Saturday Singles No. 402 & 403

The tale of the Cash family and the song “Tennessee Flat-Top Box” feels to me this morning like something that might have been told by a country radio version of the recently departed Casey Kasem.

Having come to an appreciation of country music by a roundabout way and not via the radio, I can only assume that there is or was a country radio show similar to Kasem’s American Top 40. If that’s the case, then the tale has to have been told. But it was new to me this morning.

Johnny Cash wrote the tale of the boy and his guitar:

In a little cabaret in a South Texas border town
Sat a boy and his guitar, and the people came from all around.
And all the girls from there to Austin
Were slippin’ away from home and puttin’ jewelery in hock.
To take the trip, to go and listen
To the little dark-haired boy that played the Tennessee flat-top box.

And he would play: [Instrumental]

Well, he couldn’t ride or wrangle, and he never cared to make a dime.
But give him his guitar, and he’d be happy all the time.
And all the girls from nine to ninety
Were snappin’ fingers, tappin’ toes and beggin’ him: “Don’t stop.”
And hypnotized and fascinated
By the little dark-haired boy that played the Tennessee flat-top box.

And he would play: [Instrumental]

Then one day he was gone, and no one ever saw him ’round.
He’d vanished like the breeze, and they forgot him in the little town.
But all the girls still dreamed about him,
And hung around the cabaret until the doors were locked.
And then one day on the Hit Parade
Was a little dark-haired boy that played a Tennessee flat-top box.

And he would play: [Instrumental]

Cash recorded the song in Hollywood on July 19, 1961, fifty-three years ago today. Released as a single, “Tennessee Flat-Top Box” went to No. 11 on the Billboard country chart and to No. 84 on the magazine’s Hot 100.

Fast forward twenty-six years to 1987, when Cash’s daughter Rosanne was putting together her sixth album, King’s Record Shop. According to Wikipedia, it was at the urging of her then-husband Rodney Crowell that the younger Cash recorded “Tennessee Flat-Top Box.” When she recorded the song, Wikipedia says, Rosanne Cash was unaware her father had written it; she thought the song was in the public domain.

Released as a single in late 1987, Rosanne Cash’s version of “Tennessee Flat-Top Box” went to No. 1 on the county chart, the third of four country No. 1 records from King’s Record Shop. (The others were “The Way We Make A Broken Heart,” “If You Change Your Mind” and “Runaway Train.”) According to a note in the 2001 edition of the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, the younger Cash’s success with “Tennessee Flat-Top Box” “marked a healing of her strained relationship with her dad.”

That healing probably wasn’t as easy as that makes it sound, but never mind. And the tale is probably not unique; I imagine there are other examples of families’ later generations finding success with remakes of earlier generations’ works. (I’m not going to dig for them today, but I imagine I’d find some.)

But it’s still a nice story, with two versions of the same song that are both worth hearing. That’s why Johnny Cash’s 1961 recording of “Tennessee Flat-Top Box” (offered above) and Rosanne Cash’s 1987 cover of her father’s song (below) are today’s Saturday Singles.

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