"Tennessee Flat Top Box," which is slang for an acoustic guitar, was written by country music icon Johnny Cash and revived over 25 years later by his daughter Rosanne. It's a special and rare case in country annals, where an excellent composition by a legend becomes greater in the hands of their child.
A Johnny Cash Original
Columbia Records issued the Man in Black'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 "from there to Austin" 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. In fact, 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 standard part of the popular Carter-Cash narrative like "Ring of Fire" or "I Walk the Line," the original recording did quite well in its time, reaching No. 11 on the country charts and cracking the pop charts' top 100.
Hank Williams Jr. shared an enjoyable cover of the song in 1970, but just like the original, it'd soon be overshadowed by Rosanne Cash's version.
Roseanne Cash Furthers The Family 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 one of Rosanne's most critically-acclaimed albums.
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.
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. Rosanne's cover pointed to music less removed from its roots than even the most traditional-sounding songs of 1987. This point becomes more evident when watching its music video. Footage from what appears 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.
This post was originally published on April 25, 2018.
"Tennessee Flat Top Box" Lyrics
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 who played the Tennessee flat top box.
And he would play:
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 snapping fingers, tapping toes, and begging him: "Don't stop."
And hypnotized and fascinated,
By the little dark-haired boy who played the Tennessee flat top box.
And he would play:
Then one day he was gone, and no one ever saw him 'round,
He'd vanished like the breeze, 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 who played the Tennessee flat top box.
And he would play