There’s not much to say about Johnny Cash that hasn’t been said already. He is the original man in black, the first musician to get the moral majority’s panties in a bunch. He’s a patriot and a rebel, Han Solo with a guitar instead of the Millennium Falcon. His rich baritone, brilliant story telling and immaculate guitar playing have helped him become one of America’s finest singer-songwriters. But Cash is more than a folk or country singer; in many ways he is the embodiment of the American spirit. The gambler who is not afraid of any odds, tied to God but sinful, calling it how it is and doing things his way. He stands up for the little man, but remains deeply patriotic. Cash has never shied from controversy, unafraid to point out the faults and hipocacies in others as well as in himself. When the historian Howard Zinn set out to tell America’s history from the common man and lowest classes point of view, he could have just as well used Cash’s songs as his soundtrack.
Recently, Cash has seen a bit of a renaissance thanks to his 1998 release America III: Solitary Man. By imbibing more modern songs like U2’s “One”, Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down”, and Billie “Prince” Bonnie’s “I See a Darkness” with his wondrous voice, he transformed those songs into entities that were purely his own. Cash brought out a pain that even Bono and his 40 videos could never get at and turned Petty’s track into a song of true defiance. Trying to . . . ahem . . . cash in, Columbia/Legacy is doing their best to turn around as much Johnny Cash as they possibly can. In this case they’ve re-issued Sings the Ballads of the True West, Songs of Our Soil, and Silver. The albums have been re-mastered, given new artwork, fine liner notes courtesy of Johnny Whiteside, and as the ultimate catch had unreleased songs tacked on.
The finest of the three releases is easily Sings the Ballads of the True West, which was first released in 1965. The album was Cash’s first concept album, the tale of an early settler taking his family West to Kentucky through the land of Indians, Doc Holiday, the OK Corral and John Wesley Harden. If you’re looking for a modern reference think OK Computer set to the Wild West. Beginning with a reading of Indian Chief Hiawatha’s “Vision” in which he foresees the downfall of Native Americans to the White Man, Cash proceeds to show a very different side of the western expansionism. For instance, instead of fighters going down in a blaze of glory, we hear about the “Battle of Boot Hill” in which Cash mourns lives lost over the pursuit of silver. On “The Shifting, Whispering, Sands Part I and II”, Cash tells of the slaughtered bodies hidden under our soil where as on “The Road to Kaintuck”, he tells of Daniel Boone, not the fearless explorer, but the grieving father who has just lost his son.
Throughout the album, Cash appears only as an observer — he is not trying to sell us one way or another but rather tell the tale as it should be told. He sounds old and worn, young and spry all at the same time and when he really gets rolling, his voice is like no other. The re-mastering job is well done, although something tells me that there is a certain appeal to this album that makes it best suited to be played on a record player. It’s a bit of a reach to say that you should buy this because of the two unreleased tracks. “Rodeo Hand” is an obvious throw-away and had it appeared on the first go around it would probably have been its weakest track. “Stampede” is an ‘alternate instrumental’ that all but the most devout Cash completist can live without. While fans of Cash and music in general should own Sings the Ballads of the True West, it is because of the album’s own merits — not the sell job Columbia is trying to put on it.
Songs of Our Soil, first released in 1959, is another Cash must own. Cash also considered it a concept album. Although it doesn’t follow in the cohesive story-telling style of Sings the Ballads of the True West, it is intended to be a collection of American folk songs. Personally, I was most intrigued by “Five Feet High and Rising”, mostly wondering if it is where De La Soul got inspiration for their debut Three Feet High and Rising. In typical Cash fashion, “The Man on the Hill” tells the tale of a sharecropper while “Old Apache Squaw” is about the plight of the Native American. “Hank and Joe and Me” is one of the most upbeat songs ever written about someone dying of thirst while searching for gold. The two unreleased tracks “I Got Stripes” and “You Dreamer You” were both recorded around the same time and are worthy additions to the compilation.
The oddest re-issue is easily Silver, which saw the light of day in 1979. As the 1970s dwindled to a halt, Cash saw himself fall more and more out of public consciousness. As disco, punk, and new wave battled classic rock for the airwaves, Cash was finding himself without an audience. Silver was an attempt to gussy himself up for mainstream consumption. Unfortunately, everything about the project was pretty disastrous, from the picture on the back where the studio heads have him done up to resemble Wayne Newton, to the cheesy cover artwork, to the over-wrought string section. The album pretty much buries Cash. His songs do not fare well under the heavy studio treatment and the entire project comes off as the difference between seeing a wild animal in the zoo as opposed to in nature. The unreleased tracks are “I Still Miss Someone” and “I Got Stripes”, both featuring George Jones and both as forgettable as this album was.
If you don’t own Sings the Ballads of the True West and Songs of Our Soil these re-issues are both must-buys as they are but two standouts in a remarkable artist’s impressive cannon. However, if you already own them, you should probably save your money for the other re-releases Legacy has planned for the next year.