November 29, 2005

Johnny Cash "The Legend of Johnny Cash"

What can I say about Johnny Cash that hasn't been said before? He was a great man, and not just for his music. He was a man who embodies the American spirit, that of humble beginnings and overcoming adversity. He's also a role model for the Christian faith; though his youth was full of wild behavior and sinful carousing, he turned his life around with the love and assistance of his partner, June Carter. He wasn't afraid to stand for his faith. He was a man of love, and even though some tried to adapt his persona and link him to the 'counter-culture' movement, he never felt comfortable in the role as rebel. Those who adopted him as a proto-hippie cringed when he talked of his faith, and those of faith cringed at the fact he did nothing to deny such associations. People latch their own agendas onto his legacy, but agendas, they come and go.

His music? At times the music seems only secondary to the man---this great, larger-than-life man, this man dressed in black and singing songs of praise and glory. One could argue and debate about the song listing for The Legend of Johnny Cash, but that's missing the point. It would be impossible to gather all of Johnny's best-loved songs on one disk and keep everyone satisfied, and it would require a box set to compile a complete collection of charting hits, so the compilers opted for the known hits such as "I Walk the Line," "Big River" and "Ring of Fire," with a few lesser-known numbers and collaborations. (In my opinion, the one song that's truly conspicuous in its absence is "Daddy Sang Bass," a collaboration with The Statler Brothers that was a charting hit in 1969.)

Later material, such as "A Boy Named Sue" and "One Piece At A Time," were humorous and sometimes downright silly (remember "The Chicken in Black?"), but they did help to cement Cash's legacy as a master storyteller. Cash's sense of humor never overwhelmed or tarnished his honorable reputation. After all, the Country charts of the 1970s contained numerous novelty and parody songs, and Cash was, as usual, at the forefront of the scene. That his star faded somewhat in the 1980s is not surprising, either, and it wasn't something that was Cash's fault. The times were changing, and Cash stayed true to himself, even if the country world neglected him. His most notable contribution to this decade was with The Highwaymen, a collaboration pairing him with longtime friends Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson. Though their self-titled debut was a classic--and the Jimmy Webb-penned "Highwayman" still brings chills--it's a forgotten classic, a secret joy to those who know it.

Even in his later years, when he openly faced death, he didn't turn away from his calling; his recordings were not the moribund sounds of a man facing mortality, but a jubilation and humble praise for the life he felt he didn't deserve. Thanks to a career reboost courtesy of Rick Rubin, his final years were anything but maudlin. That he recorded songs from his past ("Give My Love to Rose" and the red-hot "I've Been Everywhere") and didn't shy away from covering modern artists, most notably Soundgarden ("Rusty Cage") and Nine Inch Nails ("Hurt"). Cash didn't fade away, and he didn't spend the last years recording sentimental sap--he was working all the way until his dying breath.

Johnny Cash will never be replaced, and he will never be bettered. The Legend of Johnny Cash may be brief, and its track listing might be subject to debate, but there's no denying the power of the man's legacy, and it's hard to fault any single song found here. A beautiful collection that briefly--but effectively--defines the Legend of Johnny Cash.

--Joseph Kyle

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