There’s never been a better time to cash in on Cash. That’s not meant as a cynical statement, but as an assertion of a cold, hard fact. For years before his death, Johnny Cash was taken for granted, his songs so indelible in contemporary culture that they sort of floated in the ether, ready to be plucked out of memory whenever the moment called for it, but perhaps not inspiring the popular masses to go out and buy up his entire discography (or a suitable distillation of it). Though always a critical favorite, he rarely found the ear of the average citizen aside from the occasional guest spot on Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman or a 15-second snippet on a commercial for Classic Country Hits compilations. In the wake of his passing, and his wildly successful award-winning bio-pic, however, demand for Cash has been steady and unflagging, and the kind folks at a variety of record labels have had no qualms about ensuring that the supply was there for the taking.
Since his death in 2003, there have been at least 20 albums, videos, or compilations of Cash material released, including The Legend box set, The Legend of Johnny Cash, Life, Personal File, Unearthed, and possibly a sixth entry in his American series sometime in 2007. While many of these are solid and welcome additions to the public record—Personal File in particular is an intimate and touching set of beautiful songs and stories—many of the competing single-disc compilations and various live documents, such as Live in Austin Texas, do little to add to the vast and astonishing corpus.
Live in Austin Texas was recorded in 1987, a year that saw Cash’s relationship with his longtime record label Columbia come to an abrupt and discouraging end after nearly 30 years. The separation was a result of Columbia’s disinterest in his traditional country music at a time when new wave and synthesizer pop was paying the bills; Cash was just as unhappy with the situation, but the impasse dealt a severe blow to the singer. He found a home on Mercury Records, where he soldiered on but flailed a bit, tempering his sound with synthesizers and modern production in an attempt to find some marketability, and also re-recording inadequate versions of his Sun and Columbia classics like “I Walk the Line” and “Folsom Prison Blues” for what must have been some weird contractual reason, leading to strange helter skelter releases like 1998’s The Best of Johnny Cash, which exclusively features those new and disheartening versions. It was a tough time, perhaps the darkest of his career which makes it ironic that a show from this tumultuous era is now being pushed by New West Records and Austin City Limits.
Live from Austin Texas is classic Johnny Cash, and his performance that night invites no complaints. He runs through a selection of his best tracks, treating the clearly enthusiastic audience with favorites like “Ring of Fire”, whose mariachi horns still sting the heart no matter how many times one hears it, “Folsom Prison Blues”, and “I Walk the Line”, sounding crisp and competent with his long time backing band not once stumbling along the songs we all know by heart. It’s a fine concert, but there are few surprises here, and rarely does the CD justify its existence.
The most startling moment of the concert, which penetrates the cool serenity of the rest of the album, comes as Cash takes on John Prine’s masterpiece “Sam Stone”. Cash, a devout Christian, apparently felt squeamish enough about the song to alter its crucial lyric “Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose.” It’s a stark and stunning alteration, and sticks out like a sore thumb. Prine’s lyric shouldn’t be viewed as blasphemous or disrespectful, but rather a lamentation on the nature of sacrifice. The song’s eponymous protagonist, who gave his sanity and stability for his country through military service, is forgotten, forsaken, allowed to linger in anguish and muted pain until his death, abandoned by the country he sought to uphold and protect. The lyric is an exhortation, one that can be found in many upstanding, proper hymns: that it is up to everyone to make sure that sacrifice is not in vain. It’s confusing in light of Cash’s frankness throughout the rest of the performance regarding murder (“Folsom”), drug use (Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down”, whose lyrics he refused to change on an early television appearance), and adultery (“Long Black Veil”), where he is seemingly able to, if not use those concepts as illustrative parables, detach himself from them as any good storyteller should.
True Cash fanatics would be best served by picking up the DVD video of this Austin City Limits episode, where the man’s humility and talent can truly be seen in a live setting. On CD, the show is merely passable, lacking the crucial extra dimension that helps to transform a flat studio rendition into a truly living piece of music that witnessing his fingers slide across the fret board or his eyes touching upon the crowd can.