Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Cold, Hard Cash


The Legend


Keep on the Sunny Side: Her Life in Music

Two career-spanning sets paint the Johnny/June story as one of drugs, damnation and devotion

Johnny Cash was one of a kind. The non-rockabilly odd man out in Sun Records' Million Dollar Quartet proved not just a more principled artist than Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis or Elvis Presley but also a more adaptable and vital one--the King himself couldn't have come back the way the Man in Black did. His bottomless, half-spoken baritone, no less imposing for its melodic limitations, could deliver anything from the hymns he loved to the modern rock pressed on him during his last decade on earth by mythmaker Rick Rubin. His fondness for folk music both traditional and fabricated never came across as forced--on the contrary, his cameo on Bob Dylan's 1969 Nashville Skyline now seems natural and inevitable. And though Rubin convinced hipsters Cash was an Authentic Outlaw, his aura of moral authority is as powerful as any in pop history. Preacher or orator or voice from the other side, he always knew the score.

Before he died of complications from diabetes in 2003, Cash recorded upwards of 60 LPs for Columbia's Nashville division between 1958 and 1982 as well as many tracks for Sun, four Mercury albums and eight CDs worth of material for Rubin. As his mystique has grown, so has the listenability of his catalogue, much of it now reissued or repackaged. So it's a relief to report that, though it has no Rubin stuff, the four-CD The Legend supplants the 1992 three-CD The Essential Johnny Cash 1955-1983 as a definitive introduction.

Although the terrific earlier box has 30 songs not repeated here, including many Suns, this one's better. Its risky strategy of devoting an entire disc to folk songs, half hootenanny and half campfire singalong, and another to collaborations with the likes of Dylan, Ray Charles, U2, Elvis Costello, Waylon Jennings, Rosanne Cash and, especially, the Carter Family, finds good songs and fits them together. Even the seven previously unreleased numbers blend in: "Doin' My Time" and "You Can't Beat Jesus Christ" shine.

Cash's Carter connection was his wife June, chief heir of the first family of American traditional music. In a union that, typically for Cash, began in sin and lasted nearly half a century, June Carter Cash was her husband's rock. As you might expect of the co-composer of "Ring of Fire," she was that rare thing, an interesting saint: fiery, creative, proactive.

She was not, however, a major country singer. Her voice often wavers, and there's too much Jesus in her--the scarily anti-urban "Appalachian Pride" is the kind of tract her husband regularly made comprehensible, and although Cash eclipsed all but one of his Sun labelmates, Jerry Lee and his bad sister Linda Gails version of John & June's signature "Jackson" is rowdier and more convincing. Nevertheless, June's two-CD Keep on the Sunny Side: Her Life in Music is a triumph of the compiler's craft, listenable throughout and delightful early on--June was the kind of cute kid you just know will turn out well.

Nevertheless, her true gift to music was keeping Johnny Cash alive through his battles with uppers, painkillers and other species of evil. The new box's one deeply regrettable omission is "Singin' in Vietnam Talkin' Blues," a vivid expression of this staunch patriot's Christian ethics--he's there for our soldiers as a man of peace. But his statement of principle, "Man in Black," explains him just as well: "I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down," he begins, and goes on to speak for prisoners, drug casualties, the sick and the aged, America's Vietnamese dead, Vietnam's Vietnamese dead and anyone who's never heard Jesus's word, all in less than three minutes.

His compassion wouldn't ring nearly as true, of course, if he hadn't written about having murdered Delia and that man in Reno he watched die, or howled the gallows humor of Shel Silverstein's "25 Minutes to Go," or copped to the limits of moral certitude in a "Highway Patrolman" that tops Bruce Springsteen's original. There are loads of American stories in which God and Satan spur the same great music. But seldom is the philosophical outcome quite as rich as in Johnny Cash.

Blender, Sept. 2005