The Essential Johnny Cash

The Man Comes Around

“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”

Those words echo familiar to every warm-blooded American and with his choppy, melodic guitar riffs and massive faithful following, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more beloved artist than the late Johnny Cash.

I’m a hard-core Cash fan. When I’m headed to the fishing grounds, he’s my go-to guy. Somehow a drive to the water doesn’t seem quite right without Cash cranking and me leaning out the window hollering, “On a Sunday morning sidewalk…” And I’m not the only one who does that; what makes the “Man in Black” so amazing is that his music and work, at once, appeal to the hard-core “old country” crowd and today’s MTV generation. With remakes of Soundgarden’s Rusty Cage and Nine-Inch Nails’ Personal Jesus, and lyrics addressing the plight of common man, Cash made a connection between two cultures that few artists have attained.

Cash in his younger days telling it like it is.

Since his discography is so extensive, it’s difficult to place a finger on my most cherished Cash album. If I had to choose one for that proverbial deserted island, however, it would be The Essential Johnny Cash, a 2-cd set. Yes, I know: I’m allowed one but I’m taking two goddamnit.

The Essential Johnny Cash contains 36 tunes and exhibits a decent, yet meager, selection of Cash’s 1,500-plus singles. Those 36 chronological cuts are reminders of Cash’s extensive career, which stretched between 1955 and September 1993.

The set begins with eight tunes from his early years with Sun Records. After Cash left Sun in 1958, he joined Columbia Records and most of the remaining tunes are from his Columbia days. Disc one contains, Don’t Take Your Guns to Town; Ring of Fire; The Ballad of Ira Hayes; and a kickin’ bluegrass tune called Orange Blossom Special. Disc two showcases Cash’s work from the mid-sixties forward and includes Jackson, which is performed with his sweetheart, June Carter Cash; a live version of A Boy Named Sue; and the traditional favorite, Ghost Riders in the Sky.

One of my favorite Cash lines, “I shot a man in Reno … just to watch him die,” shows up in a live version of Folson Prison Blues. Cash is so convincing when he belts out that line, you have to ask, “Did he really do that?” And, by the favorable reaction from his inmate audience, you may feel a chill run through your spine.

Besides solo versions of his tunes, Cash joins with other notables on disc two. The classics, Girl from the North County, sung with Bob Dylan; Song of the Patriot, sung with Marty Robbins; Highway Man, belted out with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson; and the Wanderer, a collaboration with U2, round out the set.

Some of my fondest memories consist of barreling down a long, dirt road at midnight in search of new water. I’m there with a buddy or two, sipping on a cold one with Cash blaring, making those speakers earn their living. For me, Cash completes the experience. Oh, sure, I listen-to and love other artists, but there is something about Cash’s deep bass voice and addicting rhythms that sooths the soul.

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