Johnny Cash

The Essential Johnny Cash; various reissues (Columbia/Legacy)

How do you like your Cash served? Biscuits and sausage gravy, side of grits and hot coffee in some fleabite Southern truck stop? That's not a bad metaphor, especially since Cash has come to represent almost 50 years of (small case) americana music. Diesel fumes, cigarette smoke, coffee and cooking grease, itchy nerves, regret and rumbling guts -- if there's a roadhouse at the end of the universe, Cash is on the jukebox, and somewhere in his thousands of songs is the story of every person passing through.

Cash turned 70 last month, and the world suddenly seems as though it's in a hurry to pay tribute to the man. What's that line from Chinatown? "Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough," which is not to suggest that John R. Cash is any of those things, only that 50 years of bumps, rough roads and undeniable brilliance has compressed itself into a kind of petrified public reverence, buffed his iconic shine into something like perfection.

Truth is, if you study the geological strata, there are many different Johnny Cashes, as it becomes clear when you look over a half-dozen new Cash reissues.

Beginning with a two-CD set, The Essential Johnny Cash is actually the second Essential Johnny Cash-- the first, a three-disc set, came out in '92, and contains 75 cuts whereas the new one has 36. But let's not be picky, since this new collection is really a birthday present to Cash and his newer fans.

Released on February 12, it provides an overview of Cash's career that includes some of the material he recorded on Mercury, as well as a handful of his earliest tracks from the Sun years. Some of the material is among his best, some of it represents popular favorites that were, quite frankly, not all that good, and there are a couple of novelty numbers that no collection can really do without, even though many of us could.

There's not a lot to be said about a collection of this sort -- for the novice or casual fan it does a lovely job of taking the long view on Cash, excepting his more recent material for Rick Rubin's American label, which is no longer associated with Sony. A shame, that, since they not only marked a new high in Cash's career, but also heralded the ascension of Cash for a new generation.

However, for the happy diehards among us, Sony has also released a number of Cash records that haven't been available in many years. These five records are, in chronological order, The Fabulous Johnny Cash (his first for Columbia, in 1959), Hymns By Johnny Cash (also '59), Ride This Train(1960), Orange Blossom Special(1965), and Carrying On With Johnny Cash and June Carter(1967).

These releases have a lot to say about the evolution of the Man in Black, particularly in the years leading up to the glory of his live Folsom Prison and San Quentin albums (both available), and they also document the beginnings of the decline in material that he was heir to, a problem that, like Sinatra, plagued Cash in the '70s and '80s.

Still, the fact remains that these are precious documents and great albums, and they stand tall in the Cash cache, particularly the earliest of them. That they've been refitted with scads of unreleased material, remastered, with new notes, in other words the whole five-star kit and caboodle, is cause to rejoice.

 
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