By John Cody
• Johnny Cash: Love God & Murder, Columbia/American/Legacy, 2000.
• Johnny Cash: American III: Solitary Man, American Recordings/Sony, 2000.
Love, God & Murder is an excellent one-stop introduction to three of Cash’s most frequently visited themes. Compiled by the man himself, this 48-track set spans 1955 to 1996. Considering he has recorded over 1,500 songs, it’s about as comprehensive an overview as one could hope for in such an abbreviated package.
Brief essays from Quentin Tarantino (Murder), Bono (God) and June Carter Cash (Love) are included. Tarantino argues today’s gangsta rappers have nothing on Cash. He’s recorded songs every bit as violent as anything released today — witness ‘Folsom Prison Blues’: “I shot a man in Reno / Just to watch him die” — but with one key distinction: rather than glorifying their actions, his characters sing with a tangible sense of regret.
In his liner notes for Murder, Cash claims the earliest incident chronicled in song — Cain killing Abel — initiated a cycle that has continued ever since. Describing the death of Jesus as having “all the trappings of a mob lynching,” Cash maintains Christ’s death and resurrection “remains the most inspiring subject for songwriters in history.”
He’s described the original track ‘What on Earth Will You Do (For Heaven’s Sake)’ (from 1974) as “kind of a challenge to my fellow Christians and to myself as well to walk the walk instead of talking the talk.”
Cash has managed to gain the public’s respect without ever shying away from proclaiming his Christian faith. The fact that he has lived and struggled — publicly — with a variety of demons has endeared him in a world where too often believers are perceived as hypocritical and overly judgmental.
U2′s Bono described a dinner with Cash in a recent Rolling Stone profile. “We bowed our heads and John spoke this beautiful, poetic grace, and we were moved. Then he looked up afterwards and said, ‘Sure miss the drugs, though.’” That frank honesty is a large part of what makes him so genuine.
Available as a boxed set or individually, it’s a worthy companion to Columbia’s previous box anthology, The Essential Johnny Cash (1992).
Cash developed pneumonia during the sessions for American III: Solitary Man, and while his voice has lost some of its power, the performances are convincing. It’s his first release of new material since being diagnosed with Shy-Drager Syndrome and Parkinson’s Disease. In an amazing turn of events, it now appears that both of these diagnoses were incorrect. Last October, Cash reported he was “in better health than [he had been] in a year or two.”
As with his two previous releases (American Recordings won a Grammy for best Contemporary Folk Album, Unchained for best Country Album), the song selection is inspired. His take on Neil Diamond’s ‘Solitary Man’ casts the song in a whole new light, offering a sense of isolation the original barely implied. Coupled with the 1940′s chestnut ‘That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day),’ U2′s ‘One’ and Nick Cave’s ‘The Mercy Seat,’ it’s obvious that there are precious few artists who could pull from such a wide range of sources, yet Cash makes each his own. Of the four original tracks included, ‘Country Trash,’ is a standout.
In his liner notes Cash mentions that he began this album as his last ever; but since its release he’s already recorded another disc with Rubin. Provisionally titled My Mother’s Hymn Book, it’s just Johnny and his guitar performing traditional country gospel songs.
© John Cody 2001