A Not-So-Lonesome Whistle: Johnny Cash at Sun Records

Justin Cober-Lake

Music historian Colin Escot guides us through the Man in Black's earliest recordings.

With a recent biopic and several CD compilations either recently released or on the way, the late Johnny Cash is becoming one of pop culture's most active figures again. It's not surprising that he would return to haunt us, and it's even less surprising that a variety of labels and corporations would be moving to cash in on the buzz. While most of these groups present career overviews or the standard depiction of Cash's career, Time Life takes a different route and assembles the singer's early work.

If you're old enough, you might still think of Time Life as the people who brought you products like Freedom Rock and its brilliant commercial ("Hey, man, is that Freedom Rock? Well, turn it up!"). With the release of the three-disc set Johnny Cash: The Complete Sun Recordings 1955-1958, however, the company makes a substantial foray into a more scholarly and historically minded approach. Senior Vice-President of Audio and Video Retail Mike Jason explains that he wants to "extend Time Life in the creation of single-artist and themed boxed sets that explore musically and historically important artists, genres, and time periods." The company may have been known for its slick television commercials for compilations, but Jason says they plan take a more critical approach, and they will "work with the best partners and the most important artists, work with award-winning contributors for liner notes and top-notch studios, uncover rare photos, use the highest quality packaging and bring these elements to market."

With the Cash set, the complany's off to a good start. Rather than filling up on greatest hits, this compilation presents a full picture of Cash during his developmental years as an artist at Sun Records. Adding to the new academic angle, the packaging also includes extensive notes by music historian Colin Escott, whose credentials include the book Good Rockin' Tonight Sun Records & the Birth of Rock & Roll. PopMatters recently tracked down Escott to help us get a grip on these important years in the country icon's rise.

PopMatters: How did you get selected to work on this compilation? I'm guessing the people at Time Life have read your books on Sun Records and early rock 'n' roll?

Colin Escott: I worked with Mike Jason when he was at Sanctuary. We did the 4-CD This Is Reggae Music set, a rockabilly comp, and other things. When Mike moved to Time Life, he asked several consultants, including me, for ideas, and Johnny Cash went to the top of the list because the forthcoming movie, Walk the Line, will refocus attention on him -- not that attention has been far from him these last few years.

PM: What's your objective in putting together this collection? What do you hope that Cash novices, fans, and completists will each get out of it?

CE: Sun was where Johnny Cash formulated his sound. He detoured here and there but always returned to that bare-bones sound. Cash's Sun recordings are quite simply a seminal body of American music. Amazingly, this is the first time that we're aware of that anyone in North America has compiled all the Sun recordings in chronological order. You can hear his songwriting improve, you can hear him coming to terms with rock 'n' roll and the Nashville Sound, and in the end you can sense his disenchantment. A lot happened in three years. We feel that anyone who likes Johnny Cash will have some of the Sun recordings, but his three years at Sun were so important that we think most of his fans will want this complete document. There will probably be a few songs they haven't heard before, and we hope they'll enjoy the essay and previously unpublished photos. There have been many complete sets on other artists that are almost unlistenable, but I feel that Cash at Sun really warrants completism. Even the few times he tries and fails, it's interesting.

When I was a kid I bought every Johnny Cash record on Sun I could find. It took a long time and cost me a heap of money to get the lot, and there was a hell of a lot of overlap. Now you can get every original Johnny Cash Sun recording, plus several that no one knew about when I was a kid, undubbed and in premium sound quality for $30 or $40.

PM: After Cash signed with Columbia, Sun continued to release Cash albums. Were these composed entirely of Sun material recorded from 1955 to 1958? Why and how were they assembled, and what was Columbia's response?

CE: After Cash left Sun, the original owner, Sam Phillips, continued issuing Cash singles and LPs almost until he sold the label in 1968. Columbia wasn't happy about this and actually tried to buy Sun to solve the problem. Phillips eventually sold to Shelby Singleton, who bought the label just as Cash was beginning his very successful ABC-TV show, and Singleton continued issuing Sun titles in competition with Columbia. Both Phillips and Singleton overdubbed their Cash titles with choruses, additional echo, additional instruments, and even applause to make the records sound more like the Columbia recordings. For this set, we stripped away those overdubs, revealing a sound quite close to that on Cash's last recordings for Rick Rubin's American label.

PM: How much of the music's sound would you contribute to the vision of Cash and Phillips, and how much to the blind luck of which musicians were involved?

CE: It was a combination of the two. Cash arrived at Sun with a ragged hillbilly band: steel guitar, electric guitar, bass, and himself on rhythm guitar. The steel guitarist got cold feet, leaving Luther Perkins on electric guitar to carry the lead. Luther was only just beginning to learn lead and could do little more than keep time on the bass strings. Phillips's moment of insight or genius was to see that Cash's voice needed no more ornamentation than Luther's boom-chicka-boom provided. If Cash had gone to Nashville, they would have framed him with fiddle, steel, et cetera.

PM: What should we notice happening between "Wide Open Road" and "Down the Street to 301"?

CE: So much happened in just three years -- remember that's the time between albums for most major stars these days. Cash became a star surprisingly quickly. He was on the Opry 11 months into his career. Hank Williams was a professional musician for ten years before he reached the Opry. Cash became a star just as his former Sun label mate Elvis Presley was transforming pop and country music, and as Nashville was formulating its response to rock 'n' roll in the shape of the Nashville Sound. In the three years covered by this set, we can hear Cash respond to all this while growing immeasurably as a writer and performer, and while remaining essentially true to himself.

PM: How do you see the relationship among artists like Cash, Presley, and Perkins, who were all trying to enter a similar market at a similar time out of the same studio? How much of a hand did Phillips use in guiding them toward different sounds and audiences?

CE: The most recent Cash bio suggests a degree of jealousy on Cash's part toward Elvis, while Perkins was undoubtedly jealous of both Elvis and Cash. They were pulling for each other and against each other at the same time. In later years, Cash and Perkins became very close, of course. What all three of them accomplished was almost unprecedented. They were playing regional southern music, and in the space of just a year or so they took it to a national and then international audience. Phillips's role was to enable them to discover what was unique about their own music instead of pushing them to sound like Hank Williams or anyone else. That was a very special gift he gave them.

PM: Given that Cash was largely considered a country-music artist, how do you explain his influence on rock?

CE: The surprising thing about Cash is that he actually influenced very few others in that there weren't and aren't many artists who sound like him. Elvis, Hank -- they inspired thousands to sound like them. What Cash did was offer a vision of rugged independence. He followed his musical instincts and invited audiences to follow him -- sometimes down blind alleys. I think that was his influence on rock and country and all music. Forever.

PM: We always hear about Phillips's use of echo. Can you point out some especially potent uses of it? What do you think the influence of this technique has been in both rock and country?

CE: Phillips used tape echo, or slap-back, which involved bouncing the signal from one machine to another. When Cash went to Columbia they used chamber echo, like a bathroom. The difference was quite important. Phillips's tightly focused slap-back echo lent presence to a recording, while the chamber echo lent distance. And, yes, people are still trying to figure out how Phillips did it.

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