“Tennessee Flat Top Box,” slang for an acoustic guitar, was written by Johnny Cash and revived over 25 years later by his talented daughter Rosanne. It’s a special and rare case in country annals, where a good composition by a legend becomes immortal in the hands of their child.
A Johnny Cash Original
Columbia Records issued the elder Cash’s version as a single in December 1961. The song is about the Texas equivalent of Johnny B. Goode– a young boy talented enough to dominate his local bar scene and woo young women far and wide. He disappears for a while, with his throngs of female fans seeing him next on a national television broadcast. While the lyrics were a product of the times, the galloping acoustic accompaniment sounds more like an old traditional tune. Apparently, Rosanne Cash thought it was a public domain song, uncovered by someone like Carl Sandburg in decades past, not one of her father’s best nods to his guitar-picking forebears.
Although it’s not a common part of the popular Carter-Cash narrative like “Ring of Fire” or “Walk the Line,” the original recording did quite well in its time, reaching 11th on the country charts and cracking the pop charts’ top 100.
Roseanne Cash Furthers The Legend
Twenty-six years later, the songwriter’s daughter gave it new life. Rosanne Cash and her producer, then-husband Rodney Crowell, cut a version for 1987 album King’s Record Shop. It became the third of four consecutive chart-topping singles off Rosanne’s most critically-acclaimed album.
After Rosanne’s version topped the Billboard charts in Feb. 1988, her father took out an ad in the magazine, applauding his once-estranged daughter for taking one of his overlooked compositions to new heights.
With all due respect to Rosanne’s talents and contributions to the hit’s success, her secret weapon was another second-generation country musician. The late Randy Scruggs, son of Earl Scruggs, nails the acoustic guitar parts, bringing the song’s dark-haired little boy to life better than even the original artist.
While the original spoke to a contemporary audience with dreams of making it onto the still-new medium of television as a singer or baseball star, the remake reeks of nostalgia for simpler times in music and society. The younger Cash pointed to music less removed from its roots than even the most traditional-sounding songs of 1987. This point becomes clearer when watching the song’s music video. Footage from what appear to be rural fiddling contests and guitar pulls capture an older generation keeping those traditions alive for young pickers, not for fame but for the sake of tradition.