Johnny Cash was quite happy before he was "the man in black". Actually, he was quite upbeat even when he was the man in black
This is Johnny's Love Album.
Well, the "New Love" Album.
Thematically the songs deal with breaking up, moving on, and starting afresh.
"Happiness is You" found Cash beginning divorce proceedings with his wife (Vivian), and singing of happiness he had found in someone else (June Carter).
Johnny was 34 in 1966. He'd met Vivian in 1951 when he was 19. They married in St. Ann's Roman Catholic Church in San Antonio in 1954 when Cash (who was Southern Baptist) was 22 and had four daughters. His wife divorced him in 1966. He married June Carter, who he'd met backstage in 1955 (introduced by Elvis), in 1968.
It's all very clinical, simple and straightforward when put down on paper and maybe it should be left at that but records give an indication to the headspace the performer was in at any given time. The more unconscious this is (ie: not pointed) the more interesting it is.
Johnny may have been "freed" by his wife through divorce but he had not sought the divorce himself. She had said that Johnny's drug and alcohol abuse, constant touring, affairs with other women, and his close relationship with June Carter led her to file for divorce in 1966 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnny_Cash). Johnny's behaviours must have been extremely bad for Vivian, a Roman Catholic, to ask for a divorce, where her religion did not allow divorce and divorce was otherwise uncommon amongst Catholics in the 1960s. Perhaps Johnny had his cake and wanted to eat it too or perhaps he was suffering guilt which drove him to extremes. I mean, what came first, the drug and alcohol abuse, constant touring, affairs with other women, or the close relationship with June Carter. It does make a difference. I suspect Johnny knew right from wrong but didn't always do right and so (over) indulged in substances as punishment.
June Carter, born in 1929, and three years older than Cash, had been married twice and had two children to each husband. She was married first to honky-tonk singer Carl Smith from 1952 until their divorce in 1956 and then to Edwin "Rip" Nix, a former football player, police officer, and race car driver from 1957 to 1966.
A cynic would say that 1966 seems like it was the year for divorce.
June Carter, though, was active in music and must have known of Johnny's excesses and indulgences, or heard of them (sorry, I have the recent Cash biography (ies) behind me but I haven't read them yet) and she would have been wary but she must have seen good in him. And the self avowed "biggest sinner of them all", Johnny Cash, must have seen redemption in June Carter.
And this is where this album comes from.
As the liner notes say … "there will always be lovers and there will always be losers, and this time Johnny turns his hand to a program of songs that deal with both".
Some will say it's just a bunch of country love songs, don't read too much into it. But, I've never bought into arguments like that. Sure, if this was a manufactured pop band, then maybe. Otherwise, if there are historical events occurring all around you or life changing personal events then those things are going to affect the music you make even if your music is subconscious, or even if you didn't write most of the songs (Cash only wrote two here – the two "happy" titled songs – with June) through your song choices and how you interpret them.
And of course Johnny isn't a subconscious artist, so it is fair to read "Happiness is You" as a ode to his girlfriend, June Carter as well as a goodbye to his wife, Vivian..
Musically there are some concessions made to the mid 60s sounds with organs and what not (which I don't mind) but otherwise it is classic boom-chicka-boom Cash.
While many of Johnny's sixties albums are now regarded as classics, and are easily identifiable or iconic, this album appears to have been overlooked for whatever reason. Perhaps the blah artwork, perhaps the lack of a really killer single or perhaps people don't like Johnny too happy?
Whatever the reason it is a shame … all Johnny Cash is worth a listen.
Tracks (best in italics)
- Happiness Is You – (Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash) – Happiness is found ina new love, but to my ears it is a restrained happiness, as if there is an acknowledgement that others have suffered for the lovers to get to this point. Or, perhaps a reading too much into this song. Still, its got a nice easy going vibe to it.
- Guess Things Happen That Way – (Jack Clement) – Johnny recorded this whilst he was at Sun records and had a #1 Country hit with it (#11 pop). This version isn't as good but it is still catchy. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guess_Things_Happen_That_Way
- Ancient History – (Wayne P. Walker, Irene Stanton) – Not sure who did this first but I'm pretty sure it was Hank Snow who released it as a B-Side in 1962. "You're ancient history to this heart of mine" … a typical country line if there ever was one.
- You Comb Her Hair – (Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran) – a #5 for George Jones in 1963. This country light compared to Jones' original. Pity, it's a good song. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/You_Comb_Her_Hair
- She Came from the Mountains – (Peter La Farge) – Cash had an affinity for folk singer La Farge who died in 1965. This song he never released (officially) by La Farge. A beautiful, melancholy song of a mountain woman who can’t settle down in the city with her man.
- For Lovin' Me – (Gordon Lightfoot) – the Gordon Lightfoot song covered by everyone including Elvis Presley, Ian and Sylvia, and Peter Paul and Mary. It's a great song and Cash sings it well.
- No One Will Ever Know – (Fred Rose, Mel Foree) – The first release was by Roy Acuff and His Smoky Mountain Boys in 1946 but it was also released (post death) by Hank Williams (1957), Sons of the Pioneers (1957), Jack Scott (1958), Don Gibson (1961), Ferlin Husky (1959), Roy Orbison (1963) and many others. So so.
- Is This My Destiny? – (Helen Carter) – written by June's older sister Helen. A song of lost love done as a funeral hymn. Good though the backing vocals don't fit.
- A Wound Time Can't Erase – (Bill D. Johnson) – first done by Stonewall Jackson in 1962 and a #3 country hit. Classic 60s country sounds.
- Happy to Be with You – (Merle Kilgore, June Carter, Johnny Cash) – A crazy hybrid of sounds with country and pop instrumentation colliding but Johnny's steady vocals holding it all together. Strangely endearing.
- Wabash Cannonball – (A.P. Carter) – An American standard and a favourite of the Carter Family who made one of the first recordings of the song in 1929. Johnny's version isn't raucous but it is faithful. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wabash_Cannonball
Any Johnny Cash album is worth listening to …. I'm keeping it.
1966 Happy To Be With You Country Singles #9
Happiness Is You
Guess Things Happen That Way
Live in the 50s
You Comb Her Hair
She Came from the Mountains
For Lovin' Me
Live with Gordon Lightfoot
No One Will Ever Know
Is This My Destiny?
A Wound Time Can't Erase
Happy to Be with You
- Johnny and June had a son, John Carter Cash (born 1970), and remained married till the end of their lives (June died May 15, 2003 (aged 73) and Johnny September 12, 2003 (aged 71) ) though, I'm sure there were trying times … for June.