In 1964 (a year after scoring a huge hit with “Ring of Fire,” and four before the legendary Folsom Prison concert), Johnny Cash recorded Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, a haunting, stunning collection of songs mostly written in collaboration with Peter La Farge.
The album was ignored by the industry, which didn’t understand why a superstar like Cash would ignore the momentum of “Ring of Fire” and take a musical detour in defense of Native Americans, as if Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement weren’t enough of a distraction.
“In contrast to looking rock ’n’ roll hip — a swaggering, pompadoured balladeer with an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder — here his famous head of hair was cropped short and ringed by a red headband,” writes D’Ambrosio. “The look in his eyes seemed troubled, as if what he was about to share was something heavy and hard.”
It was, but it was also perhaps his best album of the ’60s. The author discovers the album with you in an enjoyable trip that cements and completes Cash’s reputation as the coolest cat.
“DJs — station managers — owners … where are your guts?” wrote Cash in a note found by the author in the album’s sleeve. Cash would later take out an ad in Billboard magazine, accusing the industry of censorship for ignoring the album. He seemed to invoke William Blake, who a century earlier had written, “When I tell the truth, it is not for the sake of convincing those who do not know it, but for the sake of defending those that do.”
— Enrique Lopetegui