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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" with "Vietnam").

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

Copyright © 1996 Peppercorn Press. All rights reserved.