We lost Johnny Cash and his wife June Carter Cash within months of each other back in 2003, so 2018 marks a very sad 15th-anniversary farewell to the “Man In Black”.
The release last year of UNEARTHED, a nine album 180 gram vinyl box set (originally released on CD two months after his death) of unreleased tracks recorded by Rick Rubin, (it features some interesting pairings such as Fiona Apple providing guest vocals on Cat Stevens’ “Father & Son,” and the late Joe Strummer’s duets with Cash on Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”) provides us with a excuse to take another look back at his career.
While modern country radio has no use for the likes of Johnny Cash, preferring more commercial fodder, other sections of the music industry have kept his music alive, whether on Willie’s Roadhouse (Sirius XM Radio) or through the musical press. Cover bands continue to play his music and while younger so-called country singers play music that bears little connection to country music, his music remains a staple of Roots-Rock, Texas Red-Dirt and Bluegrass performers
Make no mistake about it: Johnny Cash was a huge commercial success, despite his own apparent lack of concern about how commercial his music was at any given moment–Cash’s inquisitive artistry meant that he flitted from realm to realm, sometimes touching down in areas with limited commercial appeal.
Cash had 24 songs reach #1 on the Billboard, Cashbox or Record World country charts (often all three), but unlike more chart-oriented artists including Webb Pierce, Buck Owens, Sonny James, Alabama, Conway Twitty or George Strait, Cash never ran off a long string of consecutive #1s, with his longest streak being four during 1968 when “Roseanna’s Going Wild,” “Daddy Sang Bass,” “A Boy Named Sue,” and his iconic “Folsom Prison Blues” all reached the top of one of the charts.
The Early Years (1955-1958)
As a young artist needs to establish himself, Cash was definitely looking for hit records. The story of his years at Sun Records has been retold many times, including various disputes over Sam Phillips’ refusal to allow him to record more gospel music, and Sam’s insistence on Cash staying with the primitive boom-chicka-boom quasi-rockabilly sound that made him famous.
What is often overlooked, however, is just how incredibly successful Cash was in those early days. From November 1955 through the end of 1958, he charted 16 singles for Sun Records, including his most successful chart records (according to Billboard). “Ballad of a Teenage Queen” stayed at #1 for 10 weeks, “Guess Things Happen That Way” for 8 weeks, “I Walk The Line” for 6 weeks and “There You Go” for 5 weeks. Over the course of his career, Cash’s records stayed at #1 for a total of 69 weeks—with those four singles representing 29 of those 69.
The Sun recordings have been in print continuously over the last sixty years in various permutations and combinations. There are really only about 100 tracks so select carefully. In 2017, the Charly label out of the UK released The Complete Sun Masters Clambox. It’s not quite complete, and some of the tracks have overdubs, but the sound quality is good and at $15.00 you can’t go wrong.
Early Columbia Years (1958-1967)
There was a lack of variety to the sound of most of Cash’s recordings for Sun. In the years after Cash left Sun Records, Sam Phillips (and later Shelby Singleton) would reissue some of his recordings with considerable overdubbing which disguised this; however, the overdubbing also blurred some of the essences of Johnny Cash.
With Columbia, Cash started spreading his wings. While some of the recordings had a glossier veneer that had been utilized at Sun, his first major hit on the new label, “Don’t Take Your Guns To Town” (6 weeks at #1), made the Sun recordings seem overproduced in comparison. From October 1958 to February 1961, Columbia issued seven Johnny Cash singles–six of them went top 20 (the seventh was a Christmas record, “The Little Drummer Boy”) but only the aforementioned reached #1.
It didn’t help, of course, that Sam Phillips concurrently issued seven singles of older Cash material. This meant that Cash always had two singles competing for (and splitting) airplay during this period. Six of the seven Sun singles went top 20, with the seventh reaching #30. In early 1961 Sun quit issuing Johnny Cash singles, having exhausted its catalog. Meanwhile, Cash’s Columbia singles began to feature more interesting material. Songs such as “The Rebel – Johnny Yuma,” “Tennessee Flattop Box,” “The Big Battle” and “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” really weren’t commercially viable material but they told terrific stories and remain as interesting today as there were when originally issued.
Cash was still entirely capable of generating big hits, however. In 1963, the Merle Kilgore/June Carter-penned “Ring of Fire” reached #1 for 7 weeks, and also soared high on the pop charts. It was during this period that Cash started focusing on his albums. While RING OF FIRE: THE BEST OF JOHNNY CASH (1963) did not have a discernible central theme, BLOOD, SWEAT AND TEARS (1963), BITTER TEARS: BALLADS OF THE AMERICAN INDIAN (1964), JOHNNY CASH SINGS BALLADS OF THE TRUE WEST (1965) and FROM SEA TO SHINING SEA (1968) all revolved around certain core concepts.
During this period Cash was expanding the pool of songwriters from whom he was drawing material. In addition to self-penned songs and songs from Nashville writers such as Harlan Howard and George Jones, Cash was recording songs by the likes of Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, and Peter LaFarge. Unfortunately, it was at this time that Cash was deteriorating into a morass of pills and booze, with his voice reaching its nadir From Sea to Shining Sea. Moreover, Cash seemed to be losing interest in his own career—his three 1966 singles, “The One On The Right Is On The Left,” “Everybody Loves A Nut,” and “The Boa Constrictor,” were essentially throwaways–the sort of songs that might have been expected from Homer & Jethro or Little Jimmy Dickens.
Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison (1968)
If the 2005 film I WALK THE LINE accomplished anything, it was in the retelling of the story of how Johnny Cash pulled his act together, cleaned up, and re-focused his life and music.
Cash had previously performed at Folsom and other prisons—indeed, “Folsom Prison Blues” was inspired by an old (and rather gloomy) black and white movie Cash had seen (Inside The Walls of Folsom Prison) and was his third Sun single, reaching #4 and charting for 20 weeks in 1956. While Cash had mulled over the idea for some time, finally cleaned up and healthy again he prodded his new Columbia producer, Bob Johnston, into letting him record an album in a prison setting. Johnston, who normally did not produce country acts, acquiesced. The resulting album was an unqualified success, with the electricity and tension of the setting shining through every note of the album. Although Cash had never been imprisoned (except overnight for pill possession), he and the inmates had an affinity for each other that could never be manufactured or faked.
The album, as originally released, was a revelation; the more recently released set with both complete shows (including the songs from the Statler Brothers, Carl Perkins, and Carter Family) and a bonus DVD elevates the experience to an even greater level.
JOHNNY CASH AT FOLSOM PRISON was the midpoint of Cash’s thematic albums. While not his most significant or poignant album (BITTER TEARS, about the plight of the American Indian, surely filled that role), it broke Cash into the national conscience like never before. Cash followed up with THE HOLY LAND, a travel narrative about his pilgrimage to Israel, and his AT SAN QUENTIN album, which continued the theme about inmates and produced his biggest pop hit, “A Boy Named Sue.”
The later Columbia Years (1969-1986)
In the aftermath of AT FOLSOM PRISON, many good things would happen to Johnny Cash, including marriage to June Carter, the birth of his son John Carter Cash, an ABC Network television show, formation of The Highwaymen (with Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson), induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame and, eventually, venerated elder statesman status.
Strangely enough, though, after the San Quentin album, with the exception of a pair of patriotic albums (AMERICA: A 200-YEAR SALUTE IN STORY AND SONG (1972), and RAGGED OLD FLAG (1974)), Cash was largely through with thematic albums, reverting to the more normal formula of a couple of singles and some other material–although with much more interesting filler than was normally the case, as Cash sampled writers even including Bruce Springsteen.
And, of course, even mundane material could stand out with the most recognizable voice on the planet behind it.
The hit singles still came, with songs such as “One Piece at a Time” in 1976, but as the 70s trailed off, Cash’s records were only occasionally charting near the top. As in the early Columbia years, old Sun material began being reissued, this time by Shelby Singleton, who had purchased Sun Records from Sam Phillips. For a few years in the early 70s, the market was saturated with old Johnny Cash product as Singleton issued numerous combinations of old Sun material, often with applause overdubbed. Out of approximately 100 songs in the Sun catalog, Singleton managed to issue in excess of 15 Johnny Cash LPs and cassettes.
After Columbia (1986-2003)
Cash left Columbia in 1986 and signed with Mercury. While few hits followed, the Mercury albums were full of interesting songs and interesting guests. During his stint on Mercury, Cash followed his muse with little focus on hit records. WATER FROM THE WELLS OF HOME featured many guest vocalists, including Emmylou Harris, Paul McCartney, Waylon Jennings, Glen Campbell, the Everly Brothers, Hank Williams Jr., Tom T. Hall, and his daughter, country singer Rosanne Cash (who was responsible for eleven #1 singles in the 80s). It has been reported that Cash was not especially fond of his Mercury output, but I suspect his lack of commercial success may have soured him on the period. I very much enjoy his output from this period.
After his five years with Mercury were over, Cash went without a recording label for a spell before being lured back into the recording studio by Rick Rubin of American Recordings. Unlike his Mercury output, these albums sold very well as the Rick Rubin name helped introduce a new generation of listeners to the magic of Johnny Cash, and reintroduced older generations to the Man in Black.
Grammy awards followed as Cash simultaneously went back to the past and jumped forward into the future, recording a combination of old folk and country songs as well as material from non-country artists such as Trent Reznor, Tom Petty, and Joni Mitchell.
Even after his death in 2003, new Johnny Cash product has emerged as previously unreleased material (both studio recordings and live performances) flooded the market. Moreover, in 2012 Sony finally got around to releasing THE COMPLETE COLUMBIA ALBUM COLLECTION. This set includes the fifty-nine albums released on Columbia (as released – no bonus tracks) plus four more CDs of uncollected singles, guest tracks, etc. The main criticism of the set is that the first nineteen albums are in mono,
While not every Cash album is an immortal classic, they all have their moments–usually many good moments. So sit back, kick off your shoes and listen to AT FOLSOM PRISON (or any other Cash album, for that matter). You’ll be celebrating the life of a great performer and (trust me) you’ll be glad that you did.
After all, everyone could use a little more Cash.