138. Johnny Cash – “The Essential Johnny Cash”

My blogging buddy over at 500 Songs in 500 Days, last week described J.Cash as “the substance-abusing, suicidal father of country music”.

Cash album the essential johnny cash coverI’ve seen the biopic and read the books and articles that chronicle this dimension of the Man in Black’s rocky life. Such understandings invariably inform any review of his life’s work.

This here double album attempts to capture what probably looked at the time like being the highlights of his long career (i.e. this was before his Lazarus-like late-life revival).

What the album reveals is the paradoxes of his output. At times, he seems to be following closely in the footsteps of Hank Williams (Snr) and even Woodie Guthrie as he captures the essence of rural, working class US life. He treads well-worn paths talking up the value of poverty in shaping men, while lamenting the tribulations thereof.

Other times he’s more explicitly on the side of the badman, the outlaw and the outsider as he takes on the man and all else beside. These are perhaps his biggest legacy, although one can’t help but think certain songs have been eulogised far beyond their actual quality justifies.

Ultimately, Cash was also a hitmaker, willing to tiptoe the line between classic catchiness and complete schmaltz. Ring of Fire and Jackson falls on the classic side. Ballad Of A Teenage Queen is unashamed in its campness.

The latter is still very loveable, and I quite happily smirk along at his funnier moments like Boy Named Sue, Five Feet High and Rising and his super-hillbilly Tennessee Flat-Top Box.

I used to own a different single-CD greatest hits package from Cash (which was lost in an unfortunate leaving CD in a computer incident which I won’t bore you with). That was a more pleasurable listen for not including a lot of filler at the tail end of this, where Cash resorted to awkward collaborations and god-bothering numbers.

Nevertheless, this ain’t a bad way to survey the first 40 years or so of his career.

File under: Cash pretty well spent

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