Cash and Carry
New CDs spotlight Johnny Cash's extraordinary career
By Greg Cahill
In March 1998, shortly after Johnny Cash won the 1998 Grammy award for Best Country Album for Unchained (American), the Man in Black made headlines when his record label took out a controversial ad in the music trade magazine Billboard. The full-page ad depicted a younger Cash flipping his middle finger, accompanied by a short text that sarcastically thanked country radio stations for dumping him from their play lists a decade earlier and derided "the country music establishment in Nashville," which he felt had unfairly cast him aside at the height of his career.
It was classic Cash, a rare artist who left this world with his integrity intact. As daughter Roseanne Cash pointed out last week at an all-star Nashville tribute to her late father, who died Sept. 12 from complications of diabetes, Johnny Cash was a walking paradox. Over a career that spanned more than five decades, Cash earned a reputation as the tender-hearted crooner who was a master of the murder ballad, a man equally familiar with devils (his own) and angels, and a liberal-minded performer whose antiwar stance flew in the face of his conservative country peers.
The outtakes and previously unreleased material from those now-infamous American Records sessions fuel a new five-CD box set, Unearthed (American/Lost Highway), featuring 79 tracks and a 104-page clothbound booklet with extensive liner notes and a lengthy interview with Cash. The American material introduced Cash--who first crossed over to the pop charts with his 1956 hit "I Walk the Line"--to a whole new generation, thanks to the haunting 1994 MTV hit "Delia's Gone" and powerful, stripped-down interpretations of such contemporary rock songs as Trent Reznor's "Hurt" and Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus," both from his Grammy-winning 2002 recording American IV: The Man Comes Around.
Before his death, Cash had indeed gotten the last laugh on his detractors. In August he was nominated for four Country Music Association Awards for Single of the Year and Music Video of the Year ("Hurt"), Album of the Year, and Vocal Event of the Year ("Tears in the Holston River" with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band). His video for "Hurt" won an MTV Video Music Award for Best Cinematography and was nominated for Video of the Year, Best Male Video, Best Direction, Best Art Direction, and Best Editing.
The first four discs in the Unearthed set comprise 64 never-before-heard recordings. A fifth CD contains tracks from Cash's four Grammy award-winning albums with producer and American Recordings founder Rick Rubin.
Disc one ("Who's Gonna Cry"), disc two ("Trouble in Mind"), and disc three ("Redemption Songs") feature such unreleased gems as "Trouble in Mind" and solo acoustic versions of "Long Black Veil" and "Flesh and Blood." The discs also contain Cash's renditions of Steve Earle's "Devil's Right Hand," Roy Orbison's "Down the Line," and Neil Young's "Heart of Gold" and "Pocahontas."
Other highlights include some of Cash's extraordinary unreleased duets, including Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" with Joe Strummer, Cat Stevens' "Father and Son" with Fiona Apple, Chuck Berry's "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" with Carl Perkins, "Cindy" with Nick Cave, and "Like a Soldier" with Willie Nelson.
All of that material has been culled from the recording sessions for American Recordings (1994), Unchained (1996), American III: Solitary Man (2000), and American IV: The Man Comes Around (2002).
Disc four is a new spiritual album titled "My Mother's Hymn Book," featuring 15 solo acoustic performances drawn from Cash's mother Carrie's book of hymns that she taught him as a boy. Disc five, titled "Best of Cash on American," features previously released tracks from the four acclaimed American Recording releases.
Meanwhile, Cash can be heard on two other recent discs. Johnny Cash: Live Recordings from the Louisiana Hayride (Scene Records) captures the country legend in concert at the beginning of his career. Recorded between 1956 and 1963 from Shreveport, La.'s KWKH on Saturday nights, Cash can be heard amid the screaming girls with his longtime backup band the Tennessee Two (guitarist Luther Perkins and bassist Marshall Grant), who helped define Cash's trademark sound. The sound quality is spotty at times, but the performances are astounding throughout.
While the Lousiana Hayride era found Cash exploring the carnal side of life, his contribution to the new Livin', Lovin', Losin': Songs of the Louvin Brothers (Universal South), a soothing duet with Pam Tillis on the bluegrass spiritual "Keep Your Eyes on Jesus," finds him getting right with God as he recites a parable from the Gospels and warns against succumbing to the pleasures of this world.
Vince Gill probably said it best: "If God has a voice, I'm sure he sounds just like Johnny Cash."
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From the November 20-26, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.