Johnny Cash was one of the coolest people in music. With that pompadour, that rugged face and that utterly self-assured manner, he projected authenticity and pure charisma. He was larger than life — the son of poor Arkansas farmers, outlaw, drug addict, Christian, family man, country music personified. Bob Dylan wanted to be him. Who didn’t?
One of my biggest regrets as a music aficionado is that I never got to see Cash in concert. My memories extend back to childhood, when my parents and I often watched “The Johnny Cash Show.” My parents didn’t like country music, and neither did I; but we liked Johnny Cash. Years later, on a long drive to Washington and back for a book project, I passed much of the time by listening to “The Essential Johnny Cash, 1955-1983,” a three-CD set released in 1992.
Cash was a transformational figure, welding country music with early rock and roll and later, through his marriage to June Carter, uniting country music’s earliest roots with the present. His final albums, produced by Rick Rubin, are spare and heartbreaking, with each one harder to listen to than the one before as illness took its toll.
But it’s his peak that’s on display in “Essential.” What can you say about a song like “Folsom Prison Blues,” maybe his greatest and most emblematic song? It begins with a line that he ripped off from someone else (“I hear that train a-comin’ / It’s rolling ’round the bend”) and quickly segues to a line of his own that would justify any writer’s entire career: “But I shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die.” You’ve heard it hundreds of times. Pause and let it settle a bit.
That’s just one of the 75 songs on “Essential” — farm songs, gospel, songs that sound like they were someone’s idea of turning him into Buddy Holly (“Ballad of a Teenage Queen”), novelty songs (“A Boy Named Sue”) and social-justice songs. It’s this last category that seems especially relevant today — especially “Man in Black,” which you could imagine him and June singing in front of Donald Trump’s White House:
I wear black for the poor and beaten down
Livin’ on the hopeless, hungry side of town
I wear it for the prisoners who has long paid for his crime
But is there because he’s a victim of the times
And the hits — good Lord, so many hits. Who doesn’t love “Ring of Fire,” with its crazy mariachi-band accompaniment, written by June as her marriage was breaking up and she was falling in love with Johnny? Or their duet on “Jackson”? Or his cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down”? The album’s also got one of the best Dylan covers ever (“Wanted Man”) and a pretty good Bruce Springsteen cover (“Highway Patrolman”).
He frequently sang off-key, and he wasn’t much of a guitar player. It didn’t matter, because he was Johnny Cash. What a life. We miss you, Johnny.