Review – Johnny Cash’s “She Used To Love Me A Lot”

johnny-cash-out-among-the-starsBetween 1981 and 1984, Johnny Cash recorded an album with the legendary Hall of Fame producer Billy Sherrill called Out Among The Stars that was subsequently shelved by Columbia Records and lost to the world until the masters were recently discovered during a search for archival Cash material. The album in its entirety is scheduled to be released on March 25th, and ahead of the release we have a chance to hear the song “She Used To Love Me A Lot,” written by Dennis Morgan, Charles Quillen, and Kye Fleming.

Learned country fans will recognize “She Used To Love Me A Lot” as a David Allan Coe single released in early December of 1984 off his album Darlin’ Darlin’. That version of the song also emanated from Columbia Records, with Billy Sherrill as producer, though it’s probably not fair to call Cash’s version a cover of David Allan Coe because Cash’s version was very likely recorded first.

david-allan-coeIn the mid 80’s, David Allan Coe was experiencing a resurgence of interest in his career, and Darlin’ Darlin’ was a strange project for him, heavily produced in the Billy Sherrill style, and consisting mostly of songs written by others. Sherrill’s approach with Coe was to showcase his often-overlooked vocal prowess through the selection of compositions, and Coe’s version of “She Used To Love Me A Lot” lives up to that charge, with a stellar vocal performance that communicates a great sense of pain through the song’s structure and the dark, minor chords, overriding any concerns about the heavy production hand Sherrill employed. The song eventually reached #11 on the Billboard country charts.

If Out Among The Stars had been released in its time, David Allan Coe many have never cut “She Used To Love Me A Lot,” and it would be Cash’s version that all others would be measured against. But instead it is Coe who defines the established expectations and prejudices our ears cling to when we become comfortable with a version of a song.

johnny-cashCash’s interpretation is certainly a more earthy, acoustic, and grounded take, driven by a fingerpicked acoustic guitar and a spirited mandolin handled by a young Marty Stuart, with the drums completely spared for some light percussion. Coe’s version hinged more on a thumping, Outlaw-esque bass drum beat and driving electric bass guitar, with the acoustic guitar along for the ride and drums filling the chorus. Coe is also more active in the verses with his cadence and range, where Cash seems to focus more on the conveyance of the story.

There’s the potential that some parts of the Cash recording were “fortified” after the fact, as archivists have said happened in a respectful manner as this album was being brought back to life. But the production and approach to “She Used To Love Me A Lot” is both tasteful and timeless; not striking the ear as indicative of any era as sometimes can be the concern with archive recordings.

Johnny Cash is blessed like few others with a warmly familiar timbre to his voice making anything he touches sound like mastery. To be afforded any new music from Cash a decade-plus after his death feels like a blessing in itself and best not heavily scrutinized. Nonetheless, even with a critical ear, there’s little to not love with this song.

1 3/4 of 2 guns up.

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