hear Elvis do this ala An American Trilogy, with the band and his voice it would have been a goose-bumper. I could also imagine Jerry Lee Lewis doing it, a great addition it would have been to When Two Worlds Collide or Killer Country.

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