Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Consumer Guide Album

Johnny Cash: The Essential Johnny Cash 1955-1983 [Columbia, 1992]
As a critic, a surrogate consumer, and a mortal whose four-score and hoping dwindles too quickly as it is, I hate boxes. But once I'd steeled myself for this 75-song monster, I almost downed it in one sitting. Like Bo Diddley, another minimalist who improves with time, Cash gains monumentality as one spare track builds off another toward infinity. Nashville icon though he may be, Cash's Dylan connection no longer seems anomalous--he's certain to be numbered among the century's great folksingers. The tuneless delivery and stark-to-received arrangements always serve the purposes of an artist who puts words first. He's as class-conscious as Woody Guthrie if not Irwin Silber, and if he doesn't prove that Jack Clement and Shel Silverstein are people's composers, which he may, he certainly establishes that John R. Cash is. A