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Cash in the '70s -- a great time to be a fan
on September 28, 2003
"Ragged Old Flag" is a pleasurable album to listen to on many levels, a period-piece that holds up well in Johnny Cash's extensive catalog. First, it showcases Cash at a vibrant, conscious period of his career in the early- to mid-'70s. His baritone voice is warm and full, his songs are lyrically thought-provoking and easy on the ears, and his vision and demeanor seem focused; you can tell he was an authentic working man who admired other working men and women. And, though Cash was well-known for covering the work of other great artists' songs, on "Ragged Old Flag" every song is his own, written exclusively by him -- and the results are great.
The fiercely proud, storytelling title track is an ode to past American wars, and the song's prose is stunning. Cash succinctly sums up, in his heartfelt way, the hardships "Old Glory" has endured through the many years and wars this country has fought, through the eyes of a smalltown gentleman who's been around for a while. "Don't Go Near the Water" is a simple song where Cash is fishing with his young son, lamenting the growing deterioration of the water's content, speaking to the larger issue of worsening environmental conditions in the U.S. at that time. However, this 29-minute record is far from a political diatribe, as most of the songs are classic Cash tunes that speak to good old-fashioned middle-Americans, living ordinary lives. "All I Do is Drive" is about the grueling life on the road of a semi driver; "King of the Hill" deals with climbing up the ladder at work; "Pie in the Sky" talks about death; "While I've Got it on my Mind" speaks volumes about the benefits of marriage; "I'm a Worried Man" talks about the worry that's involved when there's young mouths to feed and not enough currency in the household. Interspersed with this sing-along campfire music is the background vocals from the legendary Oak Ridge Boys (see The Definitive Collection (Oak Ridge Boys), whose presence lends a lushness to the otherwise stark but worthy Cash-written songs.
Overall, it's just simply hard not to like this simplistic album that not only captured a time period, but also captures Cash at a poignant moment in his long, storied career. While many of Cash's older live albums, and his later Rick Rubin-produced records get more attention (see American V: A Hundred Highways), "Ragged Old Glory" is a fantastic starting point to discover the Man in Black's admirable mindset and great music.