[22 November 2005]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
What more can be said about the incomparable Johnny Cash that has not been said countless times before? Singer, songwriter, country music legend, iconic figure, the Man in Black enjoyed a career nearly 50 years in duration. That’s 50 years, as in five decades… as in half a century. Cash came up with Elvis Presley in the mid-1950s, and lasted far longer than the King. Until his death in 2003, Cash remained an integral figure in popular music, having transcended the country genre like no other artist before or after him. He left a legacy equaled by no one as yet, and still conjures an image of brooding sensitivity that is revered by fans and musicians alike. How then, could fitting tribute be paid to Cash’s magnificent career, and most specifically, his early days as a hungry young artist? Simply by compiling a box set filled with tracks from before his star reached its zenith; tracks that give more than a fleeting glimpse of all that Cash had to offer; tracks that collectively form the sapling from which the mighty musical oak would grow.
With the release of The Sun Recordings 1955 - 1958, Time Life Records has issued a stellar collection of material from Cash’s humble beginnings. More than a treasure trove of pre-fame songs however, the box set also serves as a fascinating time portal into the Memphis music scene, and the inner workings of Sam Phillips’ upstart Sun Studios. Going up against the hit factory of Nashville, Phillips faced a daunting challenge: Find and cultivate artists with sufficient marketing potential, while producing records that deviated from the conveyor belt (albeit it highly successful) methodology of Nashville’s power brokers. Phillips hit the jackpot first with Presley, then followed up with Johnny Cash. The thought of how Phillips harnessed the talents of two divergent entities is astounding, as the Sun collection showcases the introspective and melodic Cash in stark contrast to the swiveling Presley.
The three-disc set is comprised of 61 tracks in total, a broad spectrum of originals and covers, all of which contribute to the aural picture of young Cash as a rapidly developing work in progress. While the warmth of Cash’s singing is evident from the outset, it is the simplicity of the recordings that is most striking. Phillips had the foresight to let Cash lead the way, unencumbered by glossy production values or excessive backing instrumentals. The result was Cash’s somber, yet endearing, vocal style, one that conveyed heartache and heartbreak as readily as it did joy and rebellion. And let’s not forget Cash’s unique ability to create songs that still resonate as strongly in the new millennium as they did when originally written.
Two important aspects of Cash’s tenure with Sun are the volume of recordings he made in a three-year period, as well as the quality and consistency of his work. Whether armed with an acoustic guitar, or trailed by a bass and piano, Cash was equally comfortable singing self-penned compositions, or covering Hank Williams, Roy Orbison and Gene Autry. Cash made each song his own, seamlessly weaving together elements of rockabilly, straight country and bluegrass. From the jaunty fun of “Hey Porter” and “You’re My Baby (Little Woolly Booger)”, to the loping “My Treasure” and “Don’t Make Me Go”, to the down-home blues of “Big River”, there is not a single weak moment on any of the discs. Bear in mind, that most artists have difficulty recording four serviceable songs amongst an album’s inclusions; Cash recorded five dozen beautiful tracks under Phillips’ tutelage.
For a pop cultural figure as memorable as Johnny Cash, the release of a collection of his work that is historically significant, while not being repetitive, might appear as near impossible. Yet Time Life has accomplished such a feat, paying tribute to the Man in Black with an impressive box set. The Sun Recordings 1955 - 1958 is equivalent to finding a vault filled with Beatles’ recordings from the Fab Four’s early Cavern Club days. The difference however, is that the Beatles were done by 1970, while Johnny Cash still had a long way to go. The 61 songs included in this set are the first steps on his remarkable five-decade long journey.