Johnny Cash was all things to all people, but most importantly, he was all things to himself too. He worked hard, played hard, loved hard, and prayed hard. He was a God-fearing outlaw who battled substance abuses, yet was able to articulate his true devotion to the woman who stood by his side while he spent many years trying to (and finally) drying out. He had no fear of performing in prisons in front of some of the meanest, nastiest convicts ever put behind bars, and in turn, won a deep respect from those caught outlaws. He handled covers with the same respect as he showed towards his own songs. Most of what he sang featured one of three main topics, of which a CD-set was borne a few years ago: love, God and murder. His passion was downright scary at times, but it was so true, you had to respect Cash’s talent and lifestyle.
When Cash died at the age of 71, he was in the midst of a renaissance: a comeback that astounded just about everybody, most notably, himself. Thanks to another “outlaw”, record producer Rick Rubin (Slayer, Red Hot Chili Peppers, etc.), Cash’s career, left for dead after his last battle with substance abuse, was resurrected. And the key was Rubin had given Cash total confidence and trust, with no barriers. Given this new-found freedom, Cash rebounded with a flourish, putting out four albums proper under Rubin’s America Records banner, plus a batch of unreleased songs which turned into the 2003 box set Unearthed.
The thing was, that was Cash’s last and most recent legacy. It was just as intense and as open as anything he ever did earlier in his career, but the earlier works were what laid the foundation for one of country music’s truest storytellers. Cash was one of those older artists who had total respect for what C&W was all about (along with the likes of Merle Haggard, any of the Hank Williams kin, Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, George Jones, etc.). Ironically, Cash was treated as a leper later in his career in the home of C&W, Nashville. The reason for the ostracism isn’t totally clear, but Cash had the respect quotient of yesterday’s laundry. Prior to that sad state of affairs, Cash had recorded a ton of work, much of it solo, but some with his family (his second wife, June Carter, was key), and friends like Carl Perkins, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe (who was at one time married to Cash’s step-daughter, Carlene), Waylon (Jennings) & Willie (Nelson), and the Statler Brothers.
Cash’s strongest ability was to be able to tell a story in a song, whether spoken, sang, or a combination of both. What Columbia/Legacy Records did was to put together a neat four-disc box set of Cash’s earlier career embodiment, and instead of titling it in their “essential” series, smartly boxed this grouping under the moniker of The Legend. It’s likely the best assembly of material one will ever find under the Columbia heading (with some of his Memphis-based Sun Records recordings as well). Instead of just going chronologically for chronological sake, the discs are broken into themes, with separate headings. The first disc is titled “Win, Place and Show”, and features Cash’s biggest hits. Every song on the first disc climbed to one of the top three spots on the C&W charts. The second disc is titled “Old Favorites and New”, and features songs that range from 1955 to 1994 (the most recent one was a duet with Randy Scruggs titled “Forever Young”). Disc number three is “The Great American Songbook”, and is exactly as the title indicates (standards from folk, hillbilly and blues, as well as C&W), and the final disc is called “Family and Friends”, where many of the above-mentioned guests appear. There are 104 songs total, including seven which were previously unreleased.
Of course, most of the recognizable songs are on the opening disc, starting with the 1956 Sun Records classic “I Walk the Line”. Other classics like “Ring of Fire”, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”, “Folsom Prison Blues”, “Daddy Sang Bass”, “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky”, and “A Boy Named Sue” (with the expletive undeleted) all appear here. Even the songs that only diehards know sound good, such as “The Matador” (Cash was on a Spanish kick, since it follows “Ring of Fire” and also has horns), “Sunday Morning Coming Down”, “Ballad of a Teenage Queen”, and “Any Old Wind That Blows”.
Depth shows up upon perusing the other discs. The second grouping features the known (“Hey Porter”, “Cocaine Blues”) and the lesser-known (“Luther Played the Boogie”, a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Highway Patrolman”). Three of the seven unreleased songs are here, including “Doin’ My Time” (somewhat honky-tonkish), “I’m Never Gonna Roam Again” (featuring a five-guitar attack), and “When I’m Gray”. “Hey Porter”, Cash’s very first release, is 50 years old (recorded in May, 1955).
Cash loved both doing gospel and covers of American standards throughout his entire career, and even in his Sun Records days, he managed to work that material into his repertoire (“Rock Island Line”, “Goodnight Irene”). An unreleased version of “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” appears here, as does the unearthed “Down in the Valley”. His take on the Hank Williams’ standard, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, is a gem. Cash also had a fondness for Hubert Ledbetter (a.k.a. Ledbelly), and two of his songs are nicely represented: the unabridged title of “In Them Old Cottonfields Back Home” (better known as plain ol’ “Cottonfields”) and “Pick a Bale O’ Cotton”.
Lastly, even though some of the songs on the other discs had the Carter Family involved, the fourth and final disc is rife with guests. Some of the better selections are “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)” (with the Carter Family), “Jackson” (with his wife, June Carter—and yes, it’s the same song that Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood covered years later), “Girl from the North Country” (with Bob Dylan), and “The Wanderer” (with U2).
Like any good C&W singer, Cash never bores with his lyrics in his songs, and like any good C&W singer, Cash is a master storyteller. But what sets him a notch above is the conviction in his voice. His songs of love come straight from the heart; it’s almost as though his religious songs are sung while he’s on his knees, hands clasped in prayer, and of course, the man in black’s forte has to be murder/prison songs. The other thing that made Cash a master at his craft was his versatility. He had the ability to lock in and focus on every song, be it ballad, rough-and-tumble, playful or solemn. His ability to work seamlessly with his family and other guest stars is taken for granted by many, but it’s not easy to work with diversification when you’re singing with the likes of Dylan, Bono and Ray Charles.
In the frazzled world of country and western music, the crap that passes with that tag today comes along the same lines as blues: people are trying hard to replicate the masters of the past, but only one or two can nail it with conviction. Even amongst his finest peers, there was only one Johnny Cash. He was the artist who melded several genres together without bastardizing a single one, and he didn’t need any tricks to do so. His was a natural talent, and even up until a week before he died, he dedicated himself to his career. He will be missed. The Legend is a perfect time capsule of the legend that became Johnny Cash. The one word that best describes the late Cash and his music: masterpiece.