Long before Morrissey shoved a bunch of gladioli down his pants Johnny Cash was the master of joyful melody married to doleful lyrics. But where Morrissey’s camp charm articulated the loneliness of middle class straight boys writing bad poetry in their bedrooms, Cash’s working class hard men were crying into their beers in lowdown bars and avoiding fights over women – be they lovers or mothers.
Ring Of Fire, which opens this latest package of Cash hits old and new, perfectly sums up the at times jarring dissonance between Cash’s signature lyrics of muscular masculinity and jaunty melody. The same bitter legacy of love twisted into damage is there on all his best known songs from I Walk The Line and A Thing Called Love to less well known ones such as Cry, Cry, Cry.
In Cash’s universe love is a dangerous weakness for a man, and though his lyrics are simple they reveal profound emotion. Always it is his gruff barely in tune voice that does the business. Nowhere is this more disturbing than in the sinister descent of I Walk The Line from declaration of love into dark paranoia as he realises that the commitment he has given his girl may not be reciprocated – and if he is walking the line, he is going to make damn sure she does too. It is a song in which the voice does all the work, revealing love as bondage.
Collections are introductions to artists. This one claims to be the first definitive one spanning Cash’s 50-year career. Definitive is an ambitious word, leaving much room for disappointment. In this case it is the exclusion of Tennessee Stud and the hangover lament Sunday Morning Coming Down. But The Legend of Johnny Cash is a good introduction to the great man’s work.
Cash was much-lauded as a songwriter, but the inclusion of some notable covers pays homage to his oft overlooked ability as an interpreter of songs. No one can squeeze out male emotion like Cash. Top of the list is a cover of Nine Inch Nails‘s Hurt, released just before his death in 2003. Cash’s delivery reveals the simple stark beauty of the song. The testimony of a man with the rattle of death in his voice is enough to bring tears to dry eyes. His cover of U2‘s One is equally powerful, stripped of Bono’s pomp it is revealed as a song of astonishing power.
The collection also reminds us that over 50 years Cash above all chronicled America’s underclass from Depression Era dust bowls to 21st Century trailer parks. It is a country defined by rail and road. No wonder many of his songs, from Hey Porter! and Get Rhythm to the bloated Rusty Cage, have the tempo of the train track or thrum of rubber on tarmac.
He was also a fiercely political writer working in the anodyne world of country. His personal manifesto, The Man In Black, is an angry condemnation of the complacent values of the burgeoning middle class, while San Quentin (live) is an astonishing song. Recorded live in the notorious prison, to the cheers of inmates he nails the utter waste of the penal system. One expects a riot to erupt straight after.
As with all collections there are a couple of bum steers – this is country music after all. Three tracks could happily have been excluded: The Highwayman, which is over produced; The Wanderer, which is let down by Cash’s broken voice grating like nails on a blackboard; and Guess Things Happen That Way, which is just horrible. Their inclusion should be overlooked in a collection that offers a broad basic education in Cash’s c.v.. And what a c.v. that is.