I've always thought of Johnny Cash as more of a folk singer than country singer, or someone who couldn't be defined in any limited way.
A man that sang songs by composers as diverse as Hank Williams, Kris Kristofferson, Bruce Springsteen and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails and do it all with aching authenticity, isn't by any means your average performer.
It all works because Johnny Cash never sang something he didn't feel, and he had a lot of complex emotions, from edgy rebellion to pious grace. Sony Legacy celebrates what would have been Cash's 80th birthday this year with a slew of releases set for next Tuesday that highlight different facets of his personality along with a CD/DVD package of an all-star salute to the Man in Black filmed earlier this year at the intimate Moody Theater in Austin, Texas.
"Johnny Cash - We Walk the Line"
This tribute to Cash, featuring many of his friends and admirers performing songs from the Johnny Cash songbook, has its ups and downs, depending on who is performing what. The double disc begins with a strong rendition of "Folsom Prison Blues" - perhaps Cash's most identifiable song - by country/folk/rock singer Brandi Carlile. I like how she makes the song her own, singing with verve, real respect and a rocking attitude.
Other highlights include Shelby Lynne's take on "Why Me, Lord," a rough but stirring version of Kris Kristofferson's "Sunday Morning Coming Down" sung by the writer and Jamey Johnson, "Hurt," Cash's last real hit, sung with great pathos by Lucinda Williams, and "The Long Black Veil," sung with wonderful reverence by Iron and Wine.
Other highlights include "If I were a Carpenter," a duet with Willie Nelson and Sheryl Crow, "Cocaine Blues, performed by Shooter Jennings - son of country music icons Waylon Jennings and Jesse Coulter - and "Highwayman," done by the original Highwaymen members Nelson and Kristofferson along with Shooter Jennings and Jamey Johnson.
Also making appearances during the concert are Ronnie Dunn, Amy Lee, Pat Monahan, the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Buddy Miller, all of whom owe their careers in some part to the path blazed by Cash.
Using country music's new "outlaws" to salute one of their own was a pretty cool idea, and the concert and is obviously a labor of love for all involved. In a sense, though, it also brings to mind how much Cash is missed, and I would have loved to have seen Bob Dylan, who recorded with and was much admired by Cash, make an appearance here. I guess he was busy elsewhere.
"Johnny Cash: the Greatest Country Songs"; "Johnny Cash: the Greatest Duets"; "Johnny Cash: the Greatest Number Ones"; and "Johnny Cash: the Greatest Gospel Songs"
Much of the material on these four CDs already has seen the light of day in various re-issues by Columbia, but that doesn't stop each from being a wonderfully cataloged snapshot of the man's complexity.
Cash recorded prolifically, and these selections are taken from his stunning body of work for Sun Records and Columbia, his label from the late 1950s to the mid-1980s.
"The Greatest Number Ones" includes songs Cash wrote or performed that reached the top spot - sometimes on several different charts simultaneously. Cash's first big hit was his ode to fidelity, "I Walk the Line," with its simple guitar hook - played by underrated guitarist Luther Perkins - and the song's odd modulations and insidious hook, along with Cash's dramatic baritone. This song marked the Johnny Cash template to come.
Other hits include the out-and-out folk song "Don't Take Your Guns to Town," the slightly bitter resignation of "Guess Things happen That Way," "Ring of Fire," the passionate love song written about the great love of his life, June Carter Cash, and the silly humor of "A Boy Named Sue," that showed Cash's, well...goofy side.
"The Greatest Country Songs" includes many of what I consider Cash's forays into folk music, including perhaps his greatest ballad, "The Long Black Veil," written by Marijohn Wilken and sung with literally ghostly grace by Cash. Other country classics on the disc include "Wildwood Flower," "I'm so Lonesome I Could Cry," the sarcastic "Deliha's Gone," "Ghost Riders in the Sky and "The Gambler," the song made famous by Kenny Rogers but actually recorded by Cash first. The disc also includes fabulous Cash covers of "The Battle of New Orleans" and "Old Shep."
The last two discs are what I consider the real winners, and the duets CD is a revelation that's also a lot of fun.
Cash was outstanding during duets, as he always conveyed camaraderie as well as an intuitive sense to when to lay back. Some of the better known are his delightful and playful duets with his wife, including the wry "Jackson" the inside musicians' jokiness of "Long-Legged Guitar Pickin' Man" and the stand-by-your-man vibe of "If I Were a Carpenter." Lesser known but also revealing are the duets featuring Ray Charles - "Crazy Old Soldier" - "Girl From the North Country" with Bob Dylan from Dylan's country-influenced album "Nashville Skyline" and a fun version of "I Got Stripes" with George Jones. It's obvious Cash enjoyed doing duets, and that joyfulness and irreverence comes shining through on these songs. The other winner is the release featuring Cash's gospel side, which, to me, is the most telling about the real Johnny Cash. Sometimes Cash would have to battle Nashville executives to record gospel songs on his records, but it turns out this was where Cash really shined and was at his most natural.
Cash, who had more than his share of troubles and sins, would sing "I Was There When it Happened," "The Old Account" and "Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)" with a graceful beauty that was moving and touching.
He also intuitively knew when exactly the right moment would be to sing his spirituals, as witnesseD during his groundbreaking albums "Live at San Quentin" and "Live at Folsom Prison," where he alternately takes turns inciting the inmates - the "rebel" side - and then taking them to church through his spirituals.
If Johnny Cash hadn't been fated to be one of America's most original singers/songwriters, he would have made a fine minister.
There's no such thing as too much Johnny Cash, and all of these are highly recommended.
(Miller can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)