The Man keeps coming around: Johnny Cash at 80
We Walk The Line – A celebration of the music of Johnny Cash – Various Artists
The Greatest: Number Ones, Country Classics, Gospel Songs and Duets – Johnny Cash
Reviews by Douglas Heselgrave
Considering the paces Johnny Cash put his body through for the first half of his life, it’s amazing he held out as long as he did. But, if he’d managed to keep ducking and diving out of the clutches of the hands of fate and delayed his last judgment a little bit longer, he would have been eighty this year. That would have been asking a lot, for as it is, Cash cheated death more times than Indiana Jones, and packed more living into his seventy-one years on earth than seemed possible for any one person.
Since his death in 2003, there have been many attempts to encapsulate Cash’s artistry in lavish collections, and for the casual fan the sheer abundance of compilations, greatest hits packages and box sets can be overwhelming. There are literally dozens of collections on the market that cover various aspects of his work from the standard greatest hits packages to more specialized box sets such as ‘Unearthed’ that comprised of six CDs of out-takes from Cash’s informal sessions with Rick Rubin that were recorded in the last decade of the singer’s life.
Part of the confusion about which of the many collections of his music to buy certainly lies in the fact that Johnny Cash was a very prolific artist who embraced several different genres of music. The young and hungry singer who recorded a few dozen singles for Sun Records in the late fifties was a very different artist than the repentant gospel singer of the seventies or the smoldering dark and craggy icon conjured by Rick Rubin for his American Recordings series.
Looking back, it seems as if there was a Johnny Cash to fit every taste and imagination. Unfortunately, not all of these Johnny Cashes were created equal, and as much as Rick Rubin should be credited for helping the singer enjoy a late career renaissance after years of schlepping his music for banks (who remembers the Johnny Cash ATM machines of the nineties?) and performing in a chicken suit, Rubin unintentionally did a lot to obfuscate a clear understanding of Cash’s overall achievements. As appealing as the elder, hip Johnny Cash envisioned by the barefooted producer was, he could not hold a candle to the skinny pill popping punk of the early years or the masterful performer of the late sixties who recorded ‘Live at Folsom Prison’ and hosted a very successful TV show that regularly featured young guest artists such as Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young.
Ultimately, it may be impossible to create an all-encompassing collection of Johnny Cash’s music, but that hasn’t stopped the record labels from continuing to scavenge and burrow through the vaults in search of new angles to illuminate (and exploit) the work of one of the twentieth century’s greatest artists.
featuring Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Shelby Lynne, Sheryl Crow, Iron and Wine and more
This new DVD/CD combo is a souvenir of the ‘We Walk The Line: A Celebration of the Music of Johnny Cash’ concert that took place on April 20, 2012 to pay tribute to Cash’s life and work. The concert featured a mixture of performances from Cash’s contemporaries such as Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson as well as interpretations from younger artists like Iron and Wine, Shelby Lynne and Jamey Johnson whose debt to Cash is reflected in their own music.
Watching the DVD of the concert made me envious; it would have been a wonderful event to attend. It was also a bit of a strange experience, and at first I wasn’t sure why. Hearing other artists sing songs so closely identified with Cash underscores just how great his compositions were – even without their creator there to sing them. They are rock solid in every respect. Songs like ‘Folsom Prison’ and ‘Ring of Fire’ will surely still be sung a hundred years from now provided we haven’t blown ourselves up by then. But, these new tributes also remind the listener of how much Johnny Cash brought with him to every song he sang. All of his recordings are imbued with such a sense of calm authority, confidence and soul that no other singer could ever hope to take these songs to the same place Cash could. Thankfully, most of the performers here didn’t try to do a second rate ‘Johnny’ impersonation and chose instead to interact with the songs in their own way. Still, the performances of ‘Long Black Veil’ by Iron and Wine as well as ‘Why Me Lord’ by Shelby Lynne and Lucinda Williams’ wandering and unfocused version of NIN’s ‘Hurt’ come off sounding a little hollow and bloodless even though on the surface it’s hard to find anything technically wrong with the performances. Johnny Cash was – like Neil Young is – such a unique force that his work is very difficult to cover in a new way.
Not surprisingly, it was the veterans like Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson who knew and sang with Cash while he was alive who pulled off the most modest, assured and enjoyable renditions of his classic songs at the tribute concert. Willie’s versions of ‘I Still Miss Someone’ and ‘If I Were A Carpenter’ perfectly merge the two artists’ styles and are informal and lovely. Similarly, Kris Kristofferson’s romp through ‘Big River’ leaves the listeners totally satisfied with his joyous, rough and tumble version of the song. Finally, a rudimentary version of ‘The Man Comes Around’ gamely attempted by the actor, Matthew McConaughey reminds listeners that Johnny Cash was, above all, an artist of the people and that many of his songs have joined the pantheon of campfire classics, and that they are in the reach of everyone who tries to sing them.
The Greatest Series – Number Ones, Country Classics, Gospel Songs and Duets
I have to admit that as someone who owns more Johnny Cash LPs, tapes, CDs and downloads than I’d care to admit, the idea of trawling through yet another re-packaging of the man’s greatest songs wasn’t something that I was necessarily looking forward to. Like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, The Rolling Stones and many other baby boomer era artists, Johnny Cash has had his music configured in so many different ways over the years that it’s become easy to lose a sense of the original context of his music.
Surprisingly, the new Greatest series of Johnny Cash songs is very enjoyable and each of the discs make for a very fine and unique listening experience. The music of course is unimpeachable, but for once the songs are thematically grouped in a way that makes sense both in terms of subject matter and listening flow. Excellent liner notes from Anthony DeCurtis and David McGee sweeten the pot a little as does the DVD that comes with the ‘Greatest Number Ones’ set that features performances of many of the songs taken from the Johnny Cash TV show in the early seventies.
These Greatest CDs are grouped into ‘Greatest Number Ones’, ‘Greatest Country Songs’, ‘Greatest Gospel Songs’ and ‘Greatest Duets’ and combing through the songs chosen, it’s very hard to argue with the chosen selections that truly reflect the long arc of Cash’s career. From ‘I walk the line’ to ‘highwayman’, most of the songs you’d ever want to hear are collected in this series. As a straight through listening experience, ‘Country Classics’ is the collection that I enjoyed the most. It features the kind of real, hardcore country gems that made Cash such an enduring artist. From ‘Ghost Riders in the Sky’, ‘Ragged but Right’ to ‘Wildwood Flower’, it’s a beauty from beginning to end. No matter how well you may know each of these songs, listening to them in these new configurations will add perspective to your appreciation of Cash’s music.
The only period of the singer’s work that is left out of these collections are the Rick Rubin recordings that were excluded for licensing reasons. But, just listen once to the version of ‘Delia’s Gone’ from 1961 that’s featured on the ‘Country Classics’ disc that so effortlessly kicks the shit out of the self-conscious, Kate Moss video driven ‘American Recordings’ version. As interesting as Rubin’s approach was and as pure as his motives were in his desire to re-invigorate Cash’s career, their recordings together pale when compared to this vintage work.
The ‘Greatest Series’ gives us the real Johnny Cash. Listening to each of the discs all the way through reminded me yet again of why his work is so unique and powerful. Johnny Cash would’ve been eighty on February 23rd of this year. If it’s been a long time since you’ve spent time with his music, you should buy these discs or pull out some of your old records and have a good listen. He still sounds just as raw, hurting, immediate and sincere as ever. Nearly a decade after his death, it’s still hard to realize Johnny Cash is no longer with us. He was part of another world and time, and we won’t ever hear another one like him.
This posting also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com