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Mean Eyed Cat, Kneeling Drunkard's Plea, and the Wayfaring Stranger

The Complete Original Sun Singles. Johnny Cash. Varese Sarabande.
Love God Murder. Johnny Cash. Columbia/American/Legacy.
American III: Solitary Man. Johnny Cash. American.

Don't ever talk to Johnny Cash about "slowing down." Don't ever talk to him about retirement. About disease. About old age. About death. Cash, who is nearing seven decades on earth, has stared down enough physical, psychological, spiritual, social, and musical obstacles to send a host of humans to their knees. But the Man in Black just keeps coming back. It's a pattern that's repeated itself countless times over his nearly half century-long recording career, during which he shook up the country music industry, influenced countless younger musicians from a host of genres, and did enough living to last several lifetimes.

So there's no reason to assume Cash won't rise off the mat the next time he gets knocked down. After all, he's ravaged his body with drugs and cleaned up. He's died on the operating table and come back to life. He was diagnosed three years ago with a terminal nervous-system disorder, Shy-Drager Syndrome, and has since fought off the symptoms with such verve that doctors are wondering if he was misdiagnosed. He and his family were held hostage at gunpoint in their own home and survived.

Most visibly, though, Cash has tethered himself to the roller coaster seat of popular music, doing it his way (much to self-righteous chagrin of the country music empire), enduring several falls to near obscurity--only to make comeback after comeback. Cash's most recent resurgence stems from his charmed partnership with eccentric rap pioneer Rick Rubin, who produced three distinguished albums for Cash over the last six years. This arrangement has yielded Cash a brand new (and decidedly Gen-X) audience--and the adoration of critics far and wide.

But the last year or so has been nothing short of an honest-to-goodness Cash renaissance. The time span between mid-1999 and late 2000 has seen the release of--count 'em--thirty-one Cash albums (albeit mostly compilations), including remastered and expanded versions of classics At Folsom Prison and Live at San Quentin.

Three records in particular stand head and shoulders above the rest. Collectively they highlight the dawn and the twilight of Cash's career--and document a highly comprehensive slice of themes about which Cash has been forever passionate:

  • In late 1999, Varese Sarabande released a charming, energetic double disc--The Complete Original Sun Singles--featuring forty remastered songs that Cash (and his backing duo, the Tennessee Two) recorded on Sam Phillips's famous label between 1955 and 1958.

  • The spring of 2000 saw the birth of the much ballyhooed triple-CD box set Love God Murder, a Cash-produced compilation of forty-eight tunes arranged in accordance with the three primary themes he's explored during his long career.

  • And in late 2000, the long-awaited third jewel in the Cash-Rubin crown, American III: Solitary Man--a dignified-but-weathered look at mortality--was unleashed upon the record-buying public.
  • "Mean Eyed Cat"

    Although this boisterous 1955 tune was souped up and fleshed out for 1996's Unchained--the version Cash admits he's finally satisfied with forty years later--the original appears on The Complete Original Sun Sessions and accurately captures Cash's then-sleek, ready-to-pounce personality that often found its way to the surface of his interpersonal interactions, both on and off stage.

    Fellow Highwayman, songwriter, and longtime friend Kris Kristofferson remembers meeting Cash for the first time backstage at the Grand Ole Opry in 1965, a full decade after Cash came barreling out of Memphis--still a rebellious hellion who insisted on doing things his own way. "It was back in his dangerous days," Kristofferson recalls in a recent Rolling Stone article, "and it was electric. He was skinny as a snake, and you just never knew what he was going to do. He looked like he might explode at any minute. He was a bad boy, he stood up for the underdog, he was exciting and unpredictable, and he had an energy onstage that was unlike anybody else."

    That might come as a surprise to music fans who recognize only the contemporary Cash persona--the elder statesman of popular music, the dignified, thoughtful, well-read patron of the finer things, and significantly, an artist who today places God much more at the center of his life than he did in the '50s and '60s.

    Yet there was a day when Cash admits he was indeed more of a patron of the Seven Deadly Sins. Cash was once country music's Fred Durst, Kid Rock, and Eminem--all wrapped into one wiry frame. "In the hip-hop world, you see all these bad-boy artists who are juggling being on MTV and running from the law," offers current producer Rubin in Rolling Stone. "John was the originator of that."

    If anything, Cash was a vibrant breath of fresh air to a country music industry that, by the mid-1950s, had grown stale. And falling in with Phillips--who made crossover superstars out of his "million dollar quartet" (Cash, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins)--afforded Cash the chance to be himself behind the microphone.

    Meticulous and fresh-as-live in its sonic restoration, The Complete Original Sun Sessions is also marked by ultra simplicity. Incredibly basic arrangements. Minimal chord changes. No drums. A pair of decidedly nonvirtuoso backing musicians--a two-note, double bassist and an electric guitarist who sounds like a green Scotty Moore. What's special about these songs, though, is Cash's ability to meld rockabilly rhythms and tempos with his innate country music tendencies. That and his twenty-three-year-old, conviction-filled voice--deep and foreboding and world-weary even then--that sings about adult dilemmas to a greater degree than most pop music aficionados were likely prepared to digest in the era of Eisenhower.

    So, with groundbreakers like "Cry! Cry! Cry!" "Hey, Porter!" "Folsom Prison Blues," and--of course--"I Walk the Line," Cash quickly rose to the top ranks of country music while winning converts among pop and rock fans. Cash made it big very early in his career, and--just like Elvis--left Sam Phillips for greener pastures.

    The Complete Original Sun Sessions is a true revelation. It offers the chronological evolution of the early, raw Cash sound, and you can hear it develop, note by note. Fittingly, not every song is well known--and that balance between hit tunes and obscure ditties makes this album a true slice of Americana. It's the "Sun Records experience" through the full-bodied perspective of one its greatest artists.

    Johnny Cash doesn't sing to the damned, he sings with the damned, and sometimes you feel he might prefer their company.

    --from U2 singer Bono's liner notes of the "God" CD, Love God Murder boxed set

    Although they met in the early 1980s, the U2-Cash association really began in the early 1990s--when Cash hit yet another professional low point. In 1993 he was once again a fairly faceless artist in the mind of the public, but U2 made the bold, surprising, out-of-nowhere decision to feature Cash's lead vocals on Zooropa's "The Wanderer,"a stirring track that strangely enough embodies all the contradictions inherent in Love God Murder. In fact, "The Wanderer," a Bono lyrical composition and one of the album's best songs, pretty much tells the Johnny Cash story:
    I went out there in search of experience
    To taste and to touch and to feel as much
    As a man can before he repents . . .
    I went out walking
    With a Bible and a gun
    The Word of God lay heavy on my heart
    I was sure I was the one
    Now Jesus, don't you wait up
    Jesus, I'll be home soon
    Yeah I went out for the papers
    Told her I'd be back by noon
    Yeah I left with nothing
    But the thought you'd be there too
    Looking for you
    It's hardly a surprise then that Bono, a fellow believer in Christ who himself lives and deals with contradictory emotions and desires, identifies so directly with Cash through this track. Or maybe Bono's recollection of a meal he and U2 bassist Adam Clayton once shared with the Man in Black says it best: "We bowed our heads and John spoke this beautiful, poetic grace," Bono notes in Rolling Stone, "and we were all humbled and moved. Then he looked up afterwards and said, 'Sure miss the drugs, though.'"

    It's no surprise, either, that Cash tapped Bono to compose the short essay that accompanies the God portion of the Love God Murder project. It reads, in part: "Empathy and grace are written in [Cash's] face, etched into his voice. . . . So are the years in the wilderness. . . . Big John sings like the thief who was crucified beside Christ, whose humble entreaties had Jesus promising that night he would see paradise."

    Indeed, Cash embodies, as Kristofferson has said, a "walking contradiction." In his life, he has:

  • played at prisons and supported organizations that assist the families of slain police officers;

  • performed for American troops during the Vietnam War and protested the conflict;

  • hosted a ABC-TV variety show in 1969 and 1970 that, although taped in Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, offered exposure to noncountry artists such as Bob Dylan, Graham Nash, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Louis Armstrong, Pete Seeger, Linda Ronstadt, Stevie Wonder, and Ray Charles;

  • professed his faith on "The Johnny Cash Show," something the network bristled at but Cash insisted on.
  • Says Cash in Rolling Stone: "I believe what I say, but that don't necessarily make me right. There's nothing hypocritical about it. There is a spiritual side to me that goes real deep, but I confess right up front that I'm the biggest sinner of them all."

    So . . . love, God, and murder. How does Cash reconcile the three? By not trying to. The Love CD focuses on the kind of love that's toughened and tested by time and trust. "What happened to our love language?" Cash asks in his own essay. "We have brought it down to three-minute sound bites--sandwiches in cute words that rhyme." On the Murder CD, Cash manages to secure the services of film noir director Quentin Tarantino for the main essay. And despite the fact that Tarantino is typically viewed as a lover of violence-for-violence's-sake through bloody projects like Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino sums up Cash's perspective on murder: "Unlike most gangsta rap, Cash's criminal life songs rarely take place during the high times. In fact, most songs take place after the cell door has slammed shut or a judge's gavel has condemned a man to death . . . when he tells a story . . . he tells it not with bravado, but [with] an overwhelming sense of regret."

    Solitary Man

    Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash got together in 1993, with Rubin pleading to let him record Cash singing simple songs in his living room. The first fruits of this relationship--American Recordings (1994) and Unchained (1996)--both find Cash doing what Cash does best: Strumming acoustic guitar and (still) playing by his own rules. Among the most obvious signs of this are Cash's interesting cover choices. American Recordings includes tunes by 1980s icon Nick Lowe ("The Beast in Me"), heavy metal monster Glenn Danzig ("Thirteen"), Leonard Cohen ("Bird on a Wire"), Tom Waits ("Down There by the Train"), and Loudon Wainwright III ("The Man Who Couldn't Cry"). It nabbed a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album. Unchained is not quite as fixated on younger bands and songwriters, yet was chosen for another Grammy, this time for Best Country Album.

    Seven years since the first Cash-Rubin meeting, American III: Solitary Man finds the Man in Black sounding decidedly older and weaker--something not apparent on American Recordings or Unchained. This fact is manifested on the opening track, "I Won't Back Down," another Petty cover. Known as an anthem of defiance, especially the way Petty and, more recently, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder, have performed it, the war-cry tune as Cash does it has an eerie sense of resignation, his voice wavering like a man who's prepared to die (albeit standing up). Another difference is that American III is far more stripped down. There are no drums or bass guitars or electrics--just acoustic instruments and the occasional keyboard flourish by Benmont Trench (one of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers).

    The title track--one of Neil Diamond's many hits--is a seemingly odd selection as it's not terribly "alternative." But remember that Diamond was a guest on Cash's short-lived, wonderfully groundbreaking TV show in 1970, and the association and allegiance becomes clear. The lyrics no doubt reflect Cash's unwavering commitment to individuality as well.

    Cash returns U2's "Zooropa favor" by covering a quick-tempoed version of the now classic track from Achtung Baby, "One." Here Cash--backed by acoustics, a sparse piano, and a dirge-like organ--makes this song sound like one of his originals, coloring it with a sense of love between two people who've shared their lives and are nearing the end of their days.

    Other interesting covers are "Nobody," a tune written at the turn of the twentieth century, and perhaps the most stirring song on the album, "The Mercy Seat." Penned by Nick Cave and Mick Harvey, this gut-wrenching selection is composed from the perspective of a death-row inmate--who insists he's innocent--yet who's about sit in an electric chair: "Into the mercy seat I climb / My head is shaved, my head is wired / And like a moth that tries to enter the bright eye / I go shufflin' out of life / Just to hide from death awhile / And anyway, I never lied. . . ." The real shocker comes when you listen to the original, unintelligible, gothic version--and you realize that Cash has done a far better job at interpreting this stirring anthem than Cave & Co.

    Although Cash treads a little more lightly on American III, his advancing age forces him to provide each track with just that much more grace and believability. No problem here--Cash is truly the master at interpreting others' songs, and here you have no reason to think he didn't write them all--and only after experiencing every lyric. American III: Solitary Man, could be Cash's last album--you just never know with him.

    --Dave Urbanski

    Dave Urbanski is the new director of product development for Youth Specialties, Inc., a San Diego-based organization that's been providing resources and training for Christian youth workers for the last three decades. For the previous four years he served as editor of Youthworker journal.

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