Thursday, 11 March 2010


Okay, the title's a joke, this is anything but a definitive review of Johnny Cash's career. But it is my thoughts on this artist after a couple of weeks steeping myself in a single disc compilation, a 3-disc set of his Sun recordings, a 2-disc set of the extended Folsom Prison and San Quentin concerts, and one of his late Rick Rubin-produced recordings, which together I think comprises a pretty good, though in no way definitive, representation of his career.
2. From the beginning to the end.
Having listened to more of JC since I first heard this CD, I'm more than ever convinced that it is an excellent collection of some of the best of his work from the first till the last. If you only have one Johnny Cash disc in your collection, though you should have more, this is as good as any particularly because there is a good sampling of his later work which I'll go into later.

3. How it all began.
Most artists reach a creative and skill peak at some time in their career. It may be early on succeeded by a decline. It may in the middle and look like a bell curve. Or it may come late and represent a continuous ascent. This early work just proves that Johnny Cash reached his peak early. While there is the odd clunker and dated sound, he had his powerful voice, a gift for writing songs and making those of others his own, and an attitude from the very beginning. He hit the ground running and never stopped.
This particular set isn't 'complete' and the notes could be a lot better, but with 54 tracks at a cheap price it will do for me.

4. The man in charge.
In 1968 and then in 1969 Cash played concerts at two legendary tough prisons and had some of the hardest men in America eating out of his hand and showing his heart on his sleeve (excuse the use of cliche).

With an enormous repertoire at his fingertips, there is a great emphasis on crime, punishment and imprisonment. This could have been dark and grim and sometimes it is but there is as much light as there is shade and Cash makes his audience laugh as much as he rouses them. It's a masterclass in audience control as he has these hundreds of hard hard men exactly where he wants. On the second album his song San Quentin is a searing angry masterpiece which goes down so well he sings it again straight afterwards. These are his people he's playing and singing for, the working class and dispossessed of America and they know it and respond accordingly. If they are his people, he is their voice.

Extra tracks aside, this is an excellent box set. Each 20+ page booklet includes new material written by Cash as well as others and plenty of photographs. Only one caveat: I can't listen to one after the other because it's too much of a good thing. That apart this is a magnificent piece of work.

5. And in the end.
This is American III: Solitary Man, one of a much and deservedly praised late-life recordings produced masterfully by Rick Rubin. I'll probably buy them all at some point.

Despite the number of guest backing singers (including Tom Petty, Cash's wife June Carter, & Sheryl Crowe) and musicians (Petty again, Randy Scruggs) they never for a moment detract or distract from Cash's voice which remains as strong and intense as ever. Always an outstanding interpreter of other peoples' songs, here is a masterclass as he tackles Petty's I Won't Back Down, U2's One, Nick Cave's The Mercy Seat (which could have been written by Cash himself), among other plus three of his own songs. This isn't Country and it isn't Rock, it's just pure music that warms and then shatters the soul.

This journey actually ends on the compilation mentioned first. It ends with Nine Inch Nails' Hurt in one of the most affecting and emotionally wrenching heartbreaking things I've ever heard. Cash reached a peak at the beginning of hsi career and he stayed there all his life.

I've come to Johnny Cash relatively late in my own life -just ten years younger than he was when he died. But better late than never because I know that I'll be listening to him for the rest of it.

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