If you've ever been down South and driven the Interstates shoulder to shoulder with eight-wheelers or stopped for a chicken lunch and sweet tea at a diner filled with locals, then you surely already appreciate the soul of Johnny Cash. If you haven't done any of this, Cash will leave an impression on you if you give him a chance.
Unlike Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis or the other rockers who came out of Memphis in the mid-1950s and went city, Cash was an odd duck. The singer-songwriter and balladeer was less concerned about knocking out the girls and more determined to tell the rural stories of farm hands, trains crossing green mountains and shoeless country boys. In the final analysis, Cash was and remains one of this country's finest romantic folk singers. He was also among the most prolific, writing about 1,000 songs.
As proof, give a listen to Johnny Cash: Bootleg Vol. 2, a new double-CD set form Sony/Legacy. Like Bootleg Vol 1: Personal File, this set is comprised of material from Cash's own archives in Hendersonville, Tenn. There are demos, studio outtakes, radio ads by Cash, and singles that never appeared on LPs. Many of the more than 50 tracks feature Cash with just his guitar, glossy baritone and penetrating lyrics. There are 16 never issued recordings and 11 singles and outtakes released digitally for the first time.
The art of Cash's songwriting was in its stark simplicity. In many cases, his craft was so unashamedly plain that you can guess in advance the word he's going to sing to rhyme with a previous line. What sold these lines was Cash's poetic honesty and vulnerability. Here are the words he strung together for the opening to You're My Baby, a demo from this new set that unfortunately does not bear a recording date:
Hey you got hair
Long and black
Hanging down in the middle of your back
Don't you cut it off, whatever you do
I need it to run my fingers through, cause
You're my baby...
While most folk singers of the '50s revived the tradition of singing passionately on behalf of the poor and oppressed, Cash was somewhat different. For him, everyday life in general presented hardships and challenges that required a gentle voice and expression. Cash's genius for making folk music about average people wasn't lost on Bob Dylan. In his liner notes, Ashley Kahn quotes Dylan:
"I Walk the Line had a monumental presence and a certain type of majesty that was humbling. Even a simple line like 'I find it very, very easy to be true' can take your measure. We can remember that and see how far we fall short of it. Johnny wrote thousands of lines like that. Truly, he is what the land and country are all about, the heart and soul of it personified and what it means to be here; and he said it all in plain English."
Jazz fans especially will identify with Cash's tenderness and determination on this CD set. There's nothing fancy here. Just lilting melodies and a big sky voice that relaxes you with reason and resonance. If you've long thought of Cash as a country singer whose style and songs have little to do with your life, I'd encourage you to give this set a listen. You will certainly learn a few things about Cash—and probably yourself.
JazzWax tracks: You can sample Johnny Cash: Bootleg Vol. 2 at iTunes or here. The two-CD set is selling for $9.99.
JazzWax clip: Here's Big River, an unreleased Sun single from November 1957, and Thunderball from 1965...