Icon: Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash, who would have been 80 on February 26, is still everywhere in American culture. He’s on TV commercials and in videos, on radio and in what’s left of record stores. From 1955, when he signed with Sun Records, until 1994, when he made his first album with producer Rick Rubin, the trademark Cash boom-chicka sound of acoustic and electric guitar, electric bass and his own rich and timeless baritone voice – sometimes augmented by strings, horns and backup singers – was the foundation for an incredible variety of music; with Rubin, he made autumnal acoustic albums with minimal accompaniment, featuring arguably an even more stunning array of material.
Cash cut folk, commercial country and pop albums, gospel, children’s, patriotic and live prison albums, albums about trains and the Old West – you name it. His calling-card songs are known to everyone, and his influence is incalculable, from country singers like Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Hank Williams Jr., Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson to classic folk and rock artists like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Ry Cooder and Neil Young to Americana stars like Robbie Fulks, Steve Earle, Shelby Lynn and Dwight Yoakam, to more modern stars like Black Keys, Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Norah Jones, Justin Timberlake and Kid Rock, to members of his own family like daughter Roseanne Cash. You could even argue that something like reggae draws some of its sound and ethos from The Man in Black.
Yet, with just a few exceptions (say, Waylon’s beat), the influence is barely musical; it’s more about Cash’s rugged independence, frailties, open-mindedness and commitment to his muse that most have tried to emulate. His strictly-musical impact is harder to pinpoint. That’s because his music – like that of, say, Jimmy Reed – is so elemental, despite its many magnetic attractions, that it’s virtually impossible to replicate. Which is to say that Cash stands alone, always has and always will.
Like several other (but not all) key Sun artists, Johnny Cash came to the label with his signature sound already intact. Over that boom-chicka beat created by bassist Marshall Grant and guitarist Luther Perkins, Johnny's stark baritone carried the songs; even when he soloed, Perkins' rudimentary boogie lines did little more than restate the rhythm. It was minimalist music that couldn't have been simpler, and once heard it was impossible to get... out of one's mind. Johnny's extraordinary voice was the key, but it didn't hurt that he had such evocative material, from the giddy Southern pride of "Hey, Porter!" to the doominess of "Folsom Prison Blues," from the eloquent hillbilly poetry of "Big River" to the unwavering devotion of "I Walk the Line." With its weird-sounding chords and ever-shifting keys, that song's extension of the Cash sound resonated like nothing before or since. Even as his material became more conspicuously targeted for the teen market, Cash remained his own man; "Ballad of a Teenage Queen" may have been lightweight by his standards, but "Guess Things Happen That Way" has a fatalism and finality that are unnerving. Cash's earliest Sun singles were country music for people with raw nerve endings, very much in the emotional vein of the Carter Family's fabled line, "It takes a worried man/ To sing a worried song."more »
More Sun Years
By mid-1958, Cash knew he was leaving Sun Records for the broader opportunities and wider distribution offered by Columbia Records. A hurt and angry Sam Phillips required, as per their contract, that the singer record a sizable stockpile of sides that Sun could keep releasing long after Cash was gone. The star did so reluctantly, but refused to supply new material of his own. All of these selections come from those "gunpoint... sessions," as it were, and the material is indeed sometimes iffy; on the brighter side, the songs provide a little more variety than in his earlier work. But "Luther Played the Boogie" is prime Cash, delivered with a sly smile, and it's a pleasure to hear the Cash baritone wrapped around country gems like "Oh Lonesome Me" then a current single for its writer Don Gibson, now a standard and "Born to Lose," Ted Daffan's definitive postwar honky-tonk plaint, later popularized by Ray Charles. And singles like "Thanks a Lot," "Katy Too" and "Straight A's in Love" were strong enough to go high on the country charts in the '60s with little or no promotion from Sun. There's little here that ranks with Cash's best work on Sun. But there's also little that's markedly inferior.more »
Live and Direct
Forty-one years after it was first released, this rambunctious performance still stirs the soul. Cash's rapport with the prison audience is overwhelming his ability to successfully alternate silly novelty songs with dark murder ballads suggests he understands things about them the rest of us cannot fathom and his nervous energy injects new life and urgency into every song. He neither romanticizes the crimes he sings about, nor does he try to explain... or overdramatize them. They just are. Is it Cash's best album ever? Hell, it's probably the best country album ever.more »
Johnny Cash's sound took a turn away from country and more toward pop on this mid-'70s release. There's less traditional thump-and-strum on John R. Cash, with more emphasis on string swells and swoons, but the singer's iconic voice ultimately cuts through all genres. This allows Cash to put his own personal stamp on well-known numbers such as Randy Newman's clever adaptation of the Stephen Foster standard "My Old Kentucky Home," the... Band's anthemic "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," and Tim Hardin's "Reason To Believe" (a hit for Rod Stewart a few years earlier). Cash also taps material from noted songwriters Billy Joe Shaver, Chip Taylor and David Allan Coe, though it's the lesser-known Jack Routh's "Hard Times Comin'" that's perhaps the most musically satisfying track of the bunch. Peter Blackstockmore »
"Known for singing on behalf of the disenfranchised, Cash first adopted that stance on this stark, angry and bold 1964 set about the plight of the American Indian. Greenwich Village folkie Peter LaFarge, himself a Native American, wrote most of the songs, including the centerpiece "The Ballad of Ira Hayes," about the Pima Marine in the iconic photo of the American flag being raised at Iwo Jima; Hayes, an alcoholic, died... face down in a pool of his own vomit on his Arizona reservation. Between the unadorned music and Cash's somber vocals, Bitter Tears is both dramatic and spiritual.more »
The Country Classicist
The theme of this largely-ignored 1960 effort is "country music" Cash sings the songs of George Jones, Bob Wills, Marty Robbins, Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams and others on the only album he ever cut that included pedal steel. In each case, his readings hold up well next to the originals no easy feat when you're singing the likes of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," but Johnny's... spooked baritone turns the trick. There are also harrowing interpretations of Jones's melancholy "Seasons of My Heart," Wills's (and Ray Price's!) spirited "My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You" and an early version of "Cocaine Blues," here titled "Transfusion Blues."more »
The title track to Man in Black became one of Johnny Cash's signature songs, and deservedly so, as it sartorially summarizes everything about his personal philosophy. It's one of several highlights on this exemplary 1971 studio album, along with the harrowing war narrative "Singin' In Viet Nam Talking Blues" (drawn from Cash's personal visit to the soldiers), Dick Feller's poignant ballad "Orphan Of The Road" and the uplifting love song "You've Got... A New Light Shining In Your Eyes." Cash's faith also has a substantial place here, most notably on the opening "The Preacher Said 'Jesus Said'" (featuring a Billy Graham spoken-word cameo) and "I Talk To Jesus Every Day." The best of the religion-tinged tunes is the closing track, "Look For Me," which features vocal backing from Johnny's wife June Carter Cash. Peter Blackstockmore »
Cash once declared this his favorite of his Columbia albums. Released in 1960, it's not a collection of train songs. Rather, Cash narrates a between-songs description of a cross-country train ride, while the songs are about the people ostensibly met along the way from the Mississippi chain gang convict of "Going to Memphis" to the Oregon logger of "Lumberjack." Though it yielded no significant hits and requires a certain suspension of disbelief... (some songs on this train-trip take place in different centuries), it's sort of his notion of a State of the Union message, with four story-songs (sans narrations) added to the reissue version.more »
The Starter Kit
The last disk of this box begins with live prison recordings and then enters the lost years that extended nearly two decades, from the mid-70s to his first American/Rick Rubin album in 1994. Yet all was not lost during the lost years though his few hits are usually the least interesting tracks here, there were noble experiments such as Bruce Springsteen's "Highway Patrolman" (Johnny's version rings truer than Bruce's) and the... Stones' "No Expectations." Like 'em or not, Cash never completely lost his touch with novelty songs ("One Piece at a Time"), and he sings "Without Love" like Nick Lowe wrote it for him. But one disk covering this period is plenty.more »