OCTOBER 2012 COVER STORY – Johnny Cash – Paying Tribute To The Greatest

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What can you say about Johnny Cash that hasn’t already been said. I mean, he’s a legend, a trailblazer and a hero.

Cash was born on February 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas, the fourth of seven children to Ray and Carrie Cash, Originally his parents didn’t have a name for Cash so he was given the initials J. R. and when the singer/songwriter enter into the Air Force he took on the name John R. Cash because the military wouldn’t allow only initials as a name (he took the moniker Johny Cash in 1955 when he signed to Sun Records).

While working the cotton fields at the tender age of five, Cash would join his family in singing gospel hymns and folk songs to pass the time of work. This time during the Great Depression was the spark which started the fire inside Cash.

Cash took up the guitar and started writing songs at a young age, even preforming on a local radio show. When he enlisted in the United States Air Force in 1950, he was assigned to a U.S. Air Force Security Service unit as a Morse Code Intercept Operator for Soviet Army transmissions at Landsberg, Germany. This allowed him more time to work on his music and formed his first band The Landsberg Barbarians. In 1954, Cash was honorably discharged as a Staff Sergeant and began work on his music full time.

The seeds of music were planted early for Cash, being influenced from all genres such as Gospel, folk, blues and even Irish music. These influences and more would be a mainstay in his music for the duration of his career. Now Columbia Legacy has issued four separate Johnny Cash CDs entitled The Greatest covering four different genres of Cash’s music.

In addition a host of prominent musicians came together to honor Cash for his 80th birthday on the CD/DVD combo release We Walk the Line: A Celebration of the Music of Johnny Cash/”

Rest in peace Johnny Cash, you were indeed the greatest.
~ Troy Michael

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We Walk the Line: A Celebration of the Music of Johnny Cash
(Columbia/Legacy)

On Friday, April 20, 2012, at The Moody Theater in Austin, Texas, musicians of the past, present and future came together to celebrate the music of Johnny Cash in honor of his 80th birthday.

Like Cash’s music, the performers were diverse on “We Walk the Line: A Celebration of the Music of Johnny Cash”. Assembled by music conductor Don Was, there were rock performers (Brandi Carlile, Amy Lee of Evanescence, Rhett Miller of Old 97s); folkies (Iron & Wine, Jamey Johnson); country stars (Shelby Lynne, Shooter Jennings, Lucinda Williams); and the legends (Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, Buddy Miller).

The tribute is hosted by actor and Texas-native Matthew McConaughey, much to the delight of the ladies in the audience, based on their screams. Getting off to a rousing start, Brandi Carlile comes out and rips into the Cash classic “Folsom Prison Blues,” which not only sets the tone for the evening, but is one of the top performances.

Nashville singer/songwriter Andy Grammer follows Carlile, and he knows it’s a tough act to follow, but he does a fine job with “Get Rhythm.” The house band breaks into “Hey Porter” with guitarist Buddy Miller on vocals and does a fantastic job on the first single ever released by Cash.

Another show stopper comes when Jamey Johnson and Kris Kristofferson duet on the beer-soaked “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” and out of the blue the bluegrass band Carolina Chocolate Drops brings down the house on “Jackson.”

The only cringing moment of the evening came when Shelby Lynne covers “Why Me Lord” and Train’s Pat Monahan covers “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” Adding insult to injury, the two come together to duet on “It Ain’t Me Babe.” Hell, even McConaughey’s performance of “The Man Comes Around” was better than those two.

It’s fitting that Old 97s’ Rhett Miller rocks “Wreck Of The Old 97,” and Ronnie Dunn enlists two female mariachi players for “Ring Of Fire,” while Lucinda Williams belts out Cash’s cover of the Nine Inch Nails classic “Hurt.” Kristofferson returns for a solo on “Big River” and then with Shooter Jennings, Johnson and Willie Nelson for “Highwayman.” Then the night closes with the entire ensemble coming out to sing “I Walk the Line.”

I’d be remiss if the all-star backing band wasn’t given its due. With Buddy Miller (guitar); Don Was (bass); Kenny Arnoff (drums); Greg Leisz (guitar, pedal steel, mandolin); and Ian McClagan (keyboards), they didn’t miss a beat. Purely flawless on the Cash songs.

The DVD also includes the mini documentaries “Johnny Cash, His Life and Music” and “Walking the Line: The Making of a Celebration,” where the performers talk about their influence and love for Cash.

~ Troy Michael

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The Greatest: Country Songs
(Columbia/Legacy)

So many hipsters and punks have adopted Johnny Cash as their Patron Saint of Cool it’s strange to realize he was once considered a proper country musician – suit and tie included. But let’s be honest, like Waylon, Willie and a handful of Music Row exiles, he was always on the outside of the mainstream, helping to form the Outlaw Country genre – his adoption of booze and pills in the ’50s certainly did a lot to help him earn that badass rep.

The Greatest: Country Classics packages a selection of 14 from his country catalogue. The beauty of Cash’s country repertoire is that it is aw shucks- and twang- free, unlike most of the ditties Nashville shipped out in the late ’50s and early ’60s. From singing about his dead dog (“Old Shep”) to his broken heart (“I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know About Her”), his steady, deep voice is hard to pass up. Even covering someone else’s songs (like Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” or Kenny’s “The Gambler”), he manages to make them his own.
~ John B. Moore

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The Greatest: Duets
(Columbia/Legacy)

Some of Johnny’s best songs come from his Folsom Prison show, where he shared the mic with June Carter (not yet his wife at the time), so it’s easy to imagine a whole album full of duets.

Columbia and Legacy handpicked 14 songs for The Greatest: Duets, including some of the obvious (but still solid) choices like “Jackson” with June Carter and “I Got Stripes” with George Jones. But the collection also includes some great, often overlooked tracks, like his duet with Bob Dylan on “Girl from the North Country” and “Crazy Old Soldier” with Ray Charles.
~ John B. Moore

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The Greatest: Gospel Songs
(Columbia/Legacy)

Of all the CDs in The Greatest collection, it’s fair to say that Gospel Songs is my least favorite and probably the least popular among most fans. But in all honesty, even Johnny Cash makes gospel songs sound pretty fucking awesome.

If it were any other gospel release, I wouldn’t even bother to crack the seal, but this is Johnny Cash we’re talking about. Through the drinkin’ druggin’ and divorce, Cash never forgot the gospel songs he cut his teeth on while picking cotton with his family in Arkansas.

If it weren’t for gospel music, Cash most likely would have never become a musician, and that is damn scary. So it’s fitting The Greatest series is celebrating his gospel side.

The Greatest: Gospel Songs has that signature Cash sound with the hard plucked acoustic guitar with backing standup bass and drums. As these 14 songs play out, you can feel the spirituality Cash and his wife June Carter felt. They paint a vivid picture of the two sitting on a beat up front porch or in an old Baptist church singing with others joining in.

Highlights include that signature Cash chugging sound on “That’s Enough” along with “He Turned Water Into Wine” and “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord)” with June singing backup to John’s baritone. The legendary Carter Family Joins Cash on “There’ll Be) Peace In The Valley (For Me).”

Johnny Cash’s The Greatest: Gospel Songs shows the roots of the legendary singer, and it also shows the diversity in his music. This might not be your “go to” Cash release, but it is an important one just to know where Cash got his start.
~ Troy Michael

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The Greatest: The Number Ones
(Columbia/Legacy)

Legacy Records’ latest collection of the Man in Black’s number one hits gives an interesting look at how Johnny Cash tried out a number of styles before finally settling on his own sound. “Ballad of a Teenage Queen,” topping out in 1958, is wholesome Johnny, with the sappy strings and dopy backup singers, while songs like “Walk the Line” and “Ring of Fire” are Outlaw Country defined.

Part of his appeal can be linked to the fact that over his career he recorded so many songs, from any number of genres (country, folk, gospel, rock), that his audiences spanned – and still spans – generations. By far, one of the first albums any Johnny Cash novice needs to own (along with Live at San Quentin and Live at Folsom). The Number Ones, this also includes, among many, many others, a live version of “A Boy Named Sue,” “There Ain’t No Good Chain Gang” and “Highwayman” (sang with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson).

~ John B. Moore