Thousands of words have been spilled over Johnny Cash, and more have accompanied this new two-disc set, which collects 36 songs from across the first four decades of his extraordinary career. One fact stands for many others in describing Cash’s wide influence: he is the only performer to have been elected to the Songwriters’, Country Music, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Halls of Fame. Labelmate of both Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, covered by hundreds of artists, sampled by De La Soul, titular host of an ABC TV show, Johnny Cash’s image — he’ll forever be known as The Man in Black — contributes mightily to his world-wide fame, but his iconic status rests firmly on his songwriting ability. Cash’s 70th birthday has occasioned a major re-release campaign from Columbia Records that will include out-of-print albums and that begins with the remastered over-view found on The Essential Johnny Cash.
Cash’s ability to cross-over into the larger world of pop culture was partly based on his innately rebellious personality — the underdog has always been a favorite subject — but also on the circumstances that began his career. After leaving the Air Force, where he began his songwriting, Cash moved in the early ’50s to Memphis and auditioned for Sun Records, perhaps the most influential record label in the popular music of the second half of the 20th Century. The man that launched Elvis Presley, Sun founder Sam Phillips had a catholic taste that drew on the divergent strands of American music — country and blues especially — to forge something that sounded new, and turned out to be revolutionary. Side by side, the early Sun singles from Presley and Cash don’t sound radically different. Cash’s songs for the label provided a blueprint that he used throughout his career, and the highlights collected here range from the humorous (“Get Rhythm”) to the heartbreaking (“Guess Things Happen That Way”). The most enduring song from the Sun years is perhaps “I Walk the Line”, a statement of fidelity that, like much of Cash’s best work, communicates complex emotion through the simplest of language: “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine / I keep my eyes wide open all the time / I keep the ends out for the tie that binds / Because you’re mine, I walk the line”. After moving to Columbia, Cash’s string of hits continued; The Essential Johnny Cash represents this period with a few tales, both tall (“Five Feet High and Rising”) and cautionary (“Don’t Take Your Guns to Town”).
The early ’60s were perhaps the nadir of Cash’s personal life: addicted to amphetamines and with his marriage failing, his path to self-destruction seemed sadly fated. Salvation came in a form that not only saved his life, as he himself described it, but also cemented his place in the pantheon of American music. June Carter, a member of the generations-deep recording artists the Carter Family (the “Founding Family of Country Music”), and Cash fell in love while both were still married to other people; it was Carter who wrote the hit “Ring of Fire”, a stunning testament to mingled fear and desire. Rebounding from his addiction and converting to Christianity, Cash began a second act that included some of greatest commercial and artistic successes, including the two incredible prison live albums At Folsom Prison (1968) and At San Quentin (1969). The version of “Folsom Prison Blues” here is from the former, and includes a chillingly funny moment as hundreds of inmates at one of the country’s toughest prisons let out a whoop at the line, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”.
Cash published his autobiography (Man in Black, naturally) in 1975, and was made the youngest inductee ever in the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1980. Despite these achievements, most of the ’80s were a commercial disappointment, and Cash left his long-time home at Columbia Records for Mercury. The songs continued to come, but without perhaps the naturalness of his past work, and only one of those late-’80s tracks is included here, a duet with Waylon Jennings on “The Night Hank Williams Came to Town”. There were better days ahead, though, as Cash proved wrong not once but twice the dictum that there are no second acts in American life. In the early ’90s Cash moved to Rick Rubin’s American Recordings label, where he stripped his sound back to its acoustic core for 1994’s American Recordings, a moving, critically acclaimed collection of both originals and intriguing covers (including Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits).
In recent years, with his diagnosis for the degenerative nerve disorder Shy-Drager Syndrome, Cash has — like Muhammad Ali — acquired a kind of heroic status that may be more galling than not, based as it is on greatness in decline rather than his work itself. With another American Recordings album, Solitary Man, released in 2000, it’s Cash’s distinction to have outlasted as a cultural force nearly all of those with whom he started his career. (In a 1999 interview with No Depression magazine, June Carter said of her former touring partner Elvis Presley that he “[couldn’t] even tune his guitar” without signing a line from Cash’s “Cry, Cry, Cry”. It’s a shame Elvis didn’t follow Cash’s example in other ways as well.)
Various parts of Cash’s long career have been anthologized to within an inch of their lives, and it’s fair to ask where The Essential Johnny Cash falls in the continuum — from shoddy to comprehensive — of his many collections. (It should be said that a truly definitive assemblage probably won’t be available for some time, until his ’90s work with American can be included in the same set as his earlier recordings.) Columbia itself released one of Cash’s definitive collections, 1992’s The Essential Johnny Cash (1955-1983), a 75 song trek through his career, and just two years ago Cash himself put out together another three-disc set, Love, God, Murder, a thematic tracing of the strains of sin and redemption that run throughout his music. For the first-time listener or more casual fan, though, three discs may be too much, and it’s arguable whether any single disc can accomodate all of Cash’s worthy songs. Boasting improved sound quality and a carefully selected list of songs, this new Essential version offers a fine place to start for the neophyte interested in discovering how Cash has maintained his place in the forefront of the public consciousness for nearly 50 years.