In 1986, after 28 years and (literally) hundreds of albums worth of
material with the label, Columbia Records dropped Johnny Cash.
Seems American institutions weren’t selling that year.
Not surprisingly, the artistic side of the music community was justifiably outraged. But in typical fashion, Cash moved on, eventually returning to his roots and finding a new audience with American Recordings and rap producer Rick Rubin.
And now, on the occasion of The Man In Black’s 70th birthday, Columbia is honoring the legend they once discarded with a two-CD Essential collection, as well as expanded reissues of five of his original LPs. Maybe they’re feeling guilty; maybe their motivation is simple greed; maybe they actually have a renewed sense of pride and history (and/or new A&R folks). No matter – we’re the lucky recipients of this overdue payback.
Essential‘s 36 tracks clock in at an hour and 46 minutes, so if you’re thinking there’s a good 40 minutes of more essential Cash they could have squeezed on, you’re right. But what’s here is, needless to say, fantastic, and benefits from excellent sound – mastered by Mark Wilder and Seth Foster. Interestingly, though, the set kicks off with eight Sun tracks, pre-dating Johnny’s Columbia signing, but except for his 1993 cameo with U2 (“The Wanderer”), no post-Columbia material is included – which is unfortunate because the American Recordings CDs are so compelling.
What is startling about listening back to Sun tracks like “Hey Porter,” “Cry, Cry, Cry” and of course “I Walk The Line” today is the same thing that must have had producer Sam Phillips pinching himself when Cash and the Tennessee Two walked into his Memphis studio: These guys sounded like nobody before them. And no matter how popular Johnny Cash has been, or how broad his influence, there’s never been another like him. Speaking of the Tennessee Two, that’s Marshall Grant on bass and Luther Perkins on guitar – not that you’d know it from scouring the CD’s booklet notes. Instead of any personnel listings, only birthday greetings – ranging from the appropriate (George Jones, daughter Rosanne Cash, and an especially moving anecdote from Merle Haggard, who attended one of Cash’s prison concerts while serving time at San Quentin) to the inappropriate (the comments of Chrissie Hynde and members of Metallica and Mudvayne seem naive and gratuitous) – are included.
So, kids, the guys flanking Johnny in the black-and-white photo on the back of the jewel case are Marshall and Luther; unfortunately, there’s no picture of W.S. Holland, who shortly thereafter became the group’s drummer when they became the Tennessee Three – or Carl Perkins (no relation), who joined the troupe in ’65 and became Luther’s replacement when his namesake died in 1968; or Carl’s eventual replacement, Bob Wooten. This is inexcusable, considering that Columbia was able to list personnel for the five albums it reissued – along with original liner notes, new liner notes, and introductory comments from Cash himself – and seeing as Johnny may have eventually augmented his band with Nashville session greats but never abandoned them. Hank Williams’ former steel player, Don Helms, lends a hand on Fabulous and Hymns, and Shot Jackson, Norman Blake, and others lend support, along with Cash’s own acoustic six-string, of course.
Carl Perkins was, of course, one of rockabilly’s pioneers and hottest pickers, while Luther was the ultimate economist. When he would leave his familiar ding-dinga-ding bass-line rhythm, he could stir things up, as on the fantastic “Get Rhythm,” but often his solos, like on “All Over Again,” are no more than a series of two-note riffs. Hey, sometimes simplicity equals genius.
Essential also fails to specify which original albums its tracks were culled from – which would be nice, not to mention informative (Guys! Take the energy you’re expending to get Henry Rollins on the phone and… aw, forget it). It’s a nice starter kit, but hopefully those who are initiated to Cash’s history via this set will dig a little deeper. Fortunately, Columbia/Legacy has made that easier with reissues of Cash’s Columbia debut, The Fabulous Johnny Cash, Hymns, the transcendent Ride This Train, Orange Blossom Special and Carryin’ On With Johnny Cash & June Carter (a.k.a. “Jackson”), spanning the years 1959 to ’67. “Bonus tracks are added here so you’ll feel better about buying it,” Johnny writes with tongue in cheek, but he’s got a point; these were fully realized, self-contained concept albums in their original configurations (the extensive liner notes are, for the most part, excellent, but none match the original notes Cash wrote for Orange Blossom…, in which he recounts meeting Ervin Rouse, the man who wrote Orange Blossom Special, at a show in Miami ca. 1960).
From the Sun material to the early Columbia sessions, you can hear Cash’s sound grow in complexity; yet, Cash never sacrifices his identity, which is at once instantly recognizable and impossible to categorize. As a stylist, of course, he can transform anything into a Johnny Cash song. As a collector of material, he has interpreted the work of Kristofferson, Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and others, often being the first to expose them to a wide audience. But as a songwriter embracing country, folk, rock and roll, and gospel, he’s proclaimed his patriotism and protested injustice, told stories of lovers and killers, sometimes with poetic imagery, other times with hillbilly hokum. But always with dignity.
Mr. Cash, you may be The Man In Black, but you’re more than that. Simply put, you’re The Man.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s June. ’02 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.