Perspectives: Johnny Cash
The Essential Johnny Cash, Columbia/Legacy CD(3) C3K 47991
Seventy-five song compilation, released 1992
It is the third inning of a splendid August afternoon at Chicago's
Wrigley Field. The Cubs pitcher lays down a bunt that flirts with
the third base line, and as the defense watches it roll foul my
ears perk up as the organist strikes up the familiar refrain from
Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line." The man is turning
up everywhere these days.
With all the hoopla surrounding Cash's recent release, American
Recordings, I picked up The Essential Johnny Cash,
a collection of his greatest hits from Columbia (1955-1983). I
was not disappointed. Disc 1 kicks off with Johnny's early sides
for Sun Records ("the chicken shack with the Cadillacs out
back"), casting the basic sound that Johnny mined for the
30 years up through the end of Disc 3.
Rockabilly put Sun on the map with what Sun star Carl Perkins
called "blues with a country beat." Cash leaned toward
the country folk end of Sun's spectrum, always more billy than
rock, with Johnny's deep, flat baritone sitting over an unrelenting
two-step beat. Musically, his arrangements were stripped to the
bone, much simpler than any country music--no pedal steel, fiddle,
or honky tonk piano--and less adorned than even rockabilly (which
was always spartan in sound, if not in spirit). Cash and his first
recording band, the Tennessee Two, built songs around spidery,
muted electric guitar runs, a strumming acoustic guitar, and a
standup bass, all arranged in a lockstep rhythm. Only later, after
a couple of years on the road did Cash add light, usually brushed,
drums. The simple arrangements and Johnny's straight phrasing,
deadpan delivery and limited vocal range belie the intensity of
songs like the self-penned "Big River" ("I taught
the weeping willow how to cry, cry, cry/And I showed the clouds
how to cover up a clear blue sky"), a driving country blues
later covered live by the Dead.
Cash left Sun in 1958, and Disc 2 picks up with his early '60s
CBS sides. These were lean years for Cash as he moved his family
to LA, fought alcohol and drug addiction, and divorced his wife.
Like most country singers, Johnny had always focused on songs
of love and heartbreak, but after a brief return to his gospel
roots, he found a new lyrical focus. Gone is the jilted lover,
replaced with populist stories about the downtrodden common man:
American Indians, poor farmers, prisoners, laborers, and soldiers.
It is here too that Johnny reinforced his Man in Black image with
numbers like "Don't Take Your Guns to Town" and a dobro-filled
bit of whimsy called "Bad News" ("They tried to
hang me in Oakland/And they did in Francisco/But I wouldn't choke,
I broke the rope/and they had to let me go/Cause I'm bad news").
Musically, the arrangements began to get more complicated--and
sometimes overproduced--during this period.
Disc 3 kicks off with four incendiary tunes recorded live at Folsom
and San Quentin. Pent-up energy, not pills, brings Johnny's voice
to a quiver and nearly drives his band--including ace guitarman
Carl Perkins--to a feverish roadhouse stomp. While many of his
contemporaries were sucking up to the establishment (Merle Haggard
scored a hit with the illiberal "Okie from Muskogee"
and a doped-out Elvis visited Nixon in the White House), other
songs from this era reveal that Johnny weren't no redneck. A year
before Lennon's primal howl on "Gimme Some Truth," Cash
had a top 20 hit with "What is Truth" ("Young man
of 17 in Sunday school/Bein' taught the golden rule/And by the
time another year's gone around/It may be his turn to lay his
life down/Can you blame the voice of youth for asking/What is
truth?"). The autobiographical "Singin' In Vietnam Talkin'
Blues" reveals his opposition to the war in downhome fashion
(it is certainly the only song ever to rhyme "country ham"
The 75 songs on these three discs cover a wide emotional range,
including anger ("Understand Your Man" describes the
breakup of his marriage with the great line "I'll be gone
as a wild goose in winter"), frustration ("I Got Stripes"),
rebellion and rowdiness ("Cocaine Blues"), sadness (a
great version of Springsteen's "Highway Patrolman"),
and happiness ("Orange Blossom Special"). Even when
the production occasionally turns saccharine with sugar-coated
60's backup singers and strings, or lifeless '80s synthesizers,
Cash perseveres with a voice as honest and simple as a stiff black
cup of coffee, using his limited vocal range to maintain a dramatic
tension that never seems contrived.
Cash occupies a unique place in American music. He has sold more
records than anyone in country without playing traditional country
music, and is a member of the Rock Hall of Fame without playing
rock. Part of what makes Cash so enduring is his American passion
for the underdog: the worker plotting against the factory boss,
the prisoner planning his escape, the farmer pinching his pennies
until harvest time, the old time filling station owner resisting
the progress of the interstate being built next door. The other
part of his magic lies in the strength of his persona and his
ability to leave his stamp on any song, whether country, folk,
blues, gospel, or rock.
Like baseball, Johnny is an American institution with tremendous
crossover appeal. The audience at his Seattle show in July was
one of the most diverse I've ever seen: an incongruous mix of
young cowpokes, hip grungesters, and older folks that looked like
they've been following Johnny for 40 years. Opening with the familiar
"Hello. I'm Johnny Cash.", he played through nearly
two hours of classics, pausing in the middle to perform a solo
string of thoughtful and downright spiritual renditions from American
Recordings. Two highlights were a wicked version of Danzig's
"13" and a hilariously touching "The Man Who Couldn't
Cry." Rave on, Johnny. --Scott Boggan